Metro Weekly

Rising classical composer Jimmy López puts muscle behind his music

With "Dreamers," López explores the light and darkness, love and hate, and strength and weakness of the DREAMers movement

Jimmy López — Photo: Todd Franson

Asked how he might describe the prevalent style of his growing body of work, Peruvian-American composer Jimmy López hesitates, smiling, before he responds.

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “I used to refer to my music as eclectic, but I think that was because I like embracing different styles and incorporating them.”

López’s work, including his symphonic poem América Salvaje and the opera Bel Canto, with libretto by Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, boasts a distinctively robust sound that’s earned him plaudits and performances worldwide. His pieces have been described by critics as fierce, innovative, and symphonically dynamic. “I’ve lately been called a maximalist by two reviewers,” says the 40-year-old, “and I actually kind of like the ring of it.”

Visiting D.C. to discuss the upcoming premiere of his latest orchestral piece — the oratorio Dreamers, co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts — López says that, like most composers, he actually shies away from pinning labels on his art. Also, as a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan person — he grew up in Lima, Peru, before leaving to study music in Helsinki, in Paris, and at UC-Berkeley, where he met his Brazilian husband, Heleno — he recognizes a wealth of influences in his compositions.

“Every place I’ve lived has influenced my sound world,” says López. “You can say that you can hear my Peruvian roots and my Latin American origin, but you can also hear, let’s say, the expansion and the love of form that composers like Sibelius in Finland have. So, I think that that’s a test more for music critics and viewers to define what I do.”

Some critics have defined López’s music as sounding more masculine, whatever one perceives that to mean. “Perhaps I like more the word ‘muscular,’ in that strength can be associated to both sexes. I prefer not to think in terms of masculine or feminine, but as in binary terms. We live in a world where there is light and darkness, there is love and hate, there is cold and heat. So, I like to see it in those ways, but as universal archetypal principles.”

López, with librettist Cruz, explores the light and darkness, love and hate, and strength and weakness in men, women, and children in the charged oratorio Dreamers, which centers on the fictional immigration and citizenship stories of several so-called “DREAMers.” The collaborators based the piece on testimony they collected from individuals and families affected by the DREAMers movement, and López hopes that Cruz’s powerful words and the muscular sound of his music can make an impact on how people perceive this human struggle.

METRO WEEKLY: I know you play piano, but what other instruments can you play?

JIMMY LÓPEZ: I do play the piano, because that was my initial instrument that got me into music in the first place. I did play trumpet for a number of years. And I played around with the clarinet and the violin. I just learned them enough for me to understand the mechanics as a composer. And I have conducted as well. But I think my performing days were over in my mid-20s, and I, ever since, have devoted fully to writing.

MW: When did you realize that you’re a composer more so than a performer?

LÓPEZ: The decision to be a composer was an early one, actually. When I was 16, I knew that that was my main gift, and that’s what I wanted to focus on. The decision to stop performing came when I realized that the life of a performer is very demanding in different ways, in terms of preparing for a performance. It’s an all-day preparation, it’s a whole mindset. There’s a physical aspect of it, of training and rehearsing, which demands many hours of your day. And in my case, I felt that those hours were better spent just writing music, which is my ultimate, true passion.

I keep saying that especially composition, but music in general, does choose you instead of you choosing it. I started when I was five, playing the piano, but not seriously. And I think when I was 12 years old, and I first had contact with classical music, and Bach especially. That’s when my whole imagination got lit and sparked. And that’s when I realized that I wanted to follow that path.

At around 16, I realized that I was not very good at actually practicing, because when I was playing a sonata by Mozart or Beethoven or whatever it was, I would always wonder, what if I changed this or that? I wasn’t very interested in just repeating the same piece over and over again, I was more interested in changing it. Because all those works are kind of ossified, they’ve been in the repertoire for so long. Once, they were new works, and at some point they were half-written. So I would challenge myself to see, “Oh, what would a sonata look like? What would Mozart do?” I would stop on a new piece that I didn’t know at some point and I would think, “What if I try to continue this piece? What would I do?” And those challenges actually were more fascinating to me than the act of practicing.

MW: And what was it about Bach that sparked your imagination?

LÓPEZ: Oh, Bach… In retrospect, I didn’t know that back then, when I was 12, because I had no knowledge of music theory. But in retrospect, polyphony was truly the thing that pulled me away. The thing that, it forces your brain to listen to simultaneous melodies, and then they all have to vertically also make sense. So the excitement that the vertical harmonies, as a result of horizontal movement, make — that was very mind-boggling to me.

MW: That’s getting into music theory. Do you have to talk differently about music to people who are not well-versed in it?

