Sounds Heard: Music of Arlene Sierra, Volume 1
Vassily Primakov: piano
Charles Neidich: clarinet
Stephen Gosling: piano
Susan Narucki: soprano
Raman Ramakrishnan: cello
Composer Arlene Sierra is the closest thing to a “musical entomologist” that we will probably find in the world of contemporary music. The first word that comes to my mind when listening to her music is “spin,” and the accompanying visual is that of a spider weaving an intricate web with speed and dexterity, into which a myriad of other tiny creatures unsuspectingly wind themselves up. Indeed the titles of her pieces tend to gravitate towards the names of bugs and birds, and possess a whirling quality constructed of heavily layered snippets of musical material deftly orchestrated in such a way that the listener can enjoy the form and structure of the music from both a “bird’s eye view,” and also have a satisfying dig into the tiny details.
Music of Arlene Sierra, Volume 1 is the first CD in a planned series by Bridge Recordings devoted to the music of this British-based American composer. All of the works on this first installment are given sparkling performances with particularly standout moments in the larger compositions, played by the International Contemporary Ensemble.
The buzzing, simmering Colmena is appropriately titled, in that the word is Spanish for beehive. It is like an aural excursion inside that structure, listening to the delicate balance of roles played by the labor of thousands of creatures. Birds and Insects, Book 1 is a series of works for solo piano that can be performed separately, or mixed and matched at the whim of the performer. Running the gamut from fierce through frenetic to delicate and lyrical, I wonder if some of the music from these pieces—substantial in and of themselves—served as stepping stones for the larger works on this recording, or the other way around? Sierra also transfers her affection for “small things” to everyday objects with her attractive settings of Two Neruda Odes, choosing Oda al plato (Ode to the plate) and Oda a la mesa (Ode to the table) for soprano, cello, and piano.
Three of the works on this disc are taken from Sierra’s military-themed Art of War series. The ferocious Ballistae for 13 players is a musical thrill ride inspired by the writings of Roman architect and engineer Vitrivius, outlining the construction of a machine of warfare. In the three-movement Surrounded Ground, the interactions between instruments are determined in part by Sun Tzu’s writings on military strategy. In the first movement, “Preamble,” all of the instruments are marching in one way or another, as if they were re-orchestrated from a score for multiple snare drums. “Feigned Retreat” stretches out the lines into a slower progression of events, fortified by strings around which the clarinet line slithers. The last movement, “Egress,” brings the rhythmic material back in a far more syncopated, frenzied fashion as the music dances about in search of a quick escape. The first movement of the two-movement Cicada Shell possesses the “marching,” skittering rhythms particular to Sierra’s compositional style, forming gradual diminuendos that shape the movement into a series of hairpins. The arresting, ultra-high opening of the second movement begins with piccolo that slowly nudges other instruments into the sound field, creating the opposite effect of the first movement with phrases forming long crescendi. Here the characteristic quick outbursts and skips that tend to accentuate the vertical aspects of the score (at least to my ears) are elongated into flowing linear sweeps that rotate the music into an expansive horizontal field.
Regardless of which listening approach you decide to take with these works—the view of the forest or of the trees—or in which order you decide to take them, the music reveals complexity and insight that will make you want to press play again and open your ears even wider for the next listen.