5 Questions to Ahmed Alabaca (composer)

I first heard music by Ahmed Alabaca at the premiere of their Ode to Liberty, a 10-minute tone poem commissioned and first performed by the Florida Orchestra on May 21, 2022. The previous year, the orchestra had also programmed Across the Calm Waters of Heaven, Alabaca’s musical response to the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, where they were raised.

For Ode, the plan was to compose a piece thematically related to the two Russian staples on the program, by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Alabaca found their way into that familiar repertoire through Alexander Pushkin’s subversive poem Ode to Liberty. Soon before the premiere in St. Petersburg, Fla., they made revisions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for pointed relevance.

Arranged in five continuous movements linked to specific stanzas, Alabaca’s Ode to Liberty begins with a fanfare over snare drum and cymbal splashes; solo woodwinds later echo the fanfare, making for a cohesive whole. “But Woe Betide the Commonwealth,” the pondering third movement with a solo bass clarinet, is the work’s heartfelt centerpiece. A militaristic march erupts later, until a sweeping climactic outburst brings the tone poem to a close in cinematic fashion.

Ahmed Alabaca and Florida Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis at the premiere of “Ode to Liberty” — Photo by JM Lennon

American Composers Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra included Ode to Liberty in the May 2023 EarShot Readings — a program that fosters relationships between composers and orchestras. The sessions ended with a concert at Atlanta Symphony Hall on May 10. I recently contacted Alabaca about their experience at EarShot, the history of Ode, the influence of film scoring on their music, and their vision for orchestral programming in the U.S.

Tell me about the history of Ode to Liberty. How has it changed since the Florida Orchestra commission, to the revisions after the Ukrainian conflict right before the premiere, to the version just performed in Atlanta?

When The Florida Orchestra commissioned me, I noticed that the concert had a piece by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev each, therefore I wanted to write a piece that would fit within that programming. But I always try to connect my music to my culture in some sort of way. In recent years I’ve used poetry, short stories, by or about Black peoples. I’ve even written my own narratives to help shape new pieces. With that, I googled “Black Russian Poets” and Alexander Pushkin came up. His great grandfather was Abram Petrovich Hannibal, a Russian general-in-chief who was from Africa. Pushkin also wrote Eugene Onegin, so there’s the connection to Tchaikovsky. After reading Pushkin’s Ode to Liberty, I knew I’d found the inspiration for my commission. I broke the piece up into five sections all titled with lines from Pushkin’s poem.

  1. I Sing of Freedoms Victorious Fire
  2. Thou Inspired Hymn Audacious
  3. But Woe Betide the Commonwealth
  4. The Thoughtful Singers Gaze
  5. The People Joyous, their Freedom Vernal

I really wanted to capture these five points because I believe they really speak to the fragility of “Liberty,” while at the same time empowering the People to fight back. As I was finishing the piece, Putin invaded the Ukraine, therefore I found it appropriate and necessary to include the Ukrainian national anthem as it is represented in the entire fourth section — I took some liberties and made it a bit more symphonic, but I think it really reflects the power and perseverance of a nation that didn’t ask for this unnecessary war.

I also made a change to the third section while in rehearsal with the Florida Orchestra; the percussionist Tihda Vongkoth suggested that the bass drum should be offstage to really have that “far away sound” that I wanted. The bass drum in this section reflects bombs being dropped off in the distance. This section is all about when we’re in desperate times we surround ourselves with family and community, scared, and so we pray, as a war is waged outside our homes.

The piece is forever changing! I’m still working out some of the balance issues — after the Atlanta reading, I feel as though I’m closer to getting it to a point where the balance is just right.

Now that you’ve known the piece for a while, how would you describe the performances and feedback at EarShot? What did you learn the most from your mentors and fellow composers?

Valerie Coleman said I have a superpower! She was commenting on a section of my piece where she really liked how I orchestrated it and whispered to me “I don’t think you know that that’s your superpower.” It took everything in me not to burst into tears! Most of what I learned from the mentor composers was how to expand my writing and push my boundaries a bit more.

