InspirationWhat is inspiration? What is that spark that ignites our thoughts and makes it possible for us, creative artists, to produce a work of art where there was nothing before? A walk in the woods, a book, a movie, or even a look at the night sky can all serve as sources of inspiration and elicit the most original thoughts within our minds; but the concept of inspiration itself is far more elusive. Where does it originate and is it absolutely essential for the creation of new art?

Inspiration is, for me, a fully physical, mental, and spiritual experience. It may manifest itself in ways similar to the surge of energy that one feels while deep in meditation, when –for a brief moment- reality reveals itself as an endless stream of interconnected events. It is transcendental, existing in a realm beyond time and space, and it is unique and unrepeatable. It may come in a dream, while daydreaming, or while deeply concentrated in one’s work; and it can happen spontaneously, after hours of unconscious laboring by our mind, which never ceases to work.

It would be naïve, though, to think that it is eagerly trying to reach us. It does not gratuitously knock on our doors and it does not visit the undeserving. One has to earn its presence by tirelessly showing up to work every day and one can’t wait for it to show up before starting a new project. It may come at the beginning or at the middle, and chances are we might arrive to the double bar without having being graced with its presence at all. I have written works that were the result of long hours of hard work where I poured all my knowledge and technique without ever feeling inspired. Such is the life of a professional composer. It doesn’t mean I like those works any less and I might love them even more precisely because their birth was so incredibly laborious. But there are other works during which I felt that unmistakable spark, and such was the elation I experienced that I couldn’t help but getting off my seat and jumping in joy or bursting into tears. These very personal ‘eureka’ moments, which I am now candidly sharing, might not be frequent but they are one of the reasons why I keep doing why I do. They make me feel real, in the full sense of the word, and they make me feel connected to everything else. These moments come accompanied with a musical “embryo”; it may be a short melody, motif, theme, rhythmic pattern, or interval sequence, but they feel inexplicably complete in the sense that they come filled with an enormous potential waiting to be unraveled. This moment lasts for a few seconds, but it can give enough material for a whole composition. It is then the job of the composer to bring about this idea to its full potential and this is when years of learning and discipline kick in.

Beethoven :: Symphony No. 5, 1st mov. Manuscript, pg. 77. Source: Staatsbibliothek, Berlin.

Take for example the classic Theme and Variations form. The greatest composers have always used this particular form as a great muscle-flexing exercise. Think of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. They start with a simple theme that serves as “inspiration”, but what really makes those works great is not the themes themselves, but what Bach and Beethoven did with them. In the same manner, one may experience the most incredible moment of inspiration accompanied with the most brilliant of melodies or motifs, but if the composer is not equipped with a formidable arsenal of tools to chisel and shape it, that melody won’t reach a fraction of its true potential. Perhaps the most celebrated motif of all time is that of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. With only four notes he created a full symphony, and I am pretty confident that he could see it all unfolding at once, although judging from Beethoven’s sketches, we know that writing that symphony was not an easy task whatsoever.

It is often the case that young composers delight in showing their prowess by displaying an enormous palette of materials within a single piece (take for example Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet, written when the composer was 16 years old) but, in general, when they grow older, they become more economic and concise. This is a sign of confidence and maturity, and it shows that they have arrived to a point where they have understood and internalized the phrase “less is more” and have learned to effectively focus their efforts on a few ideas until they are perfectly polished. Works created under this mindset feel round, solid, and self-contained, and they are usually produced in the more mature years. When composers reach this stage, they don’t rely anymore so much on the musical ideas themselves (at that point even the most simple of melodies can serve as inspiration), what really counts now is how their minds can mold and transform practically any material that comes their way. They become alchemists, making gold out of anything they touch. It may seem as if all of this might diminish the importance of inspiration, but the truth is when this level of craft and the highest inspiration are combined, the results can be the equivalent of a spiritual revelation. These are the works that have borne the test of time and remained in history for decades and centuries.

Tracing the origin of inspiration itself is frankly not that relevant in the end. Every human being has experienced it at some point in his or her life, perhaps while witnessing the birth of a child, the death of a relative, or in a deep moment of prayer or meditation. What artists, and specifically composers, do differently is being able to share it with others. Experiences like the ones I just mentioned elicit the strongest emotions in us, and as a composer I strive to communicate and rouse these feelings in other human beings as well. For that to happen not only must the music material be good, but also the composer must be able to harness and subject it to a process of transmutation, and that’s when all those years of training, knowledge and hard work come to play. We can’t count on inspiration to show up every time we write a new piece, but we must always be ready when it does. We must strive to be the best possible vessels and we can only achieve this with discipline and hard work by, for example, keeping the habit of writing every day. This, in turn, will help us achieve fluency in our writing. Most importantly, we must remember that we are not simply receptacles but that our ultimate aim must be to become alchemists of sound. Whatever we do and however we do it, inspiration must never be taken for granted. It will come to us when it must; all we can do in the meantime is keep writing with deep love and devotion for our art.

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The Final Stretch

Bel Canto_Stage_8_PV Score

Complete piano/vocal score

All things must come to an end, but sometimes the end can signify new beginnings. Just a few days ago I delivered the final piano/vocal score of “Bel Canto”: over 400 pages of some of the most inspired music I’ve ever written. There it was, the culmination of two and a half years of hard work; the product of thousands of hours of intense mental concentration and emotional investment; my largest and most ambitious work to date. Writing “Bel Canto” has not been, however, a lone endeavor. Quite the contrary; much like the gears of a Swiss watch, it is the result of finely-tuned cooperation between myself and librettist Nilo Cruz, director Kevin Newbury, creative consultant Renée Fleming, conductor Sir Andrew Davis, soprano Danielle de Niese, general director Anthony Freud, Filarmonika Publishing House, and the wonderful staff of Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Bel Canto” has now ceased to be a project and is now starting to make its transition into becoming a reality.

