Exile is a historical part of the human experience

Ahmed Alom, pianist
photo: Julián De La Chica

Ahmed Alom is a Cuban pianist who lives and works in New York. He began his musical education at the age of five in his native Havana, then graduated from the Manhattan School of Music as a scholarship holder of the “Viola B. Marcus” and “Flavio Varani” foundations, which is intended for pianists under the guidance of Dr. Solomon Mikowsky. As a soloist he performed with many orchestras in Spain, Cuba, Mexico and the United States of America, having in his repertoire works by Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, and he often performed as a jazz and Latin jazz pianist. In June, he released his album, which bears the symbolic name Exilio (Exile), and he describes it as a journey from the past to the present, emphasizing the theme of exile. He won a large number of prizes at prestigious world competitions such as the 21st Piano Competition in Jalapa, the National Chamber Music Competition in Mexico, the “Maria Clara Cullell” International Piano Competition in Costa Rica, then in New York, Havana… He shows his versatility through various projects such as the recital “No Man’s Land” with violinist Rubén Rengel at the Linton Chamber Music Festival, and he also participated in the premiere of the Tentacion concert for eight members in collaboration with the collective “Pepole of Earth” and conductor of the year, according to Musical America magazine, Teddy Ambras, as well as his colleague MacArthur Dafnis Prieto.

You dedicated your album Exilio to six Latin American composers who lived in exile. What encouraged and inspired you to make it happen?

The inspiration to reunite all of these Latin American and Hispanic composers came through a combination of events. One of my dear mentors, Leonardo Gell, introduced me to Julian De La Chica, A Colombian composer living in Brooklyn. My mentor collaborated years ago with him, in a project with music of Bach meeting minimalist composers, including De La Chica‘s music. When I had my first meeting with Julian, he introduced me to the Colombian composer Luis Antonio Calvo. Julian has been wrote a book named God’s Punishment, that talks about many aspects of his life and the town where he lived. Luis Antonio Calvo, unfortunately, was diagnosed with leprosy, and because of this he was sent to Agua de Dios, a small town in Colombia where since the 19th century, was known for being a place where many experiments were conducted with people carrying that medical condition. Because of this, Calvo was unable to get out of that town until the end of his days, in a sort of exile inside his own country.

His music is not very well-known internationally, and I fell in love with his compositions immediately. So, our first idea was to record his 4 Intermezzos. After this talk, we kept discussing Calvo’s exile and I realized my personal connection with my present life and the social norms in which we are living these days. Exile is a phenomenon happening since the beginning of societies. I started to connect that struggle with other composers that share some similarities, and while searching about composers from my home country Cuba, I found the music of Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona, both fantastic composers that for mainly political reasons abandoned the country and wrote music from, inspired by past that they left.

After adding the Spanish composers, the idea about the album came to light when I realize that all of this music from different periods and different backgrounds, was able to connect through the same feelings. And to conclude the idea, my own exile as a 24 year old made me think about the responsibility of recording these pieces and conveying a message to all of the people that leave this sort of attachment in many ways.

You describe the album as a journey from the past to the present, emphasizing the theme of exile, the weight of which, unfortunately, many still carry on their shoulders today. Do you think that the burden of exile was one of the reasons for the composers to create their works?

Yes, although we are talking about composers with different styles and approaches that wrote beautiful music, the majority of the composers wrote with that burden on their shoulders. When I hear and play Calvo’s music, I can feel his sensitivity, humility and nostalgia, which in my opinion has to do with the fact of him being unable to get out and knowing that he was getting worse and worse with his sickness. In the case of Ignacio Cervantes, he was more active politically, since he left for Mexico to raise money to support the independence war that Cuba had against Spain. His dances are an example of the nostalgia and traditions that he left behind, bringing a balance between humor and sadness, among many traits of the Cuban social and cultural traits. Lecuona himself wrote many Afro Cuban dances with melodies and rhythms that came from the African traditions from slaves in Cuba. I believe that historically the lives of composers have an influence under their music not only with these Latin American composers, but also in the case of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, among others.

Ahmed Alom, pianist
photo: Julián De La Chica

Your album is symbolically titled Exile (Exilio). Do you think that in today’s society there is spiritual exile, alienation? What are the biggest challenges for you in today’s world?

Yes, the album is named Exile as an homage but also posing a question. Since the beginning of humanity, exile has been part of the human experience, historically. Unfortunately, the ambition of human beings have resulted in a lot of pain, suffering and years of conflict. Every culture at some point had a conflict where exile was present, and
each one is able to think and live it in different ways. My goal as a pianist who is living a present with a lot of conflicts nowadays, is to provide my own concept in a way where it can be understood universally but also, sharing my point of view as a Cuban born musician now living in New York which is a great metropolis for all kinds of cultures. My country has a very deep trauma and history of exile, in fact, Cuba has one of the oldest populations in the world. One of the reasons for making this album is also that in Cuba, this is a recurring topic. I am used like many people like my mother is used to saying goodbye to everyone on a very deep level. Not many of my friends that I went to school with are living in Cuba. So the challenge for me, coming from this culture, is to find the bright parts and aspects in this situation. I know it could have been extremely difficult to continue my career in Cuba, but my life in New York is not only because of my “exile” but also because it is the capital of art and music and everything I enjoy in life. I like to find an objective point, where I can address the problems in my country and all of these emotions, but also take this with a degree of resilience to be able to keep going. To resume, my goal is to be as universal as possible.

