Color and Rhythmic Dexterity: interview with Arlene Sierra

American composer based in London, Arlene Sierra has had wide recognition for her music. Her first orchestral work Aquilo, for example, was awarded the 2001 Takemitsu Prize and recently her debut chamber CD with Bridge Records, Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, was acclaimed in the international press and praised for its “remarkable brilliance of color, rhythmic dexterity and playfulness”. She studied with Martin Bresnick, Michael Daugherty and Jacob Druckman and over the years has been able to develop a personal style.

1. The first listening to your music brings to mind the European (post) avant-garde. What aspects of European music of the ‘900 influenced more your music? Vice versa, which influence on your work comes from the American tradition?

Arlene SierraI would name Stravinsky, Bartok, Copland, Lutoslawski, Berio, Ligeti, Boulez and Messiaen among the 20th century composers who have influenced my work most. Later composers like Druckman, Dutilleux, Hurel, Lindberg, Chin and Benjamin have also been of great interest to me. Among these composers there is an interesting continuum and dialog between European and American music. It has long been a tradition, still very active and relevant today, for American composers to study in Europe or to study in the USA with European expatriate composers. I have done so, and all my American teachers did so as well. An exception perhaps is the American maverick tradition, which allowed certain voices and developments that were probably unique to the USA. Composers like Ives, Cowell, Crawford, Ruggles and Partch are wonderful examples. Their outlook and individualism have certainly inspired me as well.

2. The catalog of your work is very rich…A significant portion is occupied by the chamber music. Can you tell me which pieces are most important to your artistic work?

It is important to me to have a healthy balance between small and large-scale works in my catalog, and also in my working schedule from year to year. Nothing makes me happier than to have contrasting projects to keep my mind and skills sharp. Shifting from orchestral to solo to vocal, to stage work, and most recently to electronics, helps to me to stay resourceful, and to keep trying new things. My orchestral piece Aquilo (2001) was an important first step in arriving to a personal style, where I had the chance to freely explore timbre, density and relentless rhythmic energy on a large scale. The piano album Birds and Insects, Book 1 (2003-2007) has been a touchstone for many other works exploring the natural world, as well as maintaining a connection to the piano – this was my principal instrument from childhood. My first game theory piece, the piano trio Truel (2003) pointed the way to many subsequent works that explore games and strategy in small and large ensembles.

3. The relationship between the composer and the interpreter is not easy. What should be the qualities of a good performer?

My favorite and most admired performers know and love new music, in all its variety! Having a knowledgeable performer’s point of view on recent repertoire can be tremendously informative as well. Above all, it is great pleasure to find that a performer understands what I want to achieve, even if we are aware that some work may need to be done at first to make it possible.

4. Can you talk about your latest project Faustine?

FaustineIt is an opera for six voices and orchestra that is currently in progress, although the first five scenes have been performed at the New York City Opera VOX new opera festival. Faustine is a feminist setting of the Faust legend set in modern times, adapted by Lucy Thurber after the novella by Emma Tennant. The character Faustine is sung by a contralto, whose Mephistophelean counterpart is a countertenor. The voices exchange and overlap, blurring the two characters, and all their associations of age, gender and motivation as well.

5. What do you think about the contemporary music scene? There are musical movements or composers that you follow with interest?

It has interested me to see the later incarnations of Spectralism, particularly the more rhythmic and dissonant branches of that lineage in recent decades. As an American based in Britain I am deeply involved in new music in both countries. Cautiously I would say that after many years of the opposite, the British scene seems to be consolidating while the American scene seems to be opening out more. Most happily I am observing the normalization of women in the field of composition. As a student I received encouragement from senior composers Betsy Jolas and Judith Weir in particular, and it is excellent to see many more women from my generation and younger making their way as composers today. There is still progress to be made, however. This recent article sums up the situation very well:

Musical excerpts on the web site:

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