Much has happened between November 18, 2010 (the day I got an auspicious call from conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya asking me to upload my vocal music to YouTube so Renée Fleming could listen to it) and now. Among the highlights: I completed my PhD at UC Berkeley; had my music played at Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, and Gewandhaus Leipzig; was granted an EB1 visa; lost two dear friends (Martín Portugal and Andrew Patner); completed six new compositions; had an new orchestral album recorded for Harmonia Mundi; and recently, in May, got married to my loving husband, Heleno, in the wedding of our dreams. I am five years older –and I’d like to think wiser- than I was back then, and I am ready for future challenges. But let’s take one step at a time: much of the second half of this year will be devoted to making “Bel Canto” the best possible show, so it can live up to the mounting expectation that has been surrounding it.

The world premiere announcement took place over three years ago, on February 28, 2012, but I still remember distinctly one of the questions, posed by the late Andrew Patner. As the conference was drawing to a close, he asked: “Jimmy, I’ve been looking at you throughout this announcement and you don’t seem the least intimidated by the scale and prominence of this project. How do you feel about all this?” I replied: “Far from being intimidated I am happy and relieved that I will finally have the opportunity to pour all the ideas I’ve been accumulating over the years”. And that’s exactly what happened; what a luxury it has been having the opportunity to write a three hour-long opera for full orchestra, two choruses and 16 soloists! It has given me the chance to explore new musical and emotional territories, and it has forced me to find creative solutions to seemingly impassable problems.

Language, for example, was a major issue that Nilo and I discussed at length. We have several different languages in the opera (English, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, French, German, Quechua, Latin, and Italian) mainly because we made a decision early on to have each character speak on his/her own language whenever possible. One of our characters, Gen, the interpreter, could have easily become a nuisance had we not found ways to make him interesting. Since all opera houses are equipped with supertitles nowadays, having him repeat the same text in a different language could have turned out to be extremely boring and redundant. Fortunately in opera many people can be made to sing simultaneously without creating chaos, and since each language has a particular cadence, I decided to exploit both aspects musically so that Gen’s translations never come across as superfluous. Another thorny issue was setting languages I don’t speak to music. I am fluent in English and Spanish, can speak a little bit of French, and recognize the structure of Latin and Italian because of their proximity to Spanish. The other languages I speak, Finnish and Portuguese, are not featured in the opera, so I had to seek help for all the other languages. I was lucky enough to count with the talent of three excellent translators: Michiko Kitayama Skinner (Japanese), Derek Matson (French, Russian, and German), and Odi Gonzáles Jiménez (Quechua). I asked each of them to supply me with four things: a standard written translation, an additional translation where each word was separated into syllables highlighting which syllable carried the stress, a recording of the text at conversational pace, and finally, a recording of each phrase at a very slow pace. Only after studying and analyzing these materials was I able to set the text to music. In addition to this, I would contact them whenever I didn’t understand the structure or thought process, the latter being especially true for Quechua, which comes along with a different perception of the world. The most challenging, however, was definitely Japanese, not only because I understand nothing of it, but also because every idea requires almost twice the amount of syllables as in English, and this got me into trouble quite a few times. One duet between Roxane and Hosokawa is particularly telling in this regard. In the first scene of Act II Nilo has them exchange a few brief verses, each one averaging five words, much in the manner of haikus. The problem, however, was that the symmetry was completely broken when I got the Japanese translations, because while Roxane keeps uttering short English verses, Hosokawa, on the other hand, ends up having much longer verses in Japanese. Let’s take a look at their duet as originally conceived:

Outside, the flight of a bird.

Outside, a boy shouts…

…a woman runs…

…a butterfly dies unseen…

There’s a certain musical cadence to this exchange that begs for a kind of contrapuntal question-answer treatment. But notice how the delicate balance that Nilo managed to create is broken when Hosokawa’s phrases are translated to Japanese:

Outside, the flight of a bird.

Sotono sekai de-wa, otokonoko ga sawaideiru.

…a woman runs…

Chyou ga, hitoshirezu, shindeyuku.

After many hours of head banging and almost giving up, I came up with the idea of having Hosokawa sing each word as if reciting it, bringing a drone-like quality to it (especially because he doubles the bass line every second measure) while Roxane simply floats above him in an ever-ascending melodic line. Finding this solution encouraged me to tackle other more complicated sections. As I mentioned in an earlier article, I don’t work chronologically, so even though this duet belongs to the second act, I wrote it in August of 2013, way before I wrote the second and third scenes of Act I. I won’t say that the task of setting many languages became easier after this, but I would definitely say that I became more confident and resourceful when facing similar challenges.

If I ever write another opera, and I certainly hope to do so, I will be much better equipped to face the challenge. For starters, now I know that I can’t possibly produce a piano/vocal score before the orchestral score because I very much prefer to write either a short score or a full score right from the start. Many of my ideas are very strongly associated with a particular timbre right from the start, so it’s really hard for me to conceive a fully abstract piece of music and decide its instrumentation later. Could you imagine the beginning of Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après midi d’un Faune” played by any other instrument but the flute? Neither could I. Another thing I’ve learned is that when working with a creative team, it is much more helpful to hear their ideas and suggestions before writing the music rather than getting their feedback after the music has been written. Both are good of course, but their real chance to help shape and influence the composer comes before he/she sits down to write; that way everyone agrees with the inner conception and structure, which are things that are very difficult to change after the fact. Once the music is written one can alter many things, but the architecture of the piece is sounder when it doesn’t have to undergo major structural changes later in the process. I have also learned how to make the most out of a workshop. When we had our workshop back in the summer of 2014, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but to my surprise, almost everything turned out to sound exactly as I had imagined. The good thing, of course, is that by the time we reached the workshop, we had had several work sessions with the creative team, so I had been able to polish many of the details before we played through the score. In this sense the workshop helped everyone get a better idea of the piece, especially our stage director, Kevin and our set designer, David Korins. I, however, didn’t gain as much from it as I would have wanted to. For example, were I to have another workshop, I would ideally request to have the exact voice types. The effect is quite different when a mezzo sings the part of a countertenor or a baritone sings the part of a bass. Also, rather than just singing through the score, I would encourage the singers to interact a little as if they were actually on stage, so that I could gain a better feeling of the dramatic tension of each section. Finally, I would have the workshop at a very early stage of the process, let’s say six months into the writing, rather than a year and a half later, when most of the score has already been written down. Live and learn, they say, and I have certainly learned much from this experience. Thanks be to Lyric Opera of Chicago for sparing no effort or expense when it comes to ensuring the success of this show.