The performance was brilliant! It was refreshing to have an orchestra take time with the piece; that doesn’t happen often. Jerry Hou — the conductor — was great, patient, detailed, and extremely supportive. I really found the round robin valuable, and having the musicians fill out comment cards about their parts — that was the chef’s kiss, very helpful in making parts clearer and more accurate.

Ahmed Alabaca and Florida Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis at the premiere of “Ode to Liberty” — Photo by JM Lennon

Pushkin’s Ode to Liberty resulted in his banishment by Tsar Alexander. When composing your Ode to Liberty, did you draw any connections between the political oppression in early 19th-century Russia and our contemporary society?

Absolutely! Pushkin was trying to remind the Tsar of his place and how he got there, while at the same time educate and empower the People. We’re seeing that today with the banning of books, drag shows, and truer history lessons. The list goes on… it all boils down to creating divides and uneducated people. My piece, I hope, reminds us that we’re smarter, braver than that. That we won’t be taken as fools and that we can rise above a government trying to keep us down. I highly recommend reading the full poem!

When I heard the piece in Florida, I thought that your orchestration was quite cinematic. Then I learned that besides earning a music degree from Hunter College, you attended classes in film scoring at Juilliard and UCLA. How conscious are you of film scoring conventions when you compose concert music?

I love film music! The theme from Jurassic Park is one of the reasons why I’m a composer. My main focus is to connect with audiences, and audiences love film music! I feel it’s the best way for me to communicate with them and at the same time write in a style that I really enjoy. Finding the balance between concert writing and scoring has been fun, interesting, and extremely challenging. Musicians also seem to really enjoy playing my music; I’d like to attribute that to how I balance the two styles.

One challenge has been, Is my music “contemporary” enough? When I was in my undergrad composition lessons, my professor would say things like “Brahms already wrote it.” At the time I didn’t quite understand what he meant by that, I just knew I wasn’t going to listen to him. But over the years I’ve come to realize that he wanted to push my tonal boundaries, and from that I’ve developed this little insecurity around my writing. Didn’t help that every grad school I applied to wouldn’t accept me, and I was never chosen for readings or calls for scores. I’d listen to the music of composers who have won competitions and readings, and it just verified that little feeling of insecurity. But I still didn’t change my style; I developed in other ways and adopted new methods of starting a piece.

The EarShot collaboration with ACO was part of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s aim to challenge the Western composer stereotype, which might connect with what you call “a new renaissance” for underrepresented composers. What is your vision for inclusive and progressive programming among our country’s orchestras?

It absolutely does. My idea of “a new renaissance” has changed over the years from wanting to record and archive new works by Black and Brown composers — and cataloguing them in a specific place like a library either at an HBCU or a library in a predominantly Black city — to engaging with and encouraging Black and Brown composers/creatives to take up space and be their authentic self, so that there is a surge and an abundance of art, music, dance, film, and expression being created and pushed into the world. In doing so, we can define a generation of creatives, a new renaissance.

Ahmed Alabaca rehearsing “Across the Calm Waters of Heaven” with the string students at UIC — Photo courtesy of the artist

As for inclusive programming, I really believe major American orchestras can accomplish this by only programming music by American composers (composers from North America). It could be viewed as disrespectful, even neglectful to American composers when major American orchestras continue to program and platform composers from Europe.

There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be mostly American composers on every major American orchestra’s program.

North America is a uniquely beautiful and diverse continent, full of brilliant composers. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be mostly American composers on every major American orchestra’s program. I believe this would solve most of the diversity issues when it comes to programming. But even still, if this were to happen, we’d need music directors who truly and genuinely believe in new music, who are dedicated to expanding the field and enthusiastic about going against a culture that has built itself on exclusivity.

This is easier said than done, but I truly believe audiences, especially younger audiences, would love to go to a concert where most, if not all, of the composers programmed were either living or from the local neighborhood or state. I’m the music director of the South Loop Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. We have a very small budget, yet we still find a way to perform mostly music from the 20th and 21st centuries. I engage with the composers in the orchestra, student composers from the University of Illinois Chicago, and composers I’ve been lucky to meet along the way. And let me tell you — the audiences love it when I tell them that these composers are from or study in Chicago. It’s a little extra work but so worth it in the end.

Watch a performance of Ode to Liberty by the Arlington Philharmonic:

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