Arlene Sierra Explores Darwin, Warfare and Chinese Philosophy

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The second full-length "composer portrait" of London-based American composer Arlene Sierra includes pieces for orchestra that were written over the past 15 years. Delivered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the music of "Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2," draws inspiration from various sources including nature’s elements, Sun Tzu, game theory, and Charles Darwin.

The album begins with the most recent work, Moler and works its way back. Written in 2012 for the Seattle Symphony, Sierra was asked to reference the Seattle music scene. The rock group Alice in Chains is the inspiration that she landed on, and after discovering a lyric in their song “Grind” that points to teeth grinding, she took off from there. The music is pointillistic and builds tension throughout; it really does a swell job of representing the grinding of teeth. A continuous time signature of 4/4 is another big nod to the band.

Sierra’s piano concerto, Art of War, is performed by British composer and pianist Huw Watkins. The two-movement work begins rather abruptly with a bouncing piano line, conversing with the winds and percussion and supported by strings. The first movement, “Captive Nation,” references a quote by Sun Tzu - the ancient Chinese philosopher and general credited as the author of the seminal military text. The piano part represents a smaller nation attacking a larger one, the orchestra. In the second movement, “Strategic Siege,” the pianist goes from “instigator to saboteur," notes the composer.

Game of Attrition, the album's title work originally premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2009, was influenced by Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. “Sierra has various instruments in the orchestra ‘compete’ by playing simultaneously in similar registers,” notes composer Christian Carey in an interview featured in the album’s liner notes.

Aquilo is the oldest work on the album, written between 1999 and 2001. The title is a Latin word for north wind; the music is heavily layered and fast-paced. Depictions of fire and water also make an appearance, and parts in the harp, wind, and percussion sections take the lead. Sounding a bit like Bartok at times, this piece is a true highlight of the album.

Overall, this music catches your attention from the beginning. Sierra’s music is atonal, but with her heavy use of repetition and accessible (sometimes groovy) rhythms, her music may feel familiar to you even at first listen.

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