You started your musical education at the age of five, in your native city, Havana, then you graduated from the Manhattan School of Music as a scholarship holder of the “Viola B. Marcus Foundation” and the “Flavio Varani” Foundation for Pianists under the guidance of Dr. Solomon Mikowski. How would you describe your first introduction to music and the process of becoming a musician?

The way I got into music I believe was at first because of my mother. We used to have a piano in our apartment that used to belong to my aunt and I would play and try to figure out a lot of the sounds and patterns on the keyboard. My mom used to have a lot of albums including classical music and jazz, and she will mention that I will listen to these albums the whole day and I will memorize the rhythms. That’s when she knew I had a talent for music so she brought me to the class of Hortensia Upmann, who was my first professor in aural training and music understanding. I’m lucky to say that my approach to music was through reading and singing, not by playing an instrument. In fact, I think it was almost like when you learn a different language. When I finished that class I was accepted into music school when I was 8 as a Percussion Major. From there I had to take elementary piano and that’s when I met Beatrice Olivera, who was the first piano teacher that I had who showed me all the possibilities of the instrument. From there I got in love with the instrument and she recommended me to the piano faculty in order to take auditions to change my major. I didn’t want to quit percussion, so after my audition they made an exception and I was able to do a double major in Piano and Percussion until I was around 15 years old. From there on, I had wonderful teachers like Leonardo Gell and Mercedes Estevez, and many others in different fields in music, including history, harmony and theory. I spent two years in Mexico, living with my father and studying with Svetlana Logounova and Ninowska Fernandez. I met Dr. Mikowsky sing Havana in one of his festivals and I played for him at first when I was around 13 years old. He was always a very important influence to me and I was extremely lucky to have been accepted into his studio at the Manhattan school of music in 2017. We still remain in touch and he is always an inspiration, still teaching at his 85 years old.

As a soloist, you performed with many orchestras in Spain, Cuba, Mexico and the United States of America, having in your repertoire works by Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin. You have often performed as a jazz and Latin jazz pianist. What genre do you like to perform the most? And how do you perceive classical and jazz music, do you find any common thread between those two genres?

This is a question that I get asked a lot. Regarding Classical music and jazz, I think I was lucky, because in my culture, popular music and improvisation are extremely common. I think that helped in my process, because I was able to express a certain freedom, which is difficult to achieve when you are a classical musician. I will listen to afro cuban music, salsa, rumba and many other styles and at school there was a general interest from the students to learn about jazz and other forms of improvisation. We had a big band at school where we would play a lot of jazz standards. I remember I got the Jazz Piano book by Mark Levine, and my practice sessions were both classical and jazz. Eventually, I started to find a tremendous connection between them. When I play Bach, I’ll also hear Bud Powell. I started applying some of these expressive phrasings and I tried to maintain a certain freedom in my interpretation. Certainly the classical piano foundation and technique has helped me to do what I want while I improvise. But the greatest thing for me was to apply my harmonic concepts in classical music. That’s when I realize and I stand my ground with the fact that the music is ONE, and classical music is not any different from jazz or other styles. We have the same sounds and the same ability to express our feelings. We just use them in a different way. I think it’s extremely important for any aspiring musician to approach the music as a whole not only with the instrument. I love to play a Beethoven sonata and I would like to imagine different chords or posibilítese inside the work. That helps me understand why he chose one chord more than another one, and that it helps me to find extremely special moments in the music. I think harmonic and melody understanding allow us to improvise, and by improvising we are becoming composers. If we approach the music as composers we will be able to find her own interpretation and then we will be able to balance it with what we think about the composer’s views of the piece, traditions versus modernity.

Ahmed Alom, pianist
photo: Julián De La Chica

In addition to classical music, you often play jazz. How difficult or easy is it to prepare yourself for a classical piece that requires precision and discipline and a jazz piece that, in contrast, requires freedom and no boundaries?

