Arlene Sierra's Playlist

An American composer based in London, Arlene Sierra writes music that takes its impetus from rich sources including military strategy, game theory, Darwinian evolution, and the natural world. Her work has been lauded for its “highly flexible and distinctive style” (The Guardian), and its “remarkable brilliance of color, rhythmic dexterity and playfulness” (NPR Classical). Declared “a name to watch” by BBC Music Magazine, Sierra is the subject of a critically-acclaimed series of portrait discs with Bridge Records. A Takemitsu Prize-winner and Latin GRAMMY nominee, she has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, Bremen Philharmonic Society, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Cheltenham, Huddersfield and Tanglewood Music Festivals, and many ensembles and soloists. Other performers of Sierra’s music include the Tokyo Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta, New York City Opera VOX, International Contemporary Ensemble, Carducci Quartet, Lontano, and the Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio at the BBC Proms.

Arlene Sierra’s latest work is a new score to the Maya Deren film ‘Ritual in Transfigured Time’. It will receive a world premiere with the Goldfield Ensemble at the Cheltenham Music Festival in July 2016.

Arlene Sierra

photo © Ian Phillips-McLaren 

While compiling this playlist, it’s been fun to see how much of my favorite repertoire lives on YouTube and in what forms. I’ll make a start with a couple of formative works from student years and then move on to a few more current interests.

Astor Piazzolla - Tanguedia

Piazzolla has become a seemingly known quantity in classical music circles. An Argentine Tango composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger and Alberto Ginastera, his work has done the rounds with the Kronos Quartet and other lighter classical ensembles for a couple of decades. I stumbled upon his music when looking for tangos to practice to for ballroom dance class, and had a wonderful surprise. Piazolla’s work as composer-performer with his New Tango Quintet is a different world, full of raw rhythm and sonority, executed with real precision. Light years from the ballroom or the concert hall, this is the Quilombo - a word used to mean everything from whorehouse to mess to riot. Check out the grinding bandoneons of Piazzolla with Daniel Binelli, and the pugilist gestures of fabulous pianist Gerardo Gandini.


Balinese Kecak (Monkey Chant) - excerpt from Baraka

Another discovery from student days, Balinese Kecak (Monkey Chant) was something I learned at the Oberlin Conservatory as part of a general introduction to World Music. Leaving aside arguments of authenticity, the experience of taking part, and of hearing and seeing a performance like the one filmed here, certainly gets one thinking about rhythm, effort, unison, dialog, and more rich compositional fodder.


Philippe Hurel - Tombeau In memorian Gérard Grisey

Hurel is, for me, probably the most interesting of the post-spectralist composers working now. In his music the expected obsession with sonority and resonance is combined with a rhythmic impetus that relies on subtle shifts and transitions, resulting in a kind of relentlessness, inevitability, and often, wit. The way this plays out in the orchestra is wonderful, but this piece Tombeau has its own special interest. Cast as a duo for similar instruments, one gets a sense of competitive urgency in the more virtuosic passages. 


Betsy Jolas - Music to Go

I had the privilege of working with French-American composer Betsy Jolas as a student at Yale and Fontainbleau. Over a long career she has produced an impressive catalog including operas Schliemann and Le Cyclope, the orchestral song cycle Frauenleben, and works in many other genres, exploring sonority with a certain subtle elegance and inner power. This compact duo, Music to Go, conjures the sound of old instruments, something along the lines of viols or ouds, with the viola and cello voices growing out of each other, diverging, and reforming in a sonorous but sinewy texture.


Chaya Czernowin - Sahaf for saxophone, e-guitar, percussion and piano

Israeli-born composer Chaya Czernowin’s music was a more recent discovery for me, and she is one of the most engaging of the complexity-focused composers whose work I’ve gotten to know. In Sahaf, a mixed quartet attenuates stock gestures into far more than the sum of their parts, with a sense of humor underpinning the obvious rigor.


Alberto Ginastera - Piano Concerto No. 2

2016 is the centenary of Argentina’s greatest classical composer, Alberto Ginastera. His ballet Estancia is probably the most popular of his works (try out the manically joyful finale ‘Malambo’ if you don’t know it already). What’s less known is the later period which he called Neo-expressionism (1958-1983), where Ginastera combined a flair for rhythm and color with modernist techniques of his time. I love the power of expression in this work, always bristling with energy and interest - something we hear in the best works of Piazzolla as well.


Unsuk Chin - Cello Concerto 

This master composer from South Korea hardly needs introducing, so I happily submit one of her many finely crafted large-scale works, the cello concerto from 2009, revised 2013.


Kenneth Hesketh - Wunderkammer(konzert) - Escapements in the Cartesian machine

Wunderkammer(konzert) was premiered by the excellent 10/10 Ensemble with Clark Rundell in 2008 and recorded for the eponymous NMC disc released last year. Hesketh’s work is intricate, labyrinthine, precipitous, and marked by an uncanny ability to make instrumental layers grow exponentially before your ears. The final movement of Wunderkammer conjures a mad universe of ticking clocks, and sets them all awry.


Karol Szymanowski - Roxana’s Song, King Roger

 Jacob Druckman - Lamia 

I’ll round out this list with two tours de force for soprano from opposite ends of the 20th century. Taking that most intimate and agile of human instruments, the soprano voice, and setting up a world where it can soar - this is something I relish in both these works. I’m probably the only person to pair the great Polish composer Szymanowski with the respected but far too little-known American Jacob Druckman (1928-1996), but there are some interesting parallels. A foreigner’s interpretation of a francophilic and extremely cosmopolitain sound world, the adept utilization of instrumental and vocal color, a mystical interest and obsession with ideas of sorcery, finally framed by a too-short working life by the standards of their respective generations. In both cases, the result is a fascinating listen.


Twitter: @asie