Roberto Sierra did not set out to be a composer. He received a good liberal arts education in small-town Puerto Rico, and at an early age he began piano lessons, at which he excelled. While pointing out that musical influences on the island were limited, he tells of singing in the chorus for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Casals Festival and briefly meeting cellist Pablo Casals. He loved Piazzolla's music and remembers seeing him perform on the bandoneon in person. "I was going to be a pianist," he says, noting that he was nurtured on the 19th century classical works of Chopin, Liszt, and Mendelssohn. Then, one of his teachers at San Juan's Music Conservatory interested him in harmony. "As I kept going with piano, I wanted to write pieces for myself. Gradually, I came to realize I wanted to be a composer."
My conversation with Roberto Sierra and his wife, Virginia, began just before lunch at their suburban home high on an interfluve above Lake Cayuga and Ithaca, a short drive from Cornell University where Roberto is chair of the music department and teaches composition. Cooking, it turned out, is Roberto's other passion, and he had spent part of the morning before my arrival preparing a salad and a perfectly turned out, scrumptious Spanish tortilla for lunch. The kitchen shelves were lined with well-used cookbooks, and his favorite party dishes, he later wrote me, tend to be stews.
We took up the thread of his career trajectory in a comfortable, tastefully appointed living room, which also houses a grand piano. Roberto related that when he was ready for advanced study, he intentionally chose the Royal College of Music and the University of London in England. For cultural and political reasons he wanted a neutral place. "I didn't want to be part of a minority," he states. He credits his London experiences with enlarging his personal universe; he was able to go to a lot of concerts and make frequent visits to the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was intent on learning the very latest trends in music,-which in the 1970s included Stockhausen, Koenig, and Boulez as well as going to John Cage lectures. After London, he studied electronic music in the Netherlands and, finally, he spent three years with the inventive Austro-Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti in Hamburg.
When asked how one finds one's voice as a composer, Roberto responded that "As a student you mimic," then added, "All composers...