Welcome back to “Composers Corner.” This edition features award-winning composer Roberto Sierra, as we talk with him about being a Latino composer and how it informs his music, “the magic of hearing the first rehearsal of an orchestral piece,” as well as his observations about the American cultural landscape and his optimism about the future.
S: In 2017, you were awarded the Tomás Luis de Victoria Prize, the highest honor given in Spain to a composer of Spanish or Latin American origin. Please tell us about your experience as a Hispanic composer and the influence your culture has on your creative work.
Sierra: I have been in the USA since 1989, when I became composer-in-residence with the Milwaukee Symphony. Looking back, it is amazing to observe the changes that we have gone through. Not only has the cultural landscape changed, but also, we now look at society through a different lens. We have a new generation that is trying to forge a more just and equitable country. There is more acceptance and inclusion both of women and minority composers, and there are corrective measures that were much needed. I don’t think that the country will turn back the clock. So, I am optimistic about the future.
My cultural heritage is an integral part of my work, and the sounds I heard growing up in Puerto Rico always resonate in my music. I am interested in looking inwards, but at the same time creating something personal and unique is of paramount importance. The musical elements from my heritage are refracted and transformed in my work.
S: Can you tell us about your composing process?
Sierra: I generally start with very simple and concrete ideas, out of which complex structures and sounds evolve. I believe that the origin — the starting point of any art work — needs to be clear. The question of structure and form are also very important; in fact, the larger structure of the work emerges out of the basic material.
S: Of your many popular works, do you have one piece that you are most proud of?
Sierra: I am always very self-critical, and hope that my next work will be the one that I can say, “Ah, this is the one!”
S: As a composer, you have the opportunity to hear many of your works performed by incredible ensembles. Do you have a favorite moment from one of these experiences?
Sierra: For me, there is always the magic of hearing the first rehearsal of an orchestral piece. Back in January of this year, I had the opportunity to work with conductor by Domingo Hindoyan, trumpet soloist Pacho Flores and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic — it was very special. It was a terrific performance!
S: In 2010, you were elected into the membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. What did it mean to you to be honored in this way?
Sierra: These distinctions are always wonderful to receive, but in the end, the true recognition for any artist will come through her or his work.
S: How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
Sierra: Composers are mainly staying at home composing, thus my routine hasn’t changed that much. But, the unfolding pandemic and the ensuing human tragedy is extremely painful to us all.
S: Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?
Sierra: I’m always in communication with my collaborators about current projects.
S: What technology do you use to continue composing in a virtual world?
Sierra: Nowadays, the computer is the basic tool. So, instead of person-to-person meetings, we’re telecommunicating all the time.
S: What would you say to other artists/musicians who are craving ensemble work and want to continue performing as part of their mental health during this pandemic?
Sierra: My main concern is that we all need to avoid contagion. This will pass, and hopefully soon.