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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

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


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.

Arlene 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. 

Declared “a name to watch” by BBC Music Magazine, Sierra has been featured in portrait concerts at the Crush Room, Royal Opera House, London, the Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival, Vermont, Composers Now New York, Eastman School of Music, and the Composer Portraits Series at NYC's Miller Theatre. Artist residencies and fellowships include Aldeburgh Britten-Pears, Aspen, Bowdoin, Fontainebleau, the Otto Eckstein Fellowship at Tanglewood, and the MacDowell Colony.
Her music is the subject of a series of portrait recordings by the esteemed 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 colour, 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.

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. Current projects include Birds and Insects, Book 3, commissioned by the Barbican Centre for pianist Sarah Cahill, and Kiskadee, a Toulmin Foundation commission for the Detroit Symphony with further scheduled performances with the Dallas, Illinois, Louisiana, and Wheeling Symphonies.

Born in Miami to a family of New Yorkers, she holds degrees from Oberlin College-Conservatory, Yale School of Music, and the University of Michigan. Invited lectures and presentations include Oxford, Cambridge, New England Conservatory, Yale, Eastman, New York University, Universität Mozarteum Salzburg, and Yonsei and Ewha Universities (South Korea). Arlene Sierra currently serves as Professor of Music Composition at Cardiff University School of Music.


  • 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

  • University of Utah (2021, 2022)
  • Westminster College, Utah (2021, 2022)
  • Brigham Young University (2021)
  • New York University (2019)
  • Oxford University (2018)
  • New England Conservatory (2017)
  • Universität Mozarteum Salzburg (2017)
  • 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)
  • Cambridge University (2004)

Committees and reviewing

  • 2016 - 2022: AHRC Peer Review College 
  • 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

  • Oxford University
  • 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.

Current projects include Birds and Insects, Book 3, commissioned by the Barbican Centre for pianist Sarah Cahill, and Kiskadee, a Toulmin Foundation commission for the Detroit Symphony with further scheduled performances with the Dallas, Illinois, Louisiana, and Wheeling Symphonies.

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.


I supervise doctoral students working on composition projects ranging from solo and chamber music to large-scale symphonic and stage works, with and without the incorporation of electronic media. Enquiries from prospective candidates are welcome.

Current supervision

Tie Zhou

Research student


Laura Shipsey

Research student

Chao Xie

Research student

Thomas Whitcombe

Research student

Past projects

  • Zhuo, Jerry Yue 2022. Experiencing identity, forming poetic space: Expression and interaction in a portfolio of original compositions
  • 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.