Cuban guitarist Alí Arango is always up to something interesting. Not only is the Barcelona-based guitarist a virtuosic player who has mastered the music of many eras, he is also an outstanding composer whose pieces artfully combine modern inclinations with his deep knowledge of many different styles. This week’s Video Pick features the first two movements of a piece he wrote a couple of years ago, and I find it a really compelling listen, packing much into just under six minutes. It’s a cool video, too (as all of his are)!
Recently, I asked Ali to tell me a little about the piece and himself, and he graciously agreed.
That’s a very interesting piece! I see the word “opfergabe” translated from German to English as “sacrifice.” Is that what your intention was? Why that title? Why German? What inspired you?
I wrote this work just before moving from Barcelona to Berlin, Germany, where I had planned to live indefinitely, but ended up living there only half a year. That’s why I gave it a German title. The title has two senses for me: On the one hand the “sacrifice” for emigrating for the second time [he first moved from his native Cuba to Barcelona]. And on the other “offering” referring to Bach: “The musical offering” (Musikalisches Opfer). Somehow, it was the only thing I could humbly offer to this new world for me, to a country so culturally rich.
The first movement is called “Die Anreise” (“The Journey,” or “The Arrival”). This has as its central cell the “2nd interval” and a meditative character. The second movement is called “Tanz” (“Dance”). It has Afro-Cuban rhythmic elements (particularly of the Yoruba religion and the “batá” drums). Also the sound of parallel harmony predominates as a sound aesthetic. This last movement is an unconscious tribute to Leo Brouwer, I realized later. Being a Cuban, guitarist, composer and having the same Afro-Cuban roots, it is inevitable for me to be a bearer of the Brouwerian footprint. Which I admit with pride! Perhaps, sometimes the best tribute is the one that arises unconsciously, because it arises from the deepest place.
You have played in many guitar competitions around the world, winning several important ones. How did that experience help your development as a guitarist? Were there any negative aspects of it?
In my opinion the competitions have several aspects, positive and negative; it depends on the approach with which you decide to face them. I had the honor of having won some of the most important contests around the world, including Tárrega, Segovia, and the Alhambra. The prizes in those competitions and others allowed me to record some of my CDs, won me several high-end guitars, included concerts and tours and sponsors, attention in the guitar world, plus being able to meet many guitarists who today are my great friends.
But undoubtedly the greatest contribution was the high level of musical demands it forces upon you—you do not compete with the other guitarists as much as with yourself, and you learn what you are able to accomplish in a limited time and under a lot of pressure.
But I also think it can be counterproductive in the training of a musician to try to follow patterns or formulas to win contests. I’ve seen a lot already—how many ways to pretend that you play unbelievably well without actually doing it! For me sincerity when making music is essential.
You have been closely associated with Leo Brouwer through the years, even premiering works by him. How did that relationship come about, and are you still in regular contact with him?
I met Brouwer in person when I was very young. That was at the Havana International Festival in 2000. After that, I was awarded in a competition dedicated exclusively to his music and where he was the jury president. Since then, we have done several projects together as recordings, premieres and concerts. For me, Leo is a great reference as an artist and as a person. I grew up and learned to play guitar with his guitar music, and I also deeply understand the roots of his music. I was born and lived in them.
Although he lives in Havana and I live in Barcelona, we have maintained our friendship over the years. We have met together at his house in Cuba, our house in Barcelona, and at some festivals. The last time I saw him was a few months ago at a festival in Tarragona [Spain, south of Barcelona]. I had the pleasure of being directed by him once again and this time we had time to be together and relax; it was very fun and stimulating. They have invited me to Cuba this year to record his Concierto Elegiaco and another concerto to be determined in a series called Brouwer: Complete Guitar Concertos, conducted by him. I am very excited about it!
You’ve said that Maestro Brouwer has been an influence on you as a composer. Who are some of the other composers who have influenced your own writing?
Clearly, Brouwer has been a great influence, not only as a musician but as a thinker. But the list of people who have influenced my writing could be very long: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Ravel, Debussy, Steve Reich, Pat Metheny, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti,; plus all the richness of Afro-Cuban music. There are also many other extramusical sources that inspire me: photography, literature, cinema, contemporary dance.
Who are a couple of composers—living or dead—we might not know about who we should know about?
Two composers that I like that don’t hear mentioned very often are I like a lot are: Beat Furrer [a Swiss-born Austrian composer, b.1954] and Nikolai Kapustin [Russian composer and pianist, b. 1937].
As a player, who are some of the guitarists who influenced you as you were learning the instrument, or whom you admired?
When I was a child, David Russell dazzled me. But I have to admit that I don’t listen to guitarists that much. Perhaps more performers of other instruments or conductors have influenced me: Alicia de Larrocha [Spanish pianist], Martha Argerich [Argentine pianist], Vladimir Ashkenazy [Russian pianist], Maria João Pires [Portuguedse-Swiss pianist], David Oistrakh [Russian violinist], Maxim Vengerov [Russian-Israeli violinist], Nigel North [English lutenist], Gustav Leonhardt [Dutch keyboardist], Jean Guihen Queyras [French cellist], Hagen Quartet [Austrian Quartet], Valery Gergiev [Russian conductor], Hamilton de Holanda [Brazilian bandolinst], Miles Davis [American trumpeter], Bill Evans [American pianist], and many others.
What projects are you working on these days?
I am immersed in several projects. I am editing a video clip of a song called “Lúa Nana,” which is a lullaby I wrote for my daughter and recorded on my first album for Naxos [Guitar Recital, 2015]. In addition to the concerts I have scheduled, I’m also starting to make arrangements and transcriptions for Volume 2 of the Pyrophorus Guitar Duo [with Josué Fonseca]. Our first album (Vol. 1) were arrangements and original works written by me, but this second volume will be transcriptions and arrangements of keyboard works.
Do you teach?
Yes, and I love doing it! I am currently not teaching in any institution, but frequently I give master classes in festivals around the world, or guitarists come to my house from other cities to do classes. It is a process of reciprocal learning that motivates me to continue evolving, and it helps me enjoy music even more.
What music do you like to listen to outside of classical guitar
In addition to the artists mentioned above, in my day to day I listen to Yellowjackets, John Scofield, Joshua Redman, Jacob Collier, Take 6, Esperanza Spalding, Paco de Lucía, Jaco Pastorius, Mike Stern, Led Zeppelin, Rosa Passos, Chico Pinheiro, and Bobby McFerrin.