"Bel Canto" tech rehearsals

“Bel Canto” tech rehearsals

I am now in Chicago for tech rehearsals and a few media interviews. Now that the piano/vocal score has been delivered, the chorus and cast members can begin studying their parts; (the full orchestral score will be ready by August 1st). It is now time to hand the reins to Kevin and Sir Andrew, so they can translate my score to the stage. Renée Fleming is the dedicatee of the score and I am convinced that no one deserves it more than her; her vision and determination have been instrumental in the creation of this piece and her support has been an unending source of inspiration to all of us in the creative team. Last but not least, I have to thank my dear husband Heleno for his undying support during these past five years. He and I met in September of 2010, shortly before that auspicious phone call. He has seen my ups and downs, joys and struggles, and he has been with me all along, supporting me in every possible way that a partner -now husband- could. I can’t wait to see “Bel Canto” on stage. It will mark the culmination of an important period in my life which has seen me reach a great degree of artistic maturity, and which points to the beginning of a new and exciting time where I will apply everything I have learned during this extraordinary journey called “Bel Canto”.

“Bel Canto” set at Civic Opera House

I want to dedicate these last few lines to two extraordinary men who left us too soon: journalist, broadcaster, and critic Andrew Patner, and Ken Piggott, former President and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Their departure has left a hard-to-fill void in Chicago’s vibrant cultural life. May their genuine love for the arts continue to serve as an example for future generations. They were truly excited about the premiere and I am sure that they will be with us in spirit on that long-awaited date: December 7, 2015.

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Ojai at Berkeley 2015


Speaking as part of the Community Response Panel. Photo: David Bellard

Last month the 70-year-old Ojai Music Festival came to Berkeley for the fifth consecutive time, bringing with it a wealth of talent, great music, and mind-boggling performances. This year I was invited for a second time to be part of the Community Response Panel, along with musicologist William Quillen, conductor Lynne Morrow, and vocalist-composer Amy X Neuberg, moderated by Cal Performances Associate Director, Rob Bailis. I attended all but one concert, and was left with the renewed conviction that contemporary music is alive and well, and that human creativity is indeed limitless.

John Luther Adams'

John Luther Adams’ “Sila” kickstarted the festival

The festival got off to an auspicious start on Thursday, June 18 with John Luther Adams’ “Sila: The Breath of the World”. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, Alaska-based composer has been gaining more prominence on the national and international stage in recent years. His works are inspired by nature and Sila was not the exception. The performance took place outdoors, at the faculty glade. It is scored for 80 musicians, grouped according to their instrumental family (woodwinds, brass, percussion, voices, strings) and placed several feet apart from each other while surrounding the audience. At the same time, however, the audience was encouraged to walk around and in between the musicians so they could experience the sound from different angles. The performance lasted an hour and one was left with the feeling that the piece had emerged from and disappeared back into nature. Walking in between the musicians during the performance gave one the feeling that one was walking through a labyrinth full of hidden treasures. At every turn of the corner one discovered a lone violin or a fragile flute producing a minimal sound that was only possible to perceive when in close proximity. At the other end of the spectrum, one would remain content by listening to the brass from afar, especially when playing fortissimo. It was quite an experience. Toward the end of the piece, as the music was fading away, one could hear the children playing, only to realize that they had been playing all along.

“A Pierre Dream” at Zellerbach Hall. Photo: David Bellard

That same evening we were treated to “A Pierre Dream – Pierre Boulez: A Portrait”, a remarkable staged concert performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and soprano Melissa Hughes, conducted by Steven Schick -Music Director of the 2015 Ojai Music Festival. The stage set was designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, a personal friend of Boulez’. The concert featured excerpts from several works by the veteran composer (who turned 90 this year) spanning decades of his creative output and interspersed with video commentaries by the composer himself. It was a multimedia feast, which included readings of several poems that the composer set to music, and live video feed from cell phone cameras projected onto a number of mobile screens that were continually set in motion by a group of dancers on stage. It was, without doubt, one of the most engaging multimedia concerts I have ever attended and one that shed light on Boulez in a way which a regular performance of his music couldn’t have.

Claire Chase, Executive and Artistic Director of ICE

Claire Chase, Executive and Artistic Director of ICE

Friday began with a fantastic pre-concert talk by Steven Schick and Claire Chase, who is Executive and Artistic Director of ICE, and moderated by Matías Tarnopolsky, Executive and Artistic Director of Cal Performances. Both speakers demonstrated incredible charm, eloquence, and a very sharp sense of humor. Not only did they talk about the upcoming concert of the evening, but they also performed during the talk, involving the audience in the process. Steven Schick’s performance of “Trans” by Chinese-American composer Lei Liang was particularly special because it took audience participation to the next level. We were each handed two small pebbles that we had to play when instructed and as directed. There is something particularly magical about the sound hundreds of pebbles in and out of sync, and in this piece it was meant to represent rain in its different stages. It certainly added a layer of drama to the sound produced by the percussion instruments on stage.

