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

Dr Arlene Sierra

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

Reader in Composition

School of Music

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

Dr 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 military strategy, game theory, and the natural world, 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

U.K.-based American composer Arlene Sierra writes music that takes its impetus from rich sources including military strategy and game theory, Darwinian evolution, and the natural world. The Guardian describes her work as having “its own character, in which historical and contemporary influences are fused into a highly flexible and distinctive style”, while Time Out New York describes it as “spry, savage, sly and seductive.” Performers of her work include the Tokyo Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, New York City Opera VOX, Alabama Symphony, London Sinfonietta, International Contemporary Ensemble, Carducci Quartet, Österreichisches Ensemble für neue Musik, Lontano, Psappha, and the Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio at the BBC Proms. Important commissions include Game of Attrition – New York Philharmonic, Art of War – BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Cicada Shell - Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, Insects in Amber – Cheltenham Music Festival, Neruda Settings – Tanglewood Music Festival, Hand Mit Ringen – Huddersfield Music Festival, Moler – Seattle Symphony,Tiffany Windows – Albany Symphony, Urban Birds – PRS New Music Biennial, and Nature Symphony – BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Philharmonic

Declared “a name to watch” by BBC Music Magazine, Arlene Sierra first gained international recognition when her orchestral work Aquilo was awarded the 2001 Takemitsu Prize. Subsequent awards have included the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Classical Recording Foundation Composer of the Year, and fellowships including Aspen, Aldeburgh Britten-Pears, and the MacDowell Colony. She has had the honour of Composer Portrait concerts at the Crush Room, Royal Opera House, London, the Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival, Vermont, and Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, New York. Sierra’s orchestral showpiece Moler was nominated for a Latin GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

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.” Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2 includes world-premiere recordings of recent orchestral works performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac Van Steen, conductor. It has also met with widespread critical acclaim, 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.” A new disc of chamber works Arlene Sierra, Vol. 3 was released by Bridge in 2018, including two critically-acclaimed piano trios, Truel and Butterflies Remember a Mountain. Other labels representing Sierra’s work include NMC and Coviello Classics.

Arlene Sierra’s catalogue ranges from song cycles Streets and Rivers and Neruda Settings to operas Faustine and Cuatro Corridos. Chamber works include the piano album Birds and Insects, string quartet Insects in Amber, ensemble works Ballistae, Cicada Shell and Colmena, and a series of new scores to Maya Deren avant grade films from the 1940’s including Meditation on Violence and Ritual in Transfigured Time. Urban Birds, for three pianos with percussion and sampled birdsong, was featured by BBC News and toured UK venues including London’s South Bank Centre and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Butterflies Remember a Mountain has been championed by the Benedetti-Elschenbroich-Grynyuk Trio, with performances at the BBC Proms, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the Frankfurt Alte Oper. Nature Symphony was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and praised in The Guardian for its “succession of striking orchestral ideas” while declared it “memorable for its creation of wonderful sounds from a large orchestra, ever–changing rhythms, ear-catching snatches of melody, contrasts of mood and a feeling that it all came together as a satisfying whole as a symphony should.”

Born in Miami to a family of New Yorkers, Dr. 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 also 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.

Dr Sierra is currently Reader in Composition and Deputy Head of School at Cardiff University School of Music. Guest professorships and master classes have included Eastman School of Music, Yale School of Music, Yonsei and Ewha Universities (South Korea), Universität Mozarteum Salzburg, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Honours and awards

  • 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
  • Otto Eckstein Fellowship, Tanglewood Music Center, 2001
  • 1st Prize, Toru Takemitsu Composition Award, Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation (Aquilo for Symphony Orchestra), 2001

Professional memberships

  • Member, AHRC Peer Review College (Academic and International sections)
  • Writer and Publisher Member of PRS and ASCAP

Academic positions

  • 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)
  • 2012 - present: 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
























I supervise PhDs in acoustic and electroacoustic composition. My doctoral students are writing works for orchestra, ensembles, instruments and voices, for concert performance and for the stage, with and without electronic media.

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

I am currently 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.

Current supervision

Tie Zhou

Research student