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Professor Arlene Sierra BA, BMus (Oberlin), MMus (Yale), DMA (Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Professor Arlene Sierra

BA, BMus (Oberlin), MMus (Yale), DMA (Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Professor of Music Composition

School of Music

1.02, Music Building, 31 Corbett Road, Cathays, Cardiff, CF10 3EB
Media commentator
Available for postgraduate supervision


Arlene Sierra is an internationally recognised composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, as well as opera, music for dance, and music for film. Her work often takes its impetus from the natural world, military strategy, and game theory, and is the subject of a critically acclaimed series of portrait recordings with Bridge Records. For information about commissions, performances, and recordings, please see the biography page or visit

From September 2020 Professor Sierra will hold a two-year Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust to work on projects connected with her role as Composer in Association with the Utah Symphony.


Her music noted for its “highly flexible and distinctive style” (The Guardian), ranging from “exquisiteness and restrained power” to “combative and utterly compelling” (Gramophone), Arlene Sierra is widely regarded as one of today’s most original composers. Recent premieres include Nature Symphony “memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra” ( commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Philharmonic, Dalia from Cuatro Corridos, a monodrama for soprano Susan Narucki which toured the US and Mexico and was broadcast on Mexican television, and Urban Birds commissioned by the PRS New Music Biennale for a UK tour including the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Sierra has composed works for the International Contemporary Ensemble, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Bremen Philharmonic Society, the Carducci Quartet, Lontano, Psappha, the Albany Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony. Notable events include European performances of the work Butterflies Remember a Mountain, described as “precisely and joyously imagined” (The Times), by the Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio at the Concertgebouw and at the BBC Proms, a recording of Sierra’s piano concerto Art of War and other works by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and the New York Philharmonic commission for chamber orchestra Game of Attrition, described by Time Out as “at turns spry, savage, sly and seductive… so enrapturing.” Current projects include the scheduled world premiere of Bird Symphony, part of Sierra’s role as Composer-in-Association with the Utah Symphony.

Sierra’s solo and chamber works have appeared in numerous international programmes – from the Tanglewood Festival and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in the US, to Germany’s Alte Oper Frankfurt and the Louvre, Paris, from St Moritz in Switzerland to the Aldeburgh and Huddersfield Festivals in the UK. She has worked with conductors including Andris Nelsons, Susanna Mälkki, Oliver Knussen, Jac Van Steen, and Ludovic Morlot; with ensembles including the Tokyo Philarmonic, London Sinfonietta, Boston Symphony, Alabama Symphony, Österreichisches Ensemble für neue Musik, Chroma, and New York City Opera VOX. Sierra has worked with soloists including Claire Booth, Huw Watkins, Wendy Richman, Rowland Sutherland, Eric Lamb, Xenia Pestova, Marilyn Nonken, Kathleen Supove, and Clare Hammond.

Her music is the subject of a series of portrait recordings by the prestigious Bridge Records label. Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1, recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble, received rave reviews internationally and was featured by NPR Classical, which described its “remarkable brilliance of color, rhythmic dexterity and playfulness.” The orchestral disc Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2 has been praised for “vividly scored, colorful works” by The New York Times and described by The Guardian as “remarkably sure-footed… quirky and individual” and “startlingly fresh and assured.” Gramophone Magazine has described Sierra’s latest release Butterflies Remember a Mountain - Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3 as “a wonderful chamber music issue that enthrals from first bar to last.” Other labels representing Sierra’s work include NMC, New Focus Recordings, and Coviello Classics.

Declared “a name to watch” by BBC Music Magazine, Arlene Sierra first came to international attention when she was awarded the Takemitsu Prize in 2001. The award resulted in a performance of her work Aquilo by the Tokyo Philharmonic, conducted by Susanna Mälkki at Tokyo Opera City. Later that year she received the Otto Eckstein Fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Festival, followed by the Paul Jacobs Award commission for Neruda Settings premiered at Tanglewood in 2002. Further awards have included the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Classical Recording Foundation Composer of the Year, a PRS Foundation Composers Fund award, fellowships including Aspen, Aldeburgh Britten-Pears, the MacDowell Colony, and a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. She has had the honour of Composer Portrait concerts at the Crush Room, Royal Opera House, London, the Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival, Vermont, Composers Now New York, and Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Sierra’s orchestral showpiece Moler was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Professor Sierra has presented many lectures and masterclasses at the invitation of universities and conservatories around the UK and abroad, including Oxford, Cambridge, York, Royal Holloway, Bristol, and Kings College London; the New England Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, Yale, DePaul, and Columbia Universities in the US; Yonsei, Ewha, and Sangmyung Universities in South Korea; and the Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg, Austria. She has given masterclasses and coaching sessions at summer music festival courses including the Bowdoin International Music Festival, Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival, and the Cheltenham Music Festival (Cheltenham Composer Academy). With Professor Kenneth Hesketh of the Royal College of Music, she co-directs the Advanced Composition summer course at Musicfest Aberyswyth.

Born in Miami to a family of New Yorkers, Arlene Sierra holds degrees from Oberlin College-Conservatory (BA, BMus), Yale School of Music (MMus), and the University of Michigan (DMA). Her principal teachers were Martin Bresnick, Michael Daugherty, and Jacob Druckman; she worked with Betsy Jolas and Dominique Troncin at Fontainebleau, and Paul-Heinz Dittrich in Berlin. At Tanglewood, Aldeburgh, and Dartington she studied with Louis Andriessen, Magnus Lindberg, Colin Matthews, and Judith Weir.


