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ClassicsOnline Home » SIERRA: New Music with a Caribbean Accent
Roberto Sierra is one of the freshest voices of recent American composition. The diverse folk traditions and popular music of the Caribbean have been in his blood since he was young, and he frequently evokes these cultures, transforming them with great sophistication. The earliest works on this recording, Conjuros and Vestigios rituales, are based upon Afro-Cuban ritual chants of the Lucumí tradition. The virtuosic Cinco bocetos for solo clarinet draws inspiration from Caribbean pop music, Catalonian folk-song, and the sound of the Puerto Rican tree frog. Like Vestigios rituales and Descarga, Sierra’s song-cycle Glosa a la sombra was written for Continuum, which has performed his music frequently and internationally since the early 1980s.
Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
New Music with a Caribbean Accent
Roberto Sierra is one of the freshest voices of recent American composition. The works performed here, from a ten-year period when he was relatively young, exemplify his creativity in writing music that is both international in its techniques and avowedly "regional" in its Latin American roots.
A native of a small town in Puerto Rico, Sierra first studied at the National Conservatory in San Juan and the University of Puerto Rico. He then expanded his outlook enormously by attending the Royal College of Music and the University of London, the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht, Holland, and the Musikhochschule in Hamburg, where for three years he was a pupil of György Ligeti. Returning to Puerto Rico, his clear gift for administration led to his appointment as Chancellor of the Conservatory. His real break came, however, when the Milwaukee Symphony named him composer-in-residence. A few years later he assumed a professorship of composition at Cornell University. Sierra has produced a large portfolio of solo, chamber, orchestral, and vocal music, which has been commissioned and performed by major orchestras, ensembles, and soloists here and abroad, and is published primarily by Subito Music and G. Schirmer. He is widely recorded, and New Albion is issuing a Continuum CD of his music of the 1990s and 2000s. Three of the pieces on this recording were composed for Continuum, which has performed his music frequently and internationally since the early 1980s.
The folklore and popular music of the Caribbean have been in his blood since he was young. He frequently evokes those cultures, but with the greatest freedom and imagination. Many of his compositions are organized in multiple layers that move at different speeds, reminding one of the impact of two of his favorite composers, Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow. Such an approach to time gives his music depth and a fascinating compositional organization. At the same time, it can be very difficult for the performers. Fortunately, his powerful musical instincts ensure that the hurdles of learning his music will be transcended and that his music will offer the kind of sensuous pleasure that reaches out to grasp the audience.
The earliest works on the recording are Conjuros (Conjurations, 1982), composed for the Puerto Rican tenor Alejandro Vasquez, and Vestigios rituales (Ritual Vestiges, 1984), composed for Continuum co-directors Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs. Conjuros, a delicately colored song cycle written when he was studying with Ligeti, is based upon Afro-Cuban ritual chants of the Lucumí tradition. Its evocative text, like the sounds of ecstatic rituals, has no syntactical meaning although the syllables have their roots in ancient African words. Vestigios rituales also explores the melodic and rhythmic elements of the Lucumí. The complex rhythmic structure of the Batá drums is heard in the first and last sections, while the middle section evokes the melodic aspects of ritual chant. The melodies are not folkloric but were composed to resemble the traditional models. In Vestigios rituales these elements generate a tremendously complex virtuoso piece, creating a rhythmic frenzy when the two players perform in independent tempos. A fugue in two tempos that follows shortly after the slow, lyric middle section is especially striking.
Although Roberto Sierra's music is often virtuosic to an extreme, it is also impressively idiomatic even when he writes for instruments that he does not play. One such piece is Cinco bocetos (Five Sketches, 1984) for solo clarinet, written in the same year as Vestigios rituales. Sierra says, "In Cinco bocetos I explore the different registers of the clarinet, taking advantage of its particular tone color characteristics. I created the illusion of the instrument accompanying itself with two or even three different voices. This false polyphony can be heard in Canción del campo and Canción de la montaña. Interludio nocturno is night music, complete with the sound of the uniquely Puerto Rican tree frog, the coquí. But not everything is peaceful in the nocturnal imagery. There are outbursts of violence that reflect our contemporary urban reality. In Preludio and Final con pájaros I integrated into the musical texture elements from Caribbean folklore and popular music. The final movement also quotes a Catalonian folk song entitled Song of the Birds."
Sierra composed Glosa a la sombra (1987) for Continuum shortly after completing his first opera, El mensajero de plata (The Silver Messenger). It quickly became a staple of Continuum's extensive tours. He says, "My source of inspiration was the Puerto Rican poet Joserammón Melendes, and especially his Poema a la luz (Poem to Light) and subsequent poetic cycle Glosa a la sombra (Commentary upon the Shadow). Just as medieval writers wrote commentaries upon biblical phrases (glosses), Melendes uses each line of the Poema a la luz as the starting point for a new poem that expands the thoughts of the sourceline. In my songcycle I performed an analogous task: taking each line of the Poema a la luz and composing a musical 'commentary' expanding the ideas of that line into a musical entity." The poetry, a vivid and bitter depiction of the misery of a Puerto Rican slum, is the basis of an extended vocal scena.
In 1987, Continuum was invited to give two major concerts of American music in Cologne and Duisburg, recording them also for West German Broadcasting (WDR). For Continuum's ensemble of strings, winds, and percussion, Sierra composed a chamber concerto, Descarga. Like the Concerto for piano and large orchestra composed in the same year, the compact but dynamic composition incorporates many features of Afro-Caribbean music. The title refers to a sudden discharge of enormous energy, and in Puerto Rican Spanish has the connotation of a jam session.
The most recent composition on this recording is the Trio tropical, which was composed in 1991 for the Trio Mompou with funds from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. While maintaining its identity with Roberto Sierra's cultural heritage, this trio explores the Caribbean rhythmic world in a more generalized, nonregional manner. Especially striking is the introduction to the third movement, a polytemporal chorale, and the beautiful, tango-like slow movement.
© Continuum 2007
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SIERRA: New Music with a Caribbean Accent