Houston Symphony: When did you first begin composing? What prompted your first compositions?
Jimmy López: I started composing when I was about 12 years old. I remember I was listening to Bach at that time. The music teacher at my school started playing some inventions by Bach, and all these different voices playfully interacting with each other lured me in. I knew around that age that I wanted to do something with music, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. During those years of discovery, I started practicing piano a lot. I would sometimes take a page of a sonata and try to get into the composer’s mind, thinking, “Well, what would I do next if I were the composer?” I found myself constantly modifying the pieces I was practicing, and that’s when I realized that perhaps performance was not my calling. Composing was what I really wanted to do. I always say that composition is a profession that chooses you, in a way.
HS: When did you decide to pursue composing as a career?
JL: So that happened, I would say, when I was about 16 and finishing high school. By then I had already told my parents that I wanted to be a composer. I really felt inside my heart that that was what I wanted to do. The Lima Philharmonic Orchestra was established around that time, and I started attending all the rehearsals, and I was assistant librarian for many years with them. So that experience helped me realize that that was the profession I wanted to pursue.
HS: How would you describe your musical style? How did you find your personal voice as a composer?JL: A composer is in constant evolution. Consider Stravinsky, for example, who varied his musical style even late into his life. Nevertheless, I do feel that I now have an identifiable, individual voice. I would say that through my 20s I was trying to absorb different styles and incorporate what I found interesting. It’s a little bit like cleaning up your room. When you are young, you have a lot of ideas and a lot of things you want to try, but then as you mature, you start realizing that there are some things that you don’t really need, or you start becoming more economical. That’s how you start defining your style.
I would say that my style is cosmopolitan, but definitely rooted in Peru. The incorporation of Peruvian elements into my music actually started somewhat late. It didn’t happen until I moved to Finland, because when I was living in Peru, I was really fixed on European composers. Then when I went to Europe, I found that people were expecting something different from me, because I was coming from, for them, a distant country with a very rich folk music tradition. That prompted me to look back into my own musical heritage and to try to incorporate that. At first, it required a conscious effort, but now it comes to me more naturally and effortlessly. My years of training in Europe also had an important influence, at least from the technical point of view, and the fact that I now live in California has really contributed to my search for the creative freedom that I so appreciate on the West Coast of the US.
HS: The vast majority of your works have descriptive titles. What sources of inspiration do you draw on when composing?
JL: Each piece really has its own source, its own unique world. As a composer, it is good to have a guiding idea that gives you unity, whatever you’re writing about. At the same time, I also feel that a title is a great tool for communicating with the audience. For example, my cello concerto has four different episodes, which are the different stages of the flight of a condor. We have the cello as the condor and the orchestra as nature, in a way, echoing the sound.
But at some point the music has to make sense on its own as well. I think my musical thought is more abstract than the titles would suggest. When I actually dive into the musical material, I am more concerned with the actual construction of the phrases and the musical language itself. It’s hard to explain, but I would say it’s good to find a balance.
HS: What has been your proudest accomplishment as a composer so far? Why?
JL: That’s an easy answer right now, because I wrote an opera called Bel Canto. The sheer size of the project, the amount of pages in the score, the amount of people, the amount of meetings and workshops and all that—it was enormous. It was basically a journey of five years of my life. It was an enormous collective effort with Lyric Opera of Chicago that opened the doors for me to work with people such as Renee Fleming and Sir Andrew Davis. We had a full house, and it was aired on PBS on Great Performances, so I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. And I’m still really proud of it!
HS: In addition to sharing your extraordinary music with us, as the Houston Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence you also plan to work with Houston area students. Could you tell us a little about these plans?
JL: Yes! I am not only coming to Houston to show my works; I also want to listen to what Houston has to offer, in this case in the form of music from young composers. We’re still in the early stages, but I have already met with many people at Rice University and the University of Houston, and they were very enthusiastic about having some of their composition students work on this project. It’s going to end with a chamber music concert, but the concert is just the last part of the whole process. What we want to do is mentor the composers, have a workshop and maybe even work with other kinds of artists. The concert will be underlined by a single theme that is very much rooted in what Houston is today. For me it’s really important to give younger composers the opportunity to cooperate with musicians of the highest level in Houston.
HS: Do you have any ideas for new projects with the Houston Symphony?
JL: I actually do! I wrote a symphony last year for the National Orchestra of Spain, and somehow I got bit by the symphony bug. So I want to write a second one for the Houston Symphony, but this time rooted in something that is very important to Houston—the space program. I think this wonderful gift Houston has given to the world has inspired all of us; I know I have been fascinated by space since I was a child.
Hear music by Jimmy López at the Mexican Institute of Greater Houston’s FREE Lunada concert on Saturday, October 14. Learn more here.