Arlene SIERRA (b. 1970)
Cicada Shell, for chamber ensemble (2006) [14:47]
Birds and Insects – Book 1, for piano (2003-2007) [15:50]
Surrounded Ground, for sextet (2008) [12:49]
Two Neruda Odes, for soprano, cello and piano (2004) [10:54]
Colmena, for fourteen players (2008) [7:10]
Ballistae, for thirteen players (2001) [10:24]
Vassily Primakov (piano); Susan Narucki (soprano); Charles Neidich (clarinet); Raman Ramakrishnan (cello); Stephen Gosling (piano); Daedalus Quartet; International Contemporary Ensemble/Jayce Ogren
rec. no details given.
BRIDGE 9343 [72:30]

Arlene Sierra is an American-born composer who has taught composition at Cambridge University and is currently Senior Lecturer in composition at the Cardiff University School of Music.

The earliest music on the disc is the last in playing order. A ballista was an ancient Roman weapon of war, a kind of catapult that hurled rocks over long distances. The composer writes in the booklet as follows: “The circumstances, construction and operation of ballistae shape all aspects of this work.” This, it would seem, even in practical terms: the thirteen instruments are separated into two groups of six, representing each arm of the fearsome machine, “whilst the largest and heaviest instrument (in effect the stone) is moved into its central place with considerable effort.” More and more frequently I find myself wishing that composers would refrain from explaining their work, and Arlene Sierra goes further than most in this respect. Frustratingly, the music needs no external props, for the work is a remarkable achievement. From beginning to end the energy barely lets up, a constant, battering stream of sound which nonetheless maintains crystal-clear textures and an unwavering sense of forward motion before arriving at the point when the projectile finally hits its target … or perhaps not.

The Two Neruda Odes are settings, in Spanish, of poems paying homage to everyday objects. It’s a pity the texts are not provided, as I think Neruda’s originals, even in translation, would come across as less worthy of Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner than the composer’s presentations of them. The singer certainly gets into a stew, which is puzzling since she is singing about, first, a plate, and second, a table. But I mustn’t be flippant – though it’s very tempting – because the music, once again, is stunning. The vocal line is challenging for all concerned, but superbly expressive and wide-ranging, and above all, truly vocal. It is also magnificently integrated into the accompanying instrumental texture.

Uncertain as to whether it’s a good idea, I leave the composer to introduce Cicada Shell. The work belongs, she writes, “to a series of pieces exploring principles of military strategy”, and the impetus was provided by “an ancient collection of Chinese battle tactics…‘Strategy 21: Slough off the cicada’s shell’ advises that false appearances mislead enemies. Transformation and illusion are key to avoiding capture and defeat.” The first movement, she tells us, is a series of crescendi, the second a series of diminuendi. “Both movements feature a number of ciphers based on the title of the work as well as a central motif transcribed from the call of cicadas in nature.” So much for the composer’s description of the music. Mine? Brilliantly written, exciting, rapid, constantly moving for much of its length. Reading afterwards that the music is in some way concerned with battle one is not in the least surprised. Of cicadas I heard not one.

The five pieces that make up Birds and Insects – Book 1 can, according to the composer, “be performed separately or together in any order.” Thus we have “Sarus Crane”, “Cornish Bantam”, “Cicada Sketch”, “Titmouse” and “Scarab”, of which the final piece is longer than all the others put together. The music is well conceived for the piano, spiky, percussive, and exploiting all the instrument’s characteristics, though not much the sustaining pedal. Perhaps because of the rather monochrome nature of the music, I find it more difficult to warm to this work than the others in the collection.

Surrounded Ground is another work with military connections, and in the notes about this piece the composer nails a few extra-musical colours to the mast. Writing favourably of her musical heritage, she adds that “present-day American militarism and its consequences for the world are another artistic challenge entirely. Surrounded Ground is an attempt to address these issues in my own work.” The opening movement is harsh, violent and unremitting. The second, on the other hand, entitled “Feigned Retreat”, begins with one of the few passages of slow music in this collection, though reading the composer’s description, I’m not totally sure that the cue has been placed at the right point. Between these two is a highly combative and virtuoso passage featuring two violins. The finale is hectic, constant, drivingly rhythmic and sounds fiendishly difficult to play and get together.

Colmena is the shortest work on the disc. The title means “Beehive” in Spanish, and the work “explores accumulation and change from micro to macro levels”. Composed following study of the nature of beehives, it is a superb scherzo for chamber ensemble, the music hugely colourful and brilliantly conceived for the forces. It never lets up, and even the closing section, “a kind of buzzing repose” inspired by the idea of the beehive hibernating, is only calm in comparison with what has gone before.

This disc is no easy ride. The musical language is highly dissonant and challenging, and those moments to which one could apply the word “lyrical” are rare indeed. It is brilliantly written, however, compellingly dramatic and exciting. The recording is very vivid and close, at one with the repertoire, and the performances are astonishingly virtuosic. It is billed as Volume 1, and I will certainly be looking out for Volume 2, despite the composer’s booklet notes which are, in my view, of limited use, perhaps even irrelevant.

William Hedley

A remarkable and challenging collection of brilliantly conceived and written ensemble works, but the composer’s booklet notes get in the way.