LÓPEZ: Well, yeah, you have to learn how to communicate in terms that are not technical. And that is true for every profession. For example, I love physics, all science in general, but when I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, I was blown away not only by the content itself, but by the fact that he was able to explain all of this to me without a single formula. So, I think in every art and every craft, we have to learn how to express ourselves in general terms, in universal terms.

MW: Are you from a musical family?

LÓPEZ: No, not at all. My father was an architect, my mom is now a retired elementary school teacher, and my sister is a biologist. My grandmother, who I never met, I was told played the piano. But no one in the serious business of being a musician. So that was actually a big shock for my family.

Jimmy López — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: What music were you listening to at home and with your friends?

LÓPEZ: Between the ages of five and 12, I was listening to just top 20, just pop music, which is what my sister used to play at home. And perhaps the music that my parents like. My dad likes musicals, like Grease and Guys and Dolls, stuff like that. And my mom liked boleros. So, all of that was around me. Also, what you are exposed to at school. But then there was a big shift, when I discovered this other kind of music that would seem so foreign to me and so strikingly different —

MW: Classical music.

LÓPEZ: Classical music, yeah.

MW: Did hearing music in your head as a composer make you feel different from your peers?

LÓPEZ: There is an element of that, especially growing up in South America. Classical music — we have orchestras and lots of music festivals, but they are really a very small part of the musical life of my country. So I did feel in the minority, and I was really odd in that sense that no one else in school except like, only one kid out of 150 in my class, could actually really relate to and understand what I was talking about. So, yeah, it made me feel a little outside from the rest. But, I just got up the courage to pursue it because I realized that made me happy and that’s what really mattered.

MW: That feeling of differentness, does that relate at all to the feeling of differentness that might come with being gay?

LÓPEZ: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve been different for a long time in my life. I think, not only that, but when I went to Finland, for example, in the year 2000, I was 21, I felt very different right from the start, because everybody looks different. And they looked at me as something that was really, really exotic. And of course, being gay — I didn’t open up until my mid-20s and so I spent many years pretending that I was who I wasn’t. Or even trying to understand who I was myself, you know? So all those struggles happened at the same time. But interestingly enough, music was a vehicle to channel all those frustrations and to face those challenges.

MW: Do you think your point of view as a gay man affects your approach to making music?

LÓPEZ: That is hard to tell. I mean, I think that everything in life makes its way into your art in one way or the other. Gay men and gay women have, in a way, influenced art in so many different ways. You look at the percentage of the population that we are and the influence that we actually have in the arts, it’s quite astounding. So there is a certain sensitivity that gay people share, I think, that makes us more inclined towards expressing ourselves artistically than in other ways. And I think that on its own is actually quite special. Whether my music would sound differently if I were straight or not, that is a different question. But I think there is a lot of masculinity and femininity as well in my music. I think the whole spectrum is present. And I think that is independent of your sexual orientation. I don’t think that my art is necessarily influenced by my sexuality, but my place in the arts is.

MW: Your Peruvian culture and Latin American culture have been expressed through your music. As in your use of the pututo, which sounds like a funny word but is an important instrument.

LÓPEZ: Yeah, that is the word that the Andean people gave to the conch shell, which is a traditional instrument that has been used for a millennium, famously by the Incas to call for important occasions like religious ceremonies. They would go atop a mountain, and they would blow the pututo as hard as they could. The sound was so strong that it would travel for miles on end, and then people would hear it. And when people would hear it, they would gather.

The first time I used it was in a piece called América Salvaje that was commissioned by the then-Minister of Education in Peru to open the new building of the National Library. It was an occasion of importance, so I felt, well, since we’re trying to go back to our roots. I chose a poem to make a literary connection with the opening of the library. And that poem talks about a remote America — the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans, basically. I wanted to paint that landscape. I wondered, how would that landscape sound? And so for the first few minutes of my piece, there are no western instruments in there. It’s just those, opening with the pututos, the conch shells, going to the ocarinas and bird whistles.

MW: Let’s talk about Dreamers. How did you get started composing the piece?

LÓPEZ: Before I wrote a single note, there was a lot of research. The decision to write about DREAMers was made by the couple of guidelines that I had, [wanting] to have a work that would be relevant to the Hewlett Foundation. They are the main sponsors of the piece. So, in their guidelines, there was this desire to create something that would be relevant to our day and something that would be also important and relevant to the city of Berkeley or the Bay Area at large. When I did my research about Berkeley, one of the most salient things that I found is that Berkeley is the original sanctuary city. It was the first sanctuary city in the United States. Back then it was not associated with immigration, though. In the ’70s, it was more about sailors who were dissidents of the Vietnam War. So people were allowed their own mind, and Berkeley has also been at the forefront of social justice. And so I realized, since that concept has now been extended to the whole idea of sanctuary cities and immigration, and that is very current, I decided I’m gonna focus on that. Now, UC Berkeley happens to have a large population of DREAMers. Around 500 of them. They are a very well-led group and they are all in constant communication. And through Cal Performances, I was able to access them and have interviews with a few of them who were willing to come forth and share their experiences.