Percussion master Steven Schick was this year’s Ojai Festival Music Director

At 7pm Steven Schick began his solo performance. It was a tour de force and, in my opinion, the most memorable concert of the festival. He navigated with incredible ease through some of the most demanding solo percussion pieces ever written, all of them played by memory. The sheer physicality and level of coordination needed to perform these pieces is stunning, and it was amusing to see how each movement had been choreographed in advance with surgical precision. If you think I’m exaggerating just attend the next performance of Xenakis’ “Psappha” o Stockhausen’s “Zyklus” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The second half of the program might have struck the regular concertgoer as rather eccentric, but one that was definitely not to be missed. We are talking about the staged version of Kurt Schwitters’ “UrSonate”, an early example of sound poetry, written in an invented language devoid of meaning. This performance, directed by Roland Auzet, lasted about 40 minutes and it was a true assault on the senses. Steven Schick, once again demonstrating an exceptional capacity for memory, recited the whole poem by heart. Apart from himself all he had was a set of mobile mirrors to play with, a series of projections, and a microphone that processed his voice in real time (much in the same way that a live electronics piece would do). After a few minutes of listening to an endless string of nonsensical words one actually started to feel as if there was an underlying structure behind them, and in time it just felt like listening to a foreign language. The performer’s intention when uttering those words is key because any “word” could have any meaning, and one mostly assigned meaning to them based on the facial expressions and intonation with which the speaker uttered those words. All in all, the performance and the staging were quite thought provoking and rewarding. My only suggestion to Mr. Auzet would be to avoid pointing bright lights directly into the audience through the use of mirrors. It defeats the purpose because, in the end, one has to cover ones eyes to avoid being blinded, forcing the audience to miss some key moments of the performance.

At 11am of Saturday, June 20 began a 12-hour marathon of three remarkable concerts which included many pieces that are rarely heard live. The first was an all-French concert featuring Messiaen, Ravel, and Boulez, which had the interesting effect of showing Boulez, not necessarily as the reactionary composer that broke ties with the past, but as part of a distinctly French, uninterrupted lineage that has inherited its traditions from the past and which continues to pass them on to younger generations. The second was perhaps the most traditional of all concerts, but not less interesting, because it showcased a classic: Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” and Boulez’s “Dérive 2”, a relentless 45-minute piece for eleven musicians that has a certain soft, hypnotic quality to it and which reinforced the notion that Boulez’s sound world, especially his most recent work, owes indeed a lot to the subtlety and refinement of the great French composers of the past.

From left to right: Amy X , Neuberg, Lynne Morrow, Rob Bailis, William Quillenand myself taking questions from the audience. Photo: David Bellard

From left to right: Amy X Neuberg, Lynne Morrow, Rob Bailis, William Quillen, and myself taking questions from the audience. Photo: David Bellard

Right before the closing concert, we, the members of the Community Response Panel, took on stage to share our impressions on the festival. I enjoyed being part of it because each one of us brought a different perspective to the discussion. As a composer of course, I focused on the minds behind the music scores: their contrasting thinking processes, varied sources of inspiration, and the influence they have had on newer generations. Bill, on the other hand has the talent to dwell into the score itself and unlock its most striking features, identifying their background and placing them in context. Lynne, as an active conductor, brought the performer’s point of view to the forefront, while Amy focused on language and its relation to sound and music. We took some questions from the audience and I was happy to see that our observations helped, in one way or the other, to shed light on the music and the musicians featured during the festival.

Virtuoso pipa player Wu Man

Virtuoso pipa player Wu Man

The very last concert was a rare opportunity to listen to seldom performed pieces. I was particularly struck by Wu Man’s remarkable performance of Lou Harrison’s “Concerto for Pipa”. Wu Man is an incredible musician, and I do hope to have the opportunity to listen to her more often. The second half was dominated by Latin American sounds; we listened to Percussion Ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish play Carlos Chávez’s exciting “Toccata for Percussion” and Alberto Ginastera’s massive “Cantata para América Mágica”. The choice of repertoire was the perfect conclusion to a percussion-filled festival, wonderfully curated by Steven Schick. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival, which will be directed by Peter Sellars, one of the great theater directors of our time.

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Taking a Stance

Music PoliticsI have always thought that transcendental art exists in a realm beyond time, geographical/cultural context, and politics, but a few recent events have made me put this into question, so I’ve decided to explore this topic a bit further. First, we need to establish whether art and politics are inextricably connected or whether these connections are given by those who produce and/or consume art. I’ll concentrate on Western classical music because that’s my field of expertise.

Let’s begin by taking a purely abstract piece of music like say, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 1, the first of the Razumovsky quartets. This work, in my opinion, is one of the greatest quartets ever written (especially the Adagio), and I don’t think I’m alone on that one. Perhaps it was not hailed as such when it was first performed, but that quartet has, over time, elevated itself and transcended to the point that 200 years later it continues to be listened to and played by people in countries that didn’t even exist during Beethoven’s lifetime, by people whose gender and/or sexual orientation was not accepted back then, and by people who used to be enslaved because of the color of their skin. All of these people love Beethoven’s music today, notwithstanding the fact that it was written when the world was a very different place. In other words, the music itself holds some kind of universal core value, which has allowed it to transcend to the point that it can be judged solely by its musical merits. But if we want to, we can put a context to it.

That quartet is one of three who were dedicated to Count Andrey Razumovsky, a Russian diplomat. Beethoven himself used to receive financial support from prominent nobles like Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, and this allowed him to dedicate himself fully to his work. Then of course, we can look at the instrumentation and see that it is scored for two violins, viola and cello -four instruments that were invented and developed in Europe, hence it is a product of European civilization. As we know, many European countries had colonies around the world, so that piece was written during a time when monarchy was still thriving and social inequality was determined by birth and accepted as a matter of fact. Beethoven’s music itself uses the tonal system which was not -and has never been- a universal language, but which reigned undisputed in Europe for over 300 years and which is still pretty much the backbone of most popular music. In the end, Beethoven’s quartet is a European (German, to be more specific) cultural product funded by a privileged class of people who lived out of taxing the working class and who, in addition, funded the brutal colonization of the Americas and Africa. Does all of this sound too reductive and beside the point? I think so.

The Eroica Symphony's cover page. Beethoven ripped Napoleon's name after he declared himself Emperor.

