A Stunning Menagerie from Arlene Sierra

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At times, composer Arlene Sierra’s catalog reads more like an inventory of the Museum of Natural History with titles like Insects in Amber, Cricket-Viol, Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects, Book 1. Even her inclusion in the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural CONTACT! series in December of 2009, Game of Attrition, was based on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Likewise, Sierra’s works are full of feline cunningness, birdlike chirps, beastly savage turns and serpentine seduction.

Unsurprisingly, then, the first in a series of Sierra’s collected works recorded for Bridge records reflects her animal collectiveness, starting with Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects, Book I, the former reflecting the deep-seated Stravinsky influence that reverberates through much of Sierra’s catalog (and captured in an aptly-timed recording by the International Contemporary Ensemble, who perform Stravinsky this week as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival).

Indeed, ICE factors heavily into this hot album, reappearing on Colmena and Ballistae. Colmena, Spanish for “beehive” (and this week’s free download) swarms and buzzes, particularly in the wind instruments, adding layer upon layer to the fluttering activity of violins, flute and piano. Ballistae, reflecting Sierra’s other apparent love for all things battle-related, represents the sonic equivalent of this medieval weapon—a sort of crossbow-catapult hybrid. Elsewhere, pianist Vassily Primakov takes on a nuanced account of Birds and Insects and the Daedalus Quartet go further into the breach with a kinetic and vibrant Surrounded Ground. Rounding out the collection is soprano Susan Narucki performing the hushed and haunting Two Neruda Odes. All works on display have the effect of a promising butterfly collection we hope will continue in future volumes.