So, even before I wrote a single note, what we did was just interviews. I interviewed many people myself, and then Nilo Cruz joined me later on and we had a second round of interviews. And all those interviews and all the research we did was the basis for the libretto. Nilo started working on the libretto and he started to send me some of the drafts. Of course, I would get back to him with comments or for additions or other things. And then I started to write the music. And really my task, the way I’ve seen it, is just to create an emotional frame for Nilo’s words and for the message that they carry.

MW: Since it’s an oratorio for a soprano with chorus, how did you decide to focus the different stories you heard into just one voice?

LÓPEZ: That was an interesting decision because I had initially juggled with the idea of having many singers, as most oratorios do. Because they tell stories. And at some point, I realized that I think it would be more laser-focused if we have a single voice on stage. Not that the message would be diluted if you have too many, but this was not really, let’s say, a story literally speaking, with a beginning and an end, like the Nativity story of Handel’s Messiah, with characters and so forth. This is a little more abstract. It’s still a story, but there are many stories that are being told and they are not told chronologically. There is a whole arc to the piece, but I felt that Nilo has used so many different devices. Ana Mariá Martínez, who is in the main role, she at times becomes a DREAMer herself. At times she’s a narrator. At times she narrates in third person or second or first. And the chorus does the same, so all these different devices give you different focuses. And also there are moments, for example, where the chorus supports the main role but also is against the main role. And so that opposition between a single individual and a mass of 80 people is also very powerful, so I went after that.

MW: Is that mass of 80 people meant to be the government, the nation? Is it one against many?

LÓPEZ: It takes on different roles. We’ve never made a direct allusion to the government, or partisanship and all that, because I felt that will actually distract from the human message in it. But it’s basically, yes, those who are opposed, because there are very opposing views when it comes to this. But it’s important to understand that there are many voices. So the chorus at times can be a very powerful vehicle to voice that, and to graphically depict how intimidating it can be to be alone in this fight.

MW: That brings to mind the idea of families being separated. Does the piece deal with that at all?

LÓPEZ: Yes. And actually, that was one of the most pivotal moments in the piece for me. There are six movements in the piece and the third is called “Children.” And it was rather short. It wasn’t meant to be the main movement or anything like that, but then as I got the libretto and started working on it, then the issue of child separation started to come in the news. And I could just not remain indifferent to that. So I told Nilo, “Nilo, actually I need like 10 more verses.” And then I was like, “No, actually, I need 20. No, give me three or four times what you gave me. We need to make this important. It has to be.” So I think it has now become the most important movement in the piece, or the central movement in the piece, the heart of the piece. And yes, we deal with it and we always focus on trying to understand and just creating empathy. I think everyone could relate to being separated from one’s mother when you’re a child and you have no one else around you. It must be the most frightening, terrifying thing that you’ve ever been through. And so I’m trying to depict that in the music and through Nilo’s words.

MW: What does that sound like, musically?

LÓPEZ: Overwhelming, I think. Particularly, dissonance. Perhaps muscular. [Laughs.] I’ve used every device I can to make you also navigate between the extreme emotions that that can actually produce.

MW: What do you hope that the audience learns about the DREAMer experience?

LÓPEZ: First of all, for those who are not very aware of the discussion, to just go and inform themselves. Second, for people to really understand the DREAMers are not just like a block of people. Because we tend to put labels on people to either differentiate them from us as the others, or for our comfort, to not create empathy. I’m trying to create empathy. And when I was interviewing those DREAMers, I realized, oh my goodness, the experiences are so vastly different. Some of them, for example, have siblings who were born in the United States, so [their siblings] have all the privileges, but they don’t. Some of them only found out when they were applying for college. And so they were kept in the dark all their lives by their family who didn’t share this information with them and all of a sudden, their dreams are shattered and they enter a period of depression.

Others are fleeing war, some are fleeing the drug trade. Some are fleeing violence at home or just extreme poverty. Some of them came when they were babies, some of them came when they were twelve and they had a formed identity. So, we can talk about DREAMers, but in reality, those are human beings who have vastly different stories. And finally, just to really understand that they are Americans, whether people want to face it or not. Whether they are given the legality or not, whether they are documented or not, they are Americans. So we have to deal with that.

Jimmy López — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: You talk about emphasizing the human story. A lot of people will see this as something that you can’t divorce from politics. How would you respond to somebody who says, “Keep politics out of music. I just want to hear beauty and light.”