The Eroica Symphony’s cover page. Beethoven ripped Napoleon’s name after he declared himself Emperor.

Why should Beethoven’s beautiful quartet be contaminated by any of this? It is certainly not necessary to mention these facts to enjoy or even understand his music, but I’m bringing this up in order to show that not a single work of art can’t exist in a vacuum. Some art, however, manages to elevate itself above all this and become truly universal, but for that to happen we need time and historical perspective. Now, Beethoven’s quartet is quite an abstract work. The same could be said of a Mozart Sonata or a Bach invention, but there are some pieces which are inspired by specific people or historical events, and then we have a more difficult time isolating the music. To continue with Beethoven, we can take his Third Symphony, Eroica, to see what I mean. He initially dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte, but withdrew the dedication when Napoleon -much to Beethoven’s chagrin- crowned himself Emperor. What a way to make a political statement! Beethoven himself was known to consider himself as an equal and he felt entitled to the same treatment that his noble friends enjoyed, an attitude that couldn’t be farther from Haydn’s, who live most of his life happily at the service of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy.

Shostakovich in the cover of Time Magazine on July 20, 1942. He had completed the Leningrad Symphony just six months before.

Shostakovich on the cover of Time Magazine on July 20, 1942. He had completed the Leningrad Symphony just six months before.

Let’s go beyond the purely instrumental. Let’s take ballet. In a ballet we add a visual context, making the work of art less “pure” because it gives it a story, even if it’s not told in words. When Shostakovich’s “The Bolt” premiered in 1931 it was not very well received by either audience or critics. Its plot tells of a lazy worker who is fed up with the factory and plans to sabotage it by damaging the machinery with a bolt. Even a young group of communists take center stage. The content was deemed anti-Soviet by the authorities and this led to the work being banned. It was not staged again for several decades and it was certainly not the last time in which Shostakovich faced criticism from the authorities. If a ballet can cause all that turmoil, imagine what opera can do.

In opera we move from purely abstract music to the world of literal meaning. In Figaro, Mozart made a daringly provocative statement that was not seen with good eyes by the Viennese nobility, and they made sure to let him know. The protagonists of the opera are servants, not legendary heroes, and they speak in everyday language and not in the heightened speech of the gods. The opera was based on the Beaumarchais play which fueled and sympathized with the values of the French Revolution, so the nobles of Mozart’s time couldn’t be unhappier. The opera went on to be staged, but only after heavy censorship, and it became and incredible success.

Looking at all these examples we can see that composers can deliberately charge their works with political overtones (like Mozart in “Figaro” or Beethoven in the “Eroica”), that they can upset the political establishment (as Shostakovich did in “The Bolt”), and that they can also write music devoid of any political content, in which case (especially for purely abstract music) one needs to go to ridiculous lengths in order to assign them a political overtone. Now that we have explored this, we can place our gaze on our own time.

Should an artist get involved in politics? I have met people who strongly believe that all artists, as opinion leaders, have a responsibility to speak out when current events demand so. Personally, I think that any artist should be free to choose whether he/she wants to be part of the discussion or not and that no one should feel forced to do so. The problem is that it is really, really hard for an artist to stay neutral once he/she has achieved a certain level of fame. Think of the recent controversy that surrounded Venezuelan Conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He has always been extremely reluctant to take a public political stance and I don’t blame him for that, but in the wake of recent protests his neutrality seemed to upset some sectors of the music community. Venezuelan Pianist Gabriela Montero sent an open letter to him saying that, as an artist, he could not afford to remain silent and she exhorted him to speak out his mind in the wake of the massive protests that took place in Venezuela between February and June of 2014. He refused to cave in to politics and instead chose to condemn all forms of violence. Another conductor, Valery Gergiev was also embroiled in controversy when he signed a petition endorsing the annexation of Crimea and he was targeted by the LGBT community for aligning with a regime that openly discriminates against its gay and lesbian population. Gergiev has stood firm on his political stance but his reputation has suffered considerably. Does Gergiev truly support the government of Vladimir Putin, or must he voice his public support in order to continue his work in Russia? Does Dudamel sympathize with the Venezuelan government, or must he remain silent so he can continue doing the greater good of helping the young and poor in Venezuela through their successful and state-sponsored Sistema? I will not answer these questions for them, but as I said there is a point where a public figure can’t continue hiding his or her political views. In this sense I think that an artist must take a stand. We don’t need to be voicing our opinion all the time, but we must do so when it becomes necessary.

Protesters calling for The Metropolitan Opera to cancel “The Death of Klinghoffer”. Photo credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880

Protesters calling for The Metropolitan Opera to cancel “The Death of Klinghoffer”. Photo credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880

Most recently John Adams’ opera The Death of Kilnghoffer has been accused of being anti-semitic by sectors of the Jewish community. I don’t believe that Adams or Alice Goodman, the librettist, is promoting an anti-semitic view (I have seen the opera) but I do believe that people have a right to manifest themselves and protest. Thankfully, opening night went ahead peacefully (albeit noisily) and the opera continues to live. This is something that hits home because I am currently writing an opera that gives a “voice” to terrorists (and how could it not, they must sing!) but I have never and will never support terrorism. If anyone ever accused me of doing so, they would be targeting the victim instead of the perpetrator.

The aftermath of the Tarata bombing. Credit: Diario El Comercio

The aftermath of the Tarata bombing. Credit: Diario El Comercio

I never lost any of my friends or relatives to terrorism, but I do remember that between 1985 and 1990 my country started to plunge into a spiral of violence that not even my parents or grandparents had experienced in their lifetime. Blackouts were frequent because the terrorists were detonating every electric tower they could get their hands on. Water was rationed due to neglected infrastructure and the supermarkets had more empty shelves than food on them. The peak of this came in July 16, 1992, when the Shining Path detonated a car bomb in the middle of Miraflores, one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Lima. I was 13 years old and up to that point, stories like these had only been coming from other parts of the country, but after the Tarata bombing, my family and I knew that there was simply no place to hide. From then on we lived in a state of fear, reporting any cars that had been parked in front of our house for more than two hours, a fear that people in other parts of the country had been experiencing for years, and that those of us in the capital city now shared.