I think music is extremely difficult in general, but I don’t like to think that in a classical piece we need to work with a different discipline than a jazz piece. In fact, I think this is where the misunderstanding probably comes from. If we only prepare a classical piece based on precision and discipline, what is it that we are doing that needs discipline? In my opinion, and in my experience, approaching a classical piece has to be done in two ways: by learning the technical aspects , playing the notes as you mentioned, but then we must work on creativity. A lot of pianists often practice until all the dynamics and notes are in place, but we hardly stop at a melodic passage or an idea that is not feeling right even when the notes are in place. We need to allow the two kinds of practice: the technical practice in the creative practice. When I play jazz or Cuban music, yes indeed there is more freedom but that also takes a lot of discipline. If we are playing bebop we need to approach it with the same rules that if we were playing a piece from the classical period. Every style has their own rules and we need to know them in order to bend them. I think this is one of the steps that we need to take in order to start thinking about the music as a whole.

You have won a large number of awards at prestigious world competitions such as the XXI Xalapa Piano Competition, the National Chamber Music Competition in Mexico, the “Maria Clara Cullel” International Piano Competition in Costa Rica, then in New York, Havana… Do you think that competitions are important for the development of a pianist’s career? How much did all those awards help you and enable you to get better on the music scene?

I did a lot of competitions when I was younger and I think they are extremely important for the development of young musicians, but I also think that we have to be careful about them. A competition is always good because it gives us a platform to play and to show our development, and also to train endurance and fear of stage. Also it gives a lot of room for feedback from juries and we can learn a lot about other contestants. I think competitions are not good when the goal is only to win, no matter what. A lot of times students will practice the same pieces every year in order to go through the same competitions with the same works over and over. The result will be that in the future, the student won’t have any tools to actually learn music because the only interest is on playing the same pieces. One shall enter a competition always with a mindset of being able to play as beautifully as possible, and to play at platforms where you can take feedback and move on with your development. Coming back to one of your questions about playing classical music, we should give students music with a degree of complexity in which they have challenges but in which they can work on creativity and interpretation. If they only play complex music they will spend their whole life struggling to play a piece and even if they are playing the right way they didn’t go through the right process.

You show your versatility through various projects such as the recital “No Man’s Land” with violinist Ruben Rangel at the Linton Chamber Music Festival, also, you were part of the premiere of the concert “Tentacion” for eight members in collaboration with the collective “People of Earth” and the conductor Teddy Abrams and colleague Dafnis Prieto. What is your experience in cooperation with them and the realization of all those projects?

I am extremely lucky to have worked with such fantastic musicians. When I did the Dafnis Prieto Concerto with People of Earth and Teddy Abrams, I got to work and learn from brilliant human beings. Teddy is one of the musicians I admire the most and I consider him like my mentor. Abrams has a capacity not only to perform in a brilliant way, he’s also an ambassador of culture in his city, where he always has a goal to reach the people and social issues with his music and what he does. He is aware about the responsibility that we have as musicians to be at the service of the times that we live in and to make music not only for our personal enjoyment. With my friends from People of Earth, I am able to enjoy and to learn from 12 people that come from very different places but somehow we make music together. It is an exercise that teaches us to be open minded and to always try to listen to other opinions that might be different from yours. In the case of Ruben Rengel, he’s one of the brightest musicians I have ever met and we are contemporaries. Not only do we share the same language and some traits of our culture, we played a thematic repertoire about conflict, with works by Poulenc and Stravinsky. He’s also an advocate for the aspect of music involving people and social issues, being a member of Ensemble Connect and being very active with public schools, festivals, among other things.

You are quite dedicated to contemporary creativity, but at the same time you cherish traditional values. How do you see today’s flow, the development of art in the world? Do you think that today’s audience has some new interests and expectations at classical and jazz music concerts?

As I said before, to know the rules in order to bend them, I think we also need to know ourhistory and traditions in order to change them or to transform them. Art is extremely subjective and the society of today it’s going faster than ever. But this is the opportunity to approach a lot of audiences because right now, there is a growing interest in other types of music and different things, and we live in a world where it is easier to communicate through social media. I think that socially speaking, people are encouraged to learn more about the different cultures that we are living with, at least in the United States. That makes a difference in music, because that means that we have newer elements for a transformation. The classical concerts are not the same of the past, neither are what we play in concerts. I think it’s very important to create good music and always to try making an impact with what we’re trying to say musically. We are ambassadors of our times and I think we have to be extremely informed of everything else that is happening around us, because this will help us to create and to find inspiration, like the composers from Exilio had at their time.

What kind of literature do you like to read? Is there an interesting hobby or something that pleases you during your vacation or maybe even when preparing for a concert?

I really like to read Dostoyevsky, because he goes into a deep place in the mind and the subconscious that I find intriguing. I imagine him with composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Greek and Roman philosophy, like Marcus Aurelius letters, and Cuban poetry by Jose Marti are among the things I enjoy the most. I am an avid chess enthusiast, and I like to play blitz games (3min games) online prior to concerts. I think it helps my brain to wake up and to feel focused and inspired in the concerts. I love to play soccer every time I can, and I love to cook and to prepare coffee in many ways. I love walking around New York, and now I’m getting interested in conducting.