LÓPEZ: What I would say is, you might think this is politics, but this is a history of humanity. This is not the first time this has happened. It is not the last time it will, regrettably. Now what I love about Nilo’s libretto is that is goes back to the beginning of time, when people were just wanting to migrate. He has this Biblical opening that talks about the longest journey, when humans just started to migrate, and when there were no boundaries. And this is really something that’s been inherent in humanity, the desire to move, to go elsewhere, to explore, and to mingle.

MW: Not even just humanity. Animals in general.

LÓPEZ: Well, there you go. It’s just part of nature. So trying to stop that artificially by creating borders is just not gonna work.

MW: Dreamers was a commissioned work. What is the competition like for getting commissions? How does this business work?

LÓPEZ: It is difficult, it is hard, and I consider myself fortunate to be able to create works at this scale. But it didn’t start like that. I mean, I think the first time that I was performing at a professional orchestra in a concert, they played a four-and-a-half-minute piece. That’s all the time that I was given. But, whoever listened to that, it either captured your attention, or it didn’t. And then I was commissioned to do a 10-minute piece probably four years later or so, and after that people said, “Oh, this composer is interesting. Some talent to watch,” so to say. And then the piece started to travel in terms of chamber orchestra or orchestra, and then someone decided to bet on me with a larger piece. And then I wrote a 16-minute piece, and then a 20-minute piece, and then a 30-minute piece, until someone in Spain, in the National Orchestra of Spain, decided to commission my first symphony, or my first opera, with Renée Fleming and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

You have to prove yourself every step of the way, and every single piece you write is important because they are gonna judge you by whatever they listen to. You only have one chance. Aside from being good at your craft and really cultivating that, you also have to be able to put yourself out there. Doing that means, in the case of a composer, you need to make your music. You have to have it played and you have to have it recorded, even if not commercially. Now I can, because I have the resources and the possibility to do that, but in the past, I would just try to create archival recordings. Because, if you lose the opportunity to record a piece, which might not get played again in who knows how long, then you’re no longer able to propose it to someone else for programming. And then when someone didn’t want to play my piece, I would gather the musicians myself and just make it happen. You have to make things happen for yourself. You have to have your music out there, recorded. You have to have a website, you have to have social media. You have to email people, you have to attend concerts, be seen. It is all part of the business. It is also about projecting an image. Unfortunately, the decisions are not always made on artistic merit. And also, you have to be nice to work with. You have to be a nice person, because people will not work with you even if you’re a genius, if you’re a horrible person.

MW: It seems there’s a common idea that it’s the other way. That you can be really awful as long as you are some sort of genius.

LÓPEZ: Well, I don’t know. I haven’t got to the point that I can afford to be awful, nor do I want to. But honestly, I think the better way is always to have the utmost respect for people and to be kind and nice to everyone that comes your way, especially the people who believe in your music.

MW: What’s the challenge of getting classical music heard outside of concert halls? How, as a contemporary composer, do you get heard past all the Bachs and Beethovens?

LÓPEZ: You know, if I had the answer, I would probably be somewhere else right now. But I am in search of it, I can tell you that. Maybe one day I’ll have it. But I can tell you that the whole industry is collectively looking for that, as a matter of fact. That’s why orchestras are working on outreach programs. Right now, I’m in Houston, as composer-in-residence, and we’re working on beautiful projects that involve the community. To bring music outside of the concert hall, to different venues. That’s why you have projects like SoundBox in San Francisco. It’s a completely different venue, but people can sit, drink, snack or something, and listen to music as well. That’s why you have the orchestras trying to vary their programming or doing live performances of film music. Where people who are not interested in classical music but love film can just go to the concert halls as a way for their first entry.

MW: You have a bunch of commissions lined up. What’s next?

LÓPEZ: Right now I’m going to work as composer-in-residence with Houston Symphony, I’m writing a symphony. So that’s my second large project.

MW: This will be symphony number two?

LÓPEZ: Correct. Symphony number two.

MW: How many symphonies do you have in you? Does a composer have any idea how many they might write?

LÓPEZ: No, but I do want to write a few. I’ve been an orchestral composer for, I think, most of my life, and so that medium is very close to me and I feel I love all the orchestra colors and I love to express myself through the orchestra. And calling a work a symphony does carry a certain historical weight, but I admire the symphonies of the past. And so, the whole idea of the symphony as a self-contained universe that is born out of a single cell, that’s kind of my conception of what a symphony is. So, I love creating that, because it is almost an exercise in philosophy. It is extremely challenging, but I like those kind of challenges. So, I don’t know. I definitely want to write a few more. I can tell you that.

Dreamers simulcast performance of the world premiere from Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley screens live on Sunday, March 17, at 6 p.m. at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Call 202-785-9727 or visit www.washingtonperformingarts.org.

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