Moler: A Grinding Journey9 March 2015
Dr Arlene Sierra, internationally-renowned composer and Senior Lecturer at the School of Music, released her second portrait CD with Bridge Records in 2014. One of the works on the disc, Moler, was commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Symphony and recently nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in the Latin GRAMMY awards. You can listen to a clip from the work on Soundcloud.
Here, Dr Sierra tells us about how the composition of Moler came about:
It started with an email from the artistic administrator of the Seattle Symphony : Would I like to write a piece for the Symphony’s Sonic Evolution Series of commissions? I had heard about this forward-looking initiative before, as the project has been developing over some years: A showcase of new works from the younger generation of composers that would take inspiration, but no quotations, from popular music with a Seattle connection.
The stipulation of no quotations was the root of the project’s appeal for me – this made the remit as free as needed to make a real statement in my own language for orchestra. Knowing the performers would be that good, and led by the excellent conductor Ludovic Morlot who is Music Director at Seattle, my mind began racing with ideas for orchestral sonorities and textures right away.
But first there was the list. As soon I indicated my interest in the commission, I was sent a list of popular artists with Seattle connections – what a range there was! Quincy Jones, Yes, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, the Blue Scholars, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Death Cab for Cutie, the list was long and quite unexpected. Having had a firmly East Coast American upbringing, finding so many Seattle origins to familiar music really surprised me.
There was something about the rock acts on the Seattle list that got me thinking: I’ve long been a fan of composers like Varese, Ruggles and Ginastera, who were known for getting a harder, grittier sound out of the orchestra. Yet my own orchestral work up to that point, while relishing contrast and density, had had a glossier, Francophile sound. Maybe this list from the symphony was pointing the way to something different.
With this in mind I checked out the bands I hadn’t known much about, surveying titles of songs that might be in the right kind of vein. Grind by Alice in Chains popped out from the search results. As expected it was quite a contrast from Prince’s Le Grind which I’d loved in high school… rooted in 4/4 of course, and with a heavy, guitar-laden sound. The one surprising aspect of this song was the kind of ‘grind’ being sung about. In contrast to probably every other ‘grind’ in popular music, the Alice in Chains ‘Grind’ was a song about teeth-grinding! Now that was an idea I could turn into orchestral music.
With a starting point like teeth-grinding (also known bruxism), an orchestral palette could develop in interesting ways. I imagined musical objects grinding against each other, creating a kind of orchestral roughness. But what sort of environment would they live in? I often talk to my composition students about creating a world for musical ideas, giving motifs and melodies an environment – not just a background but something that interacts and grows with a piece’s principle materials. It’s an important compositional principle for me, in all kinds of genres but especially in the orchestra where the greatest registral and timbral contrasts are possible.
Medical journal articles on bruxism complimented these ideas and helped me to fill them out further. It’s been shown in scientific studies that cycles of sleep and corresponding changes in a person’s heart rate affect the speed and strength of bruxism when it occurs. Pulse, grinding, the regularity needed for sleep combined with the tension that leads to bruxism, all started to come together as sound world full of orchestrational possibilities.
Another compositional principle that drives many of my works is the need to limit one’s material. With all the welcome freedom composers have in our time, to write in any language or melange of languages that one could wish for, the need for coherence is all the more acute. In a post-Common Practice era, how can we composers create a sense of inevitability, the sense that the next note, phrase, gesture has to happen?
In the case of Moler a few opening gambits determined everything in the piece. First was the decision, as a nod to Sonic Evolution and Alice in Chains, to keep the whole piece in a simple 4/4. Above and below that essential pulse, the grinding of a few rough-edged motifs would commence and develop. The scoring too was determined by strict limits connected to a roughness of timbre: low oboes and muted trombones, flutter-tonguing brass, the exhaustive use of auxiliary instruments like bass clarinet and contrabassoon. These were part of the palette for Moler and led to a ten-minute “grind.” Using the Spanish word for grind as the title acknowledges my own musical roots in Latin American music and Western Classical interpretations of the Spanish style. The sense of movement my scores evoke is always connected to dance and physicality, and this piece is no exception.
The world premiere of Moler took place in October 2012 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Ludovic Morlot conducting. The European premiere was at BBC Hoddinott Hall in November 2012 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Grant Llewellyn. The same orchestra recorded the piece in 2013 with conductor Jac Van Steen for the Bridge Records release “Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra Vol. 2”. In 2014 the disc was cited in a Grammy nomination for David Starobin for Producer of the Year, and a Latin Grammy nomination for Moler for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Listen to a clip from the piece at: