Tag: Puerto Rican composer

Roberto Sierra: Globalizing Local Experiences

A man in a tweed jacket with glasses in Manhattan

Composer 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 blared outside on the street. Most of Sierra’s music—which spans numerous works for soloists, chamber ensembles, and orchestra as well as his massive Missa Latina—has forged a synthesis of these two musical realms. But the question of what kinds of music are local or global is more complex than it might initially seem.

Conceptually, one might argue, Western classical music is tailor-made for global promulgation since a score written in country A in year X could theoretically be rendered equally well by musicians in either country B in year Y or country C in year Z.  But, of course, thanks to the advent of recording technology well over a century ago, those folks in A, B, and C can now easily listen to each other.  As a result, any locally made music has the possibility of reaching a global audience.  In fact, the salsa Roberto Sierra was hearing in Vega Baja was actually recorded in New York City, whereas Pablo Casals moved to Puerto Rico when Sierra was a young child and lived there for the rest of his life.

  • For me, it was always important to have that element that represents who I am and where I come from in a very specific manner...

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • I think nationalism is a bad thing when you "otherize" groups of people and claim that what you do or who you are is better than the others.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • We are the outsiders and the other music is the great one.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • I don’t see why we have to follow any dogma.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • As long as we’re breathing and talking to each other, we are influencing each other.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • Do something that comes from your heart; that may be the original part.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • Percussion is entrenched within my own cultural sphere.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • There are so many younger players that know salsa, have heard salsa, played salsa, love salsa, dance salsa.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • It’s called a commonwealth, which is a very vague term.  Is it common?  Is it wealthy?  I don’t know.

    Roberto Sierra, composer
  • I don’t even have Ligeti looking at me.

    Roberto Sierra, composer

However, as Sierra pointed out when we met up with him in a hotel room before a performance of his music in New York City later that evening, “the heyday of classical music is Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and I think they were still very much localized.”  But Sierra went on to explain how the elevation of certain repertoire has made it extremely difficult for the vast majority of composers.

It’s very difficult for any composer, even German composers nowadays, because you have to live with that notion of something that was great and something that is not able to be great anymore.  And for the others living in America, or in Latin America, wherever we are, we’re thinking, “Oh my God, we are outside of this canon of great masterpieces of humanity.”

But Sierra—who initially left Puerto Rico to study with György Ligeti in Hamburg in the late 1970s, went on to serve as the composer-in-residence of the Milwaukee Symphony in the 1980s, and has been a member of the composition faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, since 1992—doesn’t bother himself with following a lineage or adhering to a zeitgeist. His piano concerto Variations on a Souvenir sounds like it could have been written in the 19th century while his Second Piano Trio uses a tone row as well as the strict clave rhythm but doesn’t really sound either dodecaphonic or Afro-Cuban.

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.  …  I don’t even have Ligeti looking at me.


Roberto Sierra in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Park Central Hotel in New York, NY
November 13, 2018—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan