New England’s Prospect: Arlene Sierra at Yellow Barn

Sierra Wall Program

Yellow Barn, July 16, 2013: Wall program by Rose Hashimoto, Qing Jiang, and Ahrim Kim.

Ah, terminology. Arlene Sierra is not considered an experimental composer, and that says more about how we’ve constrained that term and less about her attitude toward composing. I don’t mind the categorization of the kind of composers that, for the past fifty years or so, have been called “experimental”—Tenney, or Feldman, or Meredith Monk, or John Luther Adams. There’s some benefit to recognizing that some composers are farther to the left of the process-to-text continuum than others. But the name, I have always thought, is annoyingly arbitrary, and a little exclusionary. Because all composers experiment. Outsider composers experiment. Academic composers experiment. Film, Broadway, jazz, techno, ambient, blues, commercial, gospel, and telephone-hold-music composers—they will all try new things just for the sake of seeing what it sounds like. Composition is experimentation.

Which made Yellow Barn an ideal place to hear Sierra’s music. The organization—which supports residencies, a summer concert series, and a summer school, all centered around the refined-groovy I-91 way-station of Putney, Vermont—has an easygoing way of programming all manner of cutting edges, from safety scissors to samurai sword, with a sense of hospitality rather than crusade. Sierra was this year’s composer-in-residence, joining a roster that has extended all the way from John Cage to Mario Davidovsky. The Big Barn—where a portrait concert of Sierra’s music was presented on July 16—is a big tent.

Sierra’s style is definitely more modernist than maverick—to use two more terms that, while burdened with troubles of their own, are at least amorphously meaningful—but her accent is a little more subtle and elusive. The music is dense, dissonant, precipitously fluid, but there’s a groundedness to the extravagance, pitch and even tonal centers anchoring the busy crosstalk. American-born but now resident in the U.K., Sierra can easily be heard as mediating between the punctuated equilibrium of the American canon and the smoother assimilations of its European counterpart. In conversation with Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp—such chats, interspersed between performances, functioned as the evening’s program notes—Sierra noted the contrast between the American schools of composition, marked by aesthetic sharp turns and reboots, and the European penchant for promoting new styles as continuances of long tradition. Within the tradition, Sierra might be plausibly categorized as a New Romantic, at least in a late-’70s and early-’80s way: modernist sounds wrapped around a core of heightened expression. (It was one of Sierra’s teachers, after all, Jacob Druckman, who exemplified that original “New Romantic” style.)

And it’s in her experimental penchant that such a Romantic sense really comes to the fore. What Sierra loves to experiment with is formal concepts. All of the pieces on this portrait concert took their cue from external frameworks, and the frameworks—nature and the visual arts—would have been familiar sources to the Romantics of yore. Two Etudes After Mantegna, a pair of cello solos written back in 1998 but only now getting a U.S. performance, was a kitchen sink of postmodern virtuosity: “Visage” (played by Madeline Fayette) whipped a lot of dramatic bowing and high-on-the-fingerboard passagework through a moody, minor-tinged chromaticism moored by open-string left-hand pizzicato, C, G, and D rumbling around an old-fashioned circle of fifths; “Painter’s Process” (played by Sang Yhee) was literally noisier—heavy bow pressure, col legno, deliberate rasp. The first is a classic gambit, inspiration via artwork (in this case, Madonna and Sleeping Child by Andrea Mantegna); the second tries to image its creation, starting with a scraped white-noise white canvas, sketching in outlines, brushing in underlayers. You can hear how Sierra’s experiments are a layer removed from the more commonly called “experimental” tradition—she is not so much concerned with inventing a process whole-cloth as finding a musical analogue to a non-musical process. But you can also hear the push into something unexpected.

Art of Lightness (from 2006, another U.S. premiere), for solo flute, went to a visual source unknown to the Romantics—the kung-fu movie, specifically, the gravity-defying wire-fu qinggong kind—and if the framework merely added a little extra theatrical fierceness to a standard new music set-up (switching between a collection of  contrasting channels—high and low, speedy and sustained, straight and extended techniques—with ever-increasing speed), the piece itself did achieve the acceleratingly absurd dexterity of a good wuxia showdown. (Much of the credit must go to flutist Sooyun Kim’s terrific rendition.) The one homage on the program displayed both Sierra’s comfort zone and her willingness to warp it with novel games and stratagems. Le Chai au Quai was composed for an Elliott Carter centenary concert in England, and plays off of both the instrumentation of Au Quai, Carter’s own tribute to Oliver Knussen (another Sierra mentor)—Carter’s bassoon/viola duo is dropped to bass clarinet and cello—and Carter’s style itself, Sierra applying Carter-like rhythms to pitches borrowed from part of Bach’s Musical Offering. Performed by Wai Lau and Anne Yumino Weber, Le Chai au Quai had moments redolent of its dedicatee—a ritornello with both instruments tripping down a tumbling chortle of scale made musically manifest the very idea of l’esprit de l’escalier—but also the slightly hazardous fun of turning on a machine without quite knowing what it’s going to do.

The rest of the program drew from the natural world. Both Cricket-Viol, for a singing violist (played and sung by Jinsun Kim), and a movement from Sierra’s string quartet Insects in Amber (performed by violinists Ariel Mitnick and Luri Lee, violist Sophie Heaton, and cellist Ahrim Kim) had something of the packet-switching of Art of Lightness, but working in a more measured way. The two works share material of an appropriately buzzing and flitting kind, but it was fascinating how the novelty of the added singing in Cricket-Viol was enough to disguise that its construction, too, was essentially the same as the quartet, and essentially exploratory: a recombinant schematic, creating a form not out of high contrast, but out of shifts of emphasis within a close orbit of ideas.

In this case, it was the world of nature reworking the world of music, a quality that carried over into Book I of Birds and Insects, a collection of piano pieces. The title animals “have a different sense of timing than us larger creatures,” Sierra remarked. While the pieces themselves had some familiar birdsong touches—a toccata-like “Cornish Bantam,” a fast-note grid “Titmouse,” a slow-flapping, long-limbed impressionistic “Sarus Crane,” the piano’s pedals used to keep the instrument’s extremes in ringing play—the unfolding of the music had a close-up, asymmetrical quality that seemed to privilege the natural world over the musically formal. And the departures from the expected carried the biggest expressive punch—as in “Cicada Sketch,” a stretch of quiet, smudged resonance that Sierra realized, she said, probably had as much to do with her own cross-Atlantic distance from the North American habitat of the most famous genus of that insect.

Those four pieces were played by Hui Wu with a surfeit of atmosphere. The suite’s extensive finale, “Scarab,” was performed by Michael Bukhman. It wove a far larger web, musically, interpretively, and programmatically. The beetle itself shared the inspirational spotlight with a massive sculptural representation from ancient Egypt; sections of regal scurrying, obsessive repeated notes, and dark clouds of bass evoked both the insect and its heavy history of symbolism. Formally, the piece went to a circular extreme exceeding that of Insects in Amber: it finally rounded off with a big ending, but any long-ish excerpt would have worked just as well, creating a congruence between local and global time that made it not so much a composerly statement as an object of perusal, an invitation to wander among the layers of meaning on the listener’s initiative. It might not be experimental, as the term is used now, but it was entertainingly hypothetical.

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