Music of Arlene Sierra Vol. 1

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SIERRA Cicada Shell 1. Birds and Insects , Book 1 2. Surrounded Ground 3. 2 Neruda Odes 4. Colmena 5. Ballistae 6 1, 5, 6 Jayce Ogren, cond; International Contemporary Ens; 2 Vassily Primakov (pn); 3 Charles Neidich (cl); Stephen Gosling (pn); Daedalus Qrt; 4 Susan Narucki (sop); Raman Ramakrishnan (vc); Stephen Gosling (pn) BRIDGE 9343 (72:30)

Born in 1970, American composer Arlene Sierra is presently based in the U.K., where she is a senior lecturer in musical composition at Cardiff University. Sierra has studied with some of the leading composers of our time, including Magnus Lindberg, and her music has already received many accolades. In recent years, Sierra has received commissions from esteemed orchestras and festivals such as the New York Philharmonic, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Tanglewood Music Festival, and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. For consideration here is Sierra’s debut CD, on the prestigious label Bridge.

There can be no doubt that Sierra has an uncanny ability to realize and build her musical ideas toward shattering conclusions, oftentimes literally so. But be forewarned: this is definitely not music for the fainthearted. While she may look like a pacifist on the album cover, Sierra is fascinated with the martial arts and writes music that is as intense as it is complex. Consider the sources of inspiration for three of the six works presented on this recording: Cicada Shell is based on The Thirty-Six Strategies , an ancient collection of battle tactics; Surrounded Ground is based on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War ; and Ballistae is based on a treatise by Vitruvius, which explains how to build and deploy ancient machines of warfare. Although not expressly inspired by military literature, the penultimate featured work, Colmena , which apparently means “beehive” in Spanish, is almost as vehement.

How does Sierra realize musical warfare? By pitting instruments and groups of instruments against each other; by organizing thematic content in small, repetitive cells that move in organized, militaristic fashion; by favoring bright textures that slowly grow in complexity; and by gradually turning up the volume. There is a lot of compounded dissonance and, save for the middle section of Surrounded Ground —which, ironically, is titled “Feigned Retreat”—there is essentially no repose in these four works. The cumulative effect is highly potent and, for that reason, I believe that Sierra’s martial music is best enjoyed—and, I dare say, intended to be enjoyed—in controlled doses.

But there is also a mellower side to Sierra’s music, which will likely also appeal to pacifists. That is featured in the remaining two works on this recording, Birds and Insects and the Two Neruda Odes . The former is a series of five mysterious works for piano, in which one hears hints of Ravel, Messiaen, Webern, and Berio. The highly expressionistic Neruda Odes for soprano, cello, and piano was probably inspired by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire . Sierra’s setting of Neruda’s allegorical poetry—which pays homage to two common objects, the plate and the table—is truly masterly, as is the way in which she manages to build tension towards the end of the second ode.

The recording features uniformly excellent playing by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Daedalus Quartet, soprano Susan Narucki, clarinetist Charles Neidich, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and pianists Vassily Primakov and Stephen Gosling. Jayce Ogren, who conducts the three works for larger ensembles, deserves special praise for his mastery of these complex scores. The quality of the recorded sound is outstanding.

FANFARE: Radu A. Lelutiu

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BCD9343

  • UPC: 090404934322

  • Label: Bridge Records

  • Composer: Arlene Sierra

  • Conductor: Jayce Ogren

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Daedalus String Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble

  • Performer: Charles Neidich, Raman Ramakrishnan, Stephen Gosling, Susan Narucki, Vassily Primakov