Soldiers celebrating the success of "Operation Chavín de Huántar"

Soldiers celebrating the success of “Operation Chavín de Huántar”

In the years following this tragic event, the government of Alberto Fujimori took very aggressive and even questionable methods to defeat terrorism. (In 2009 Alberto Fujimori was found guilty of human rights violations and condemned to 25 years in prison). With its leaders imprisoned, the Shining Path and the MRTA had been dealt a fatal blow and by the mid 90’s the economy, which had been left in tatters by the previous government, had started to rebound. By 1996 everyone thought that terrorism had long been defeated, but it was precisely then, when we had lowered our guard, that the MRTA stormed into the Japanese Ambassador’s residence and started a hostage crisis that lasted four months and which inspired Ann Patchet to write “Bel Canto”.

I couldn’t sympathize less with terrorists but I am not blind as to why terrorism flourished in Peru. Inequality, racism, poverty, centralization and a continuous neglect on part of the central government created a generation of resentment. Some channeled their resentment in a positive way by contributing to the development of the country, but others decided that violence was the only path. We are now definitely in better shape; poverty and analphabetism have been significantly reduced and we have one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but some issues remain. The memories of those troubled years will live in me always.

We all have our stories and we are all entitled to our opinions. I don’t feel the need to share my political views when not asked, and if the day comes when I have to openly speak about them, I’ll do so. Unlike other composers however, I don’t feel the need to permeate every single work of mine with a political message. I respect those who do, but I think that every now and then we also have to aim higher. We must speak to those values that lie beyond our current political and historical context. We should not allow our minds to dictate every single note we write. Instead, I prefer to rely on other aspects of myself that I hold in higher regard, such as the my heart and intuition. Only when we go past the physical, the emotional and the mental can we reach the spiritual, and it is only then that we really get in touch with a world beyond ours. Why give this, our immediate reality, our exclusive attention? Yes, we must be aware or our historical context and we must have our feet on the ground, but we, as artists, also have the possibility to fly and give people something out of the ordinary, something that is beyond everything that we experience in our daily lives. Something that transcends and makes us dream, live, and breathe worlds still unknown to us. This is what makes us imagine realities which are yet to materialize; realities where our music is played in places that man has yet to reach, and by life forms we are yet to encounter. Only then, I think, an artist does develop his full potential, pushing mankind forward and ushering a new era. Let’s go past the things that worry us right now, because such things, when placed in the larger context of the Universe, reveal their true insignificance.

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An Unexpected Honor

Antara Prize

At 35 one does not think about one’s legacy, relevance or achievements. At 35 one is fully invested in one’s present while at the same time trying to build a future. It’s a time of transition, a time when one starts to settle down, do what one really likes to do (at least part of the time) and earn some decent money…finally! Everyone’s path is different and one can’t generalize, of course, but now and then there are things that stop you on your tracks, force you to look back, and make you think of all the things you’ve done up to this point in life. That is exactly what happened to me on October 3rd, 2014, when I was awarded the “Antara Prize” in recognition for what the inscription describes as my “brilliant artistic career”.

Main entrance at Gran Teatro Nacional.

Main entrance at Gran Teatro Nacional.

I have been awarded prizes in the past, but this one touched me in a particular way for a number of reasons. First, I didn’t apply for it; it was not part of a competition so I wasn’t expecting it. Second, it has been awarded to people for whom I have great respect, like my mentor and teacher, the great Peruvian composer and pedagogue Enrique Iturriaga, who is now 96 years old and is still as lucid as anyone can be. Third, I was not able to attend the award ceremony so I had to ask my parents to accept it on my behalf, and finally, I had to give an acceptance speech -which I hadn’t done before. Since I wasn’t able to receive the prize in person, I entrusted my dad with this task, which he performed flawlessly.

DSC_0149On that very night, soloist Jesús Castro-Balbi, conductor Ramón Tebar, and the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru gave the South American premiere of my cello concerto “Lord of the Air” at the Gran Teatro Nacional. It was by all accounts a truly memorable evening, and the second half of the program included a work which is very close to my heart, Jean Sibelius’ second symphony, a work I discovered and learned to love during my seven-year-long stay in Finland. There is one more thing though that made this prize special: it was awarded to me at home, in my native Lima, where I grew up, went to school and cultivated my passion and where I left from 14 years ago in order to continue pursuing my dreams.

Cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi, conductor Ramón Tebar and the National Symphony Orchestra of Perú performing "Lord of the Air" on October 3, 2014 at the Gran Teatro Nacional.

Cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi, conductor Ramón Tebar and the National Symphony Orchestra of Perú performing “Lord of the Air” on October 3, 2014 at the Gran Teatro Nacional.

So what did I see when I looked back? I realized that music has been present throughout my life and that it has shaped most of the most important decisions in my life such as moving to Finland in 2000 and moving to California in 2007. I also learned that I have written a considerable amount of music and that it has been gradually getting better and better (and hopefully that will always be the case!). I realized that out of those 36 years, 21 have been spent in Peru and 15 (or 42%) have been spent abroad. But what it mainly made me realize is that hard work and determination yield results.

When I was a little kid and I sat at the piano, my audience was rather limited; mostly my parents and sister, but especially my dad who would invariable ask me to play for him every day after dinner. He didn’t only listen to me play, he criticized my playing, gave his opinions about this or that composer, and gave me suggestions on how to improve my own little compositions. He did all of this without having any idea of what he was talking about -by the way, but what’s funny is that he was actually right a lot of the time. I don’t know how he did it because he had no training whatsoever in music and very limited exposure to classical music before I came along, but he had and still has a really sharp intuition that has guided him all along. He used to say that architecture and music had a lot in common, and now I see what he meant.

