Arlene Sierra, composer

Arlene Sierra headshot_credit Ian Phillips-McLaren

Arlene Sierra is a London-based American composer whose music is lauded for its “highly flexible and distinctive style” (The Guardian), ranging from “exquisiteness and restrained power” to “combative and utterly compelling” (Gramophone). Notable premieres include Nature Symphony “memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra” ( commissioned by BBC Radio Three and the BBC Philharmonic, Butterflies Remember a Mountain for the Benedetti-Elschenbroich- Grynyuk Trio, described as “precisely and joyously imagined” (The Times) and performed in venues including the Concertgebouw and the BBC Proms, a New York Philharmonic commission for chamber orchestra Game of Attrition, described by Time Out as “at turns spry, savage, sly and seductive... so enrapturing.” Sierra’s highly individual works have been nominated and awarded on several occasions, including the Takemitsu Composition Prize, a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, PRS Composers Fund and Women Make Music awards, and a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Her orchestral showpiece Moler was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Sierra has composed works for the Albany, Seattle, and Utah Symphonies, the Tanglewood, Cheltenham, and Huddersfield Music Festivals, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Bremen Philharmonic Society, and ensembles including Lontano, Psappha, International Contemporary Ensemble, and the Carducci Quartet. She has worked with conductors including Thierry Fischer, Andris Nelsons, Susanna Mälkki, Oliver Knussen, Jac Van Steen, Shiyeon Sung, Odaline de la Martinez, Jayce Ogren, Grant Llewellyn, Stefan Asbury, and Ludovic Morlot, and ensembles including the Tokyo Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta, Boston Symphony, Alabama Symphony, Österreichisches Ensemble für neue Musik, Chroma, New Juilliard Ensemble, the Fidelio, Peabody, and Horszowski Trios, and New York City Opera VOX. As Utah Symphony Composer-in-Association Arlene Sierra worked closely with musicians and the community, creating a new work for youth orchestra, Butterfly House, and her most recent large-scale statement for orchestra, Bird Symphony, to audience and critical acclaim.

Born in Miami to a family of New Yorkers, Arlene Sierra holds degrees from Oberlin College- Conservatory, Yale School of Music, and the University of Michigan. She currently serves as Professor of Music Composition at Cardiff University School of Music.

Arlene Sierra's piece Ballistae premiered with the Grossman Ensemble on September 30, 2023. 


Program notes:

In the classical treatise The Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius, the Roman architect and engineer provides detailed instructions for building many ancient machines of warfare for both attack and defence. The Roman ballista was a double-armed artillery machine, essentially a large, mounted crossbow whose cords of twisted sinew or hair were pulled back by a winch. It could hurl heavy rocks with great force for considerable distances. The circumstances, construction and operation of ballistae shape all aspects of the work. The aggression and fear of waging war, the organization and effort required to build war machines, and the preparations of the distant enemy are all ideas that contribute to the piece. In a more concrete manifestation of a ballista, twelve instruments are divided into two “arms” of the machine, leaving the largest, heaviest instrument to be moved into its aural central position with considerable effort. The strings provide the appropriate sinews to be tightened and tuned, finally achieving sufficient tension to launch the heavy missile. After following a musical approximation of the missile’s flight, the work concludes with its sudden, violent impact.