  • Butterflies Remember a Mountain - Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3. Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio, Horszowski Trio. (Bridge, 2018)
  • Urban Birds, Xenia Pestova, Kathleen Supove, Sarah Nicolls. (NMC, 2014)
  • Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Huw Watkins, piano, Jac van Steen, conductor. (Bridge, 2014)
  • Arlene Sierra, Vol. 1. International Contemporary Ensemble, Susan Narucki, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor. (Bridge, 2011)
  • Other works appear on New Focus Recordings and Coviello Classics

Honours and awards

  • Leverhulme Research Fellowship, 2020
  • PRS Composers Fund award, 2017
  • Nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition (Moler for Symphony Orchestra), Latin GRAMMY Awards, 2014
  • Composer of the Year, Classical Recording Foundation, 2011
  • Charles Ives Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2007
  • Paul Jacobs Award commission, Tanglewood Music Center, 2002
  • Otto Eckstein Fellowship, Tanglewood Music Center, 2001
  • 1st Prize, Toru Takemitsu Composition Award, Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation (Aquilo for Symphony Orchestra), 2001

Academic positions

  • 2016 - present, Reader/Professor, Cardiff University
  • 2004 - 2015, Lecturer/Senior Lecturer, Cardiff University
  • 2003 - 2004, Composition Tutor (UG and PGT), Cambridge University
  • 1994 - 1999, Rackham Doctoral Fellow, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Speaking engagements

  • New York University (2019)
  • Oxford University (2018)
  • New England Conservatory (2017)
  • Universität Mozarteum Salzburg (2017)
  • BBC Radio Three (2017, 2016, 2014, 2010, 2008)
  • Royal Holloway, University of London (2017)
  • Cheltenham Composer Academy (2016, 2014, 2013)
  • DePaul University (2016)
  • Yale University School of Music (2015)
  • York University (2015)
  • Ewha University, Seoul (2015, 2012)
  • Cheltenham Festival (2014, 2011)
  • Frankfurter Museums-Gesellschaft e. V. (2013)
  • Bowdoin International Music Festival (2013)
  • Yellow Barn Festival (2013)
  • Sangmyung University, Seoul (2013)
  • University of California at San Diego (2013)
  • Institute of Musical Research (2013, 2008)
  • Kingston University (2013, 2004)
  • Yonsei University, Seoul (2012)
  • Bristol University (2012)
  • Opera America New Works Forum (2011)
  • Eastman School of Music (2011)
  • Miller Theatre at Columbia University (2009)
  • Kings College London (2009)
  • Louise Blouin Institute (2009)
  • National Portrait Gallery, London (2009)
  • WNYC Radio (2007, 2006)
  • Cambridge University (2004)
  • Kings Lynn Festival (2004)

Committees and reviewing

  • 2016 - present: AHRC Peer Review College (Academic and International sections)
  • 2016 - 2020: Deputy Head of the School of Music
  • 2012 - 2018: School of Music Rep, University and College Union
  • 2012 - 2017: Executive Committee Member, University and College Union
  • 2016 - 2017: Chair, Research Committee
  • 2013 - 2015: Chair, Postgraduate Taught Board of Studies
  • 2008 - 2012: Chair, Concert Committee

External Examining

  • Goldsmith’s College, University of London
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Kings College London
  • University of Salford
  • Bristol University
  • University of Melbourne



























At undergraduate level and postgraduate taught levels, I teach modules on composition, orchestration, and contemporary repertoire.

I am currently at work on a new commission, Bird Symphony, as part of my role as Composer-in-Association with the Utah Symphony.

Additionally I am working on a series of new chamber scores to Maya Deren’s avant garde films from the 1940’s and 50’s for a planned DVD release with Bridge Records. The series will include scores to the films Meditation on Violence, Ritual in Transfigured Time, A Study in Choreography for Camera, Ensemble for Somnambulists, and At Land.

Many of my works form part of two extant series of thematically-linked pieces for varying instrumentations ranging from solo to orchestra: The first is a Darwinian series exploring aspects of nature including birdsong and insect calls – works include Nature Symphony, Game of Attrition, Insects in Amber, Cricket-Viol, Birds and Insects, Avian Mirrors, and Urban Birds. The second is a series of pieces employing concepts and interactions inspired by game theory and military strategy including works Art of War, Surrounded Ground, Truel, Art of Lightness, and Cicada Shell.


Doctoral composers under my supervision are writing works for orchestra, ensembles, instruments and voices, for concert performance and for the stage, with and without electronic media.

From September 2020 I will be on sabbatical as part of a two-year Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, to work on projects connected with my role as Composer in Association with the Utah Symphony.

I am continuing to supervise doctoral students during my Leverhulme Fellowship and enquiries from prospective candidates are welcome.

Current supervision

Tie Zhou

Research student

Elizabeth Goldman

Research student

Laura Shipsey

Research student

Past projects

  • Charuprakorn, Poumpak 2020. The use of registral spacing and rhythmic density as musical trajectories in a portfolio of original compositions
  • Boyd, Blair Elizabeth 2019. Temporal structuring in a portfolio of original compositions. 
  • McReynolds, Richard 2019. An exploration of the influence of technology upon the composer’s process.
  • Howell, Julia 2017. The memory of music and music of memory: A portfolio of original compositions.
  • Hughes, Gareth Olubunmi 2016. A portfolio of acoustic/electroacoustic music compositions & computer algorithms that investigate the development of polymodality, polyharmony, chromaticism & extended timbre in my musical language.

Earlier projects include works by Mauricio Beltran, Stephen Berryman, Daniel Bickerton, Max Charles Davies, Matthew Hall, Christian Morris, and Jack Christopher White.