I am exactly the same person I was before October 3rd, (except that I’m now 36!) and I know that the scope and relevance of the prize is limited to my home country, but it carries a powerful, symbolic meaning for me. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that everything is going to be ok. I wish I could talk to my nervous, sweaty, little 10-year-old self before going on stage to play in public for the first time, or if I could talk to the teenager who was a nervous wreck before the entrance exam to the Conservatory, or the young man who went all the way to Finland and left his family and friends behind to study in a country where he didn’t know a single soul and where the sun refuses to set or rise (depending on the time of the year). But that’s not how things work. We don’t know what the future holds for us and that’s what makes it special, because it’s full of opportunities. At 36 all I want to do is to keep living and writing and loving, and if another recognition comes in the future, at least now I am prepared to look back.

I leave you with my acceptance speech (translated from Spanish), which my father read beautifully on that special night:

My father, Architect Javier López Caipo, reading my acceptance speech.

My father, Architect Javier López Caipo, reading my acceptance speech.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is Architect Javier Lopez Caipo and I am here tonight to accept this award on behalf of my son, composer Jimmy López. Jimmy has asked me to share a few words of gratitude with you, which I will proceed to read next.

The Lima Contemporary Music Festival and the National Symphony Orchestra are two of the most valuable cultural institutions of our country. That is why I want to begin by highlighting the tireless work that both, Jorge Garrido-Lecca, President of ERART and Fernando Valcárcel, Chief Conductor of our country’s first orchestra, perform every day.

It is for me an honor to be awarded the Antara Prize, which has been previously awarded to iconic figures of Peruvian composition, such as my dear mentor, the great composer and pedagogue Enrique Iturriaga.

I left Peru fourteen years ago with the desire to fully develop my vocation, encounter different cultures and customs, and absorb all the knowledge I could take. Over time, many of my goals have come to be, but one of the most precious gifts that distance gave me was that it made me look at my own country with a fervor and intensity that I had never experienced before. This award means a lot to me, but first of all it means that my work is recognized at home and the bond with my country remains as strong as ever.

I deeply regret not being able to be physically present with you tonight, but please know that I am present through my music and my parents, who have been gracious enough to accept this award on my behalf.

My dad receiving the prize from the hands of Fernando Valcárcel, Chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru.

My father receiving the prize from the hands of Fernando Valcárcel, Chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Peru.

I want to conclude by expressing my strong desire that both, the state and private sector continue to support the development of the arts in our country. Each one of us must do his/her part in this collective effort to drive Peru to a new stage where we are not only admired by our historical past but also by our enormous creative capacity, which gradually begins to be recognized worldwide. Thank you very much.”

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Like a Bonfire

Martin doing what he loved the most.It is never easy to say good-bye to a dear friend, but it is especially hard when the departure is sudden and for a lifetime. On August 26, 2014 my dear friend Martín Portugal left this world peacefully and quietly. He was far away from home, but surrounded by his loved ones. He leaves behind his wonderful wife Lilian, and his two daughters Abril and Lucía. His memory will live within all of us who loved him and knew him well, and his legacy will go on through his music.

Martín and his loved ones.

I consider myself extremely lucky for I was able to talk to him on the phone just a few hours before he lost consciousness. Exactly two months to this day, on Saturday, August 23rd, I called him for his 37th birthday. I make a point of calling my good friends on their birthdays and this year was no exception. Martín was busy that day but he nevertheless answered the phone. Instead of celebrating he was making music, the thing he loved to do the most. “I’m so happy you called right this moment”, he told me. “I’ve been busy with rehearsals all day and I’m about to go on stage in a few minutes”. Martín was about to give a show in Piura, a coastal city in the north of Peru. A consummate showman, all he needed was a guitar, a microphone and his voice to entertain all kinds of crowds with music and jokes. Just a few hours after we hung up he suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital where he remained in a coma for three days.

Martín was a fervent catholic who had been working with and for the church since he was a kid. His faith, however, was not blind and he had a progressive mindset,  but always in line with Christ’s compassionate teachings. He attended mass regularly and all the priests with whom he worked, the school where he taught for many years (Peruvian-Chinese school John XXIII), and his parish always held him in high regard. Martín’s departure shocked everyone, and now, more than ever, I cherish every single word we exchanged on our last phone conversation.

Martín and I in Lima. June 2011.

On that last call I managed to tell him how much I loved him, how much I cherished our friendship and how much I missed him. I encouraged him to continue pursuing his dreams and to continue on the path he had started toward a healthier lifestyle. He was working on an orchestration project for which he asked me for help and he shared a ton of other projects he had in mind. I ended the call with a big smile on my face, still laughing at one of his jokes and looking forward to our next conversation. The morning after, I woke up to the news that he was unconscious, and three days later he left us to join the God he had praised all throughout his life.

Martín and I met in 1995, the year I graduated from high school. I already knew I wanted to be a composer back then, so I had started taking counterpoint lessons with Enrique Iturriaga, our teacher and mentor, in a private music school. Martín and I didn’t become friends right away, and we didn’t see each other after we completed the class, but we met again in 1998 when I got into the National Conservatory of Music in Lima. He was a kind and sensitive soul, and he was also incredibly funny. We soon became friends and formed an inseparable group of three along with another friend we met at the Conservatory. The three of us traveled together, made music together and hanged out together all the time. Martín was the inexhaustible source of laughter and also a consummate singer, highly coveted at every karaoke bar we went to. I can’t remember how many times we went back home, late at night, after having hung out together all day and still having the feeling that the day had been inexplicably short.

After I moved to Helsinki in September of 2000 we still kept in touch, often through email, and every time I would come home visit it felt like time hadn’t passed. I listened to his first compositions, I went to his wedding, he played at my sister’s wedding,  he slept at my house countless times and we gave each other feedback about our work, always truthfully and respectfully. On 2006 Martín made me a gift that I will cherish for the rest of my life. He dedicated a beautiful song called “Como Fuego de Hoguera” (“Like a Bonfire”) to his two inseparable friends from the Conservatory. I had already fallen in love with that song before his passing, but when I listen to it now I feel as if he’s right next to me, smiling.

