Sierra: Do Something

“…Do something beautiful. Do something gorgeous. Do something that comes from your heart…” — Roberto Sierra

Award-winning composer Roberto Sierra sat down with new music advocate Frank Oteri for a featured profile in NewMusicBox  — the trailblazing online magazine for con-temporary American music. Oteri (who also serves as  NewMusicBox co-editor) chatted with the composer about his long career including Sierra’s insight into: his childhood musical influences in Puerto Rico; his studies in Europe; Sierra’s Milwaukee Symphony residency; his work as an educator, composing for different genres, and — in an era of heightened awareness of local vs. global influences — crafting contemporary music that translates to performers and listeners in a universal way.

Oteri notes, “Roberto Sierra frequently likes to tell the story of how, when he was growing up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, he would hear Pablo Casals playing his cello on television while salsa recordings of the Fania All-Stars [a New York City-based salsa ensemble] blared outside on the street. Most of Sierra’s music…has forged a synthesis of these two musical realms.” Sierra adds, “For me, these two worlds and these two musics co-existed in a natural, organic manner. There was nothing artificial about it. They inhabited the same sound space, so to say, as I was growing up. So inevitably, I think that has to show in my musical expression as well….it was always important to have that element that represents who I am and where I come from in a very specific manner, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and also part of a larger American culture…In a way, it’s like a circle that has a circle around it that has a circle around it, but at the center is what I call the internal locus….” Below are some highlights, but to read the full interview, visit NewMusicBox here.

On studying with Ligeti in Hamburg, “I think one of the great things about Ligeti is that he never forgot humanity in his music. Ligeti was a great communicator. There is always a fantastic sense of drama in his music. And, of course, he was a great master technically.”

On writing for orchestra: “I like the orchestra as a sound. I call it a European instrument; of course, it’s not. It’s many instruments, but it’s an instrument of sorts. And I enjoy that sound.”

On composing music with an individual voice: “Because I lived [through] part of that period that is now historical—in the ‘70s, specifically, and ‘80s—I always thought and I always commented to other colleagues: ‘You think Boulez is looking over your shoulder, and you’re waiting for his approval or disapproval? In fact, these people do not care what you write. If you’re writing something so that the powers that be will approve of you, composers do not; composers are self-centered! They’re only thinking about their own stuff. So write your own stuff…write what you want.’”

On writing new, original music based on traditional forms: “I would say that, at the end, do something beautiful. Do something gorgeous. Do something that comes from your heart…”