Everything happened too quickly and I was unable to fly to Lima. The viewing took place the next day, on a Wednesday, and his burial on Thursday. I thank my parents for representing me, not only by visiting Martín’s mother twice during the toughest hours but also by sending a beautiful floral arrangement on my behalf. My friends in Lima sent me pictures and updates, and that helped me feel like I was part of it. The loss was too great and he left us too soon, but he has left us beautiful music, like this piece for saxophone and two pianos, whose premiere I attended in 1998. He has also left two beautiful daughters whom he loved like nothing else in this world, and he left a huge amount of followers who knew him especially through his work as a Christian singer-songwriter. His popularity extended beyond the borders of our native Peru and the outpouring of love came from a great number of countries, especially in the Spanish-speaking world, where he was widely known among the catholic community.

My dear Martín, your parting has left me with a void that will be impossible to fill. I had never experienced the loss of someone so close and so young, but I have now started to think more about the future, the past and especially the present. We never know when we are going to leave Earth, but you taught us to live fully and in the service of others. You never took yourself too seriously and you always had a kind word for those in suffering. You will always have a place in my heart and I know that wherever you are, you are still doing what you love the most. So long my friend, my brother.

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Coming Full Circle

Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Jimmy López / Photo by Frode Larsen

Mark your calendars, because the spring of 2015 is going to see the release, on Harmonia Mundi, of the first album dedicated entirely to my orchestral works.  The pieces included are Perú Negro, Lord of the Air, Synesthésie and América Salvaje, all of them performed by Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (KORK) under the supervision of Recording Engineer Geoff Miles. In fact, I just came back from Oslo where I spent a few days attending the recording sessions. It was amazing to work on what will serve as a reference for future performances and recordings of these works.

During a recording session with KORK

Photo by Frode Larsen

Right after my arrival to Oslo on Sunday, April 27th, I met with Miguel and Jesús Castro-Balbi, our soloist for Lord of the Air, the cello concerto. We discussed and planned our schedule for the week and decided to start our Monday morning with a listening session of Synesthésie, which Miguel had begun to rehearse right before my arrival. After I gave my feedback, we decided to leave that piece for the following day and concentrate on the first half of Perú Negro instead. We spent most of Monday on Perú Negro and the 1st movement of Lord of the Air. On Tuesday we worked on the 3rd and 4th movements of the cello concerto (plus the cadenza) and on Wednesday we recorded the 2nd movement and finished the session with the second half of Perú Negro. América Salvaje had already been recorded about a year ago by the same musicians.

At StudioAlso on Wednesday we gave a private concert at the studio for a select audience of diplomats. The mini concert was also being recorded so Geoff could have an additional take of each piece from start to finish. During his introductory remarks Miguel said that it had been “a luxury to have the composer present throughout the recording sessions”. Right before the last piece on the program, when it was my turn to speak, I said: “Miguel said earlier that it had been a luxury to have me during the recording sessions, but in fact the real luxury is to have Miguel and this fantastic orchestra play and record my works. I can’t even express how moved I am”. I still feel that way.

Cello ConcertoPerú Negro was played last and, while listening to it, all these memories came back to me. Miguel and I met each other when I was still in high school, full of hopes and dreams, working hard on my skills so that one day I could become a professional composer. Back then I was just a teenager trying my best to convince Maestro Harth-Bedoya to conduct my music. Obviously I wasn’t ready for that yet, but after a conversation with my dad, Miguel decided to allow me into the Lima Philharmonic as an assistant to its librarian, Marino Martínez, and that allowed me to attend countless rehearsals and performances where, score in hand, I learned the craft of orchestration. Of course I also did all sorts of things, from making copies to delivering flowers on stage, but all of that contributed to my growth as a musician.

Left to right: Jimmy López, Jesús Castro-Balbi, Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Geoff Miles

Left to right: Jimmy López, Jesús Castro-Balbi, Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Geoff Miles

Another strong flashback came to me one night in Oslo, while I was working with Miguel. Earlier that day we had discovered that some of the orchestral parts were not up to date, so we had to sit down at the lobby of the hotel correcting them. It was late at night and Miguel and I were packed with pencils, erasers and sheet music spread all over the table when, suddenly, I remembered practically that exact same scene from 18 years ago, when I was working at the Lima Philharmonic. At that moment I felt as if a whole episode of my life had come full circle. Here I was, no longer a teenager but a composer in his mid-thirties, sitting with Miguel and working together on my own music for a recording with a top orchestra in Norway. That’s when I though to myself: “how much I’d give to go back in time and tell my old self: ‘it will all be alright’”. On the other hand, I guess it was better this way; one never knows what the future has in store for us, and sometimes it surpasses our expectations.

At the Oslo Opera House

At the Oslo Opera House

I spent my two remaining days in Oslo with Margarita Ludeña, an old friend from Lima whom I had not seen in 17 years, and who had also worked at the Lima Philharmonic during the mid-nineties. Margarita now lives in Oslo with her husband and she took a couple of afternoons off to show me around. We went to many different spots including the new Opera House, the Viking Ship Museum, the original Kon-tiki raft where Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed all the way from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, and the Munch Museum where I got more acquainted with the works of Norway’s brilliant dark master.

All in all it was a formidable trip and one that will remain in my memory because of its personal and professional significance. I will be meeting with Robina Young, Vice President & Artistic Director of Harmonia Mundi USA here in Berkeley in early June. We will then discuss more details about the album and its release date. I’ll make sure to keep my Facebook page up to date.

Alle de beste!


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Caminos del Inka, Harmonia Mundi USA, KORK, Filarmonika and Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya for making these recording sessions and my trip to Norway possible.

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