What were your early music experiences?

I was six years old, very young, when I moved to Australia. I was born in Chile, in Santiago, although I was made in Peru [laughs]. I have a Peruvian mother and a Chilean father, and I feel just as much Peruvian as I feel Chilean. The reason I say that is that my mother was perhaps the most influential person in my early musical life. She was an amateur singer. She liked to sing a lot of folk music from Peru and that really stuck with me a lot. I didn’t realise the implications when I was young. But soon enough I started creating my own melodies, some of them quite influenced by the folk music she would sing to me.

Daniel Rojas

How did you come into contact with Western classical music?

I remember one very fortuitous day we were running around the markets, and for some reason, this big collection of records just caught my attention. I asked my dad to purchase it for me. It was a lot of light classics – including some not so light classics – some Stravinsky, some Beethoven symphonies. We took it home and listened to it to the point of exhaustion. I would not stop listening, day in, day out. And naturally, as any seven or eight year old kid would do, I would try and play it on a piano. I’d remember tunes, and I’d start playing and plonk them out. It was far more interesting than the piano lessons my piano teacher was trying to give me!

That’s how I had my first lessons in harmony and melody writing, just trying to emulate these amazing recordings. And then the record collection grew. I remember a record collection of some of the greatest pianists at the time – well, it was literally before my time – you had the Alfred Cortot, the Claudio Arrau, Rubinstein. When everyone was sleeping I actually crawled back in there, put my headphones on, and just listened till whatever time I got told to go to bed.

Did you realise fairly young that you want make music your career?

I dreamed of it since I was a child. My very earliest thoughts lay between being a fighter pilot an architect or a musician – they were my early dreams. I would draw fighter jet pilots, I would trace floor plans, and then I’d also fantasise on the piano that I was playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, along with the recording. I’d get all my teddy bears out and conduct them with my A Tune A Day violin book as I was studying violin. But my parents always thought, “Oh, it’s just childhood things, you’ll grow up to be what Peruvian mothers hope their children to become – lawyers and doctors and engineers.”

I was a great disappointment, because that’s not what I went for. In fact, my first shot was to study theology. I went to a seminary to study it. And I got kicked out after about a year for certain reasons which I won’t get into. It was always written on the wall that I would become a musician – at least in my mind, anyway – because that’s what I loved. But my mother always wanted me to have a career outside of music – a hobby in music, but something else to support it. Dad, on the other hand, was completely supportive and I have him to thank for that transition from getting kicked out of theological seminary to going to the University of Sydney and doing my musical studies there.

Did you have the Chilean and Peruvian elements in your composing or improvising throughout that period, or was it more the Western classics?

I thought a lot about this throughout my years as a student and also then as a professional musician. I was always interested in folk music, Latin American folk music that extended from Peruvian folk music to Argentinian folk music, tango, Afro-Cuban music – which is also by extension North American as in New York salsa. But I thought that I shouldn’t allow them to influence my classical music.

When I got into the University of Sydney, at about age 19, I was studying with Professor Anne Boyd and she quickly changed that. I played her a composition along the lines of something between Górecki and early Schoenberg – I loved their scores. And then I played her something that was influenced by folk music. I thought: “Not sure if I should play it to her, it’s a little bit embarrassing, but I’ll do it anyway.”

It reminds me a little bit of Piazzolla’s experience with Nadia Boulanger, come to think of it. She said, “No, that’s it. That’s the sort of music that you should incorporate. Don’t worry about the European stuff – be you, draw from your Latin American heritage. It’s very fresh, it’s hardly ever been done here in this country, and it’s a path I really urge you to take.” That resonated quite deeply, so that’s what I started to do.

How did your career as a composer develop?

I started writing a couple of pieces which then caught the interest of several musicians. They really enjoyed the rhythmic element of it, and the rather effervescent energy and quality of music – I like to write music that’s quite happy. I wrote a couple of orchestral works which were performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Young Composers programme and so I started getting a little bit more confidence. I learned how to write more for orchestra and wrote a couple of piano concertos, which did really well and got repeat performances, that included this Latin American element. So now it’s part and parcel of what I do. It’s inherently part of my musical vocabulary.

Were you performing all through this period as well?

Throughout my undergraduate studies I didn’t perform very much, because I was focused on working my craft as a composer. I did a lot of improvising, which is a pet joy of mine, but performance not so much. What I did more of was performing folk music and Latin American popular music, particularly Afro-Cuban music, salsa, and a little later, I did tango, which is what I’m very active in performing now. I play with several tango ensembles and I have my own tango ensemble called Orquesta La Luna.

I started performing more formal music only a few years ago. And more recently, I’ve been collaborating with some very good musicians, particularly with Zubin Kanga, finishing off a two piano recording, recording some pretty big repertoire that has been arranged for two pianos, or other formations with two pianos. So I perform regularly these days, and I try to balance that out with a career as a composer, and also as a music educator as a full time academic staff member of the University of Sydney, Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Do you see yourself primarily as a composer, or are you happy to wear all the different hats?

I think I see myself primarily as a composer, yes. And close second as a pianist. But I love doing both. It’s when I perform my own work that I’m the happiest, to be honest with you. But I also see myself equally as a music educator, because I love that passionately. It’s one of my greatest passions, and the Sydney Conservatorium has been incredibly generous and very supportive with my being a composer and a performer, which only helps the quality of teaching that I can offer my students.

In 2017 you’re Composer-in-Residence with the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra. How important are these kinds of residencies for composers?

I think this is very, very important for young composers and later composers as well, to keep developing throughout their careers. It’s so important to build relationships with orchestras, ensembles, or musicians. We have an ongoing collaboration so that the organisation and the musicians get to understand the composer and vice versa. The composer really gets to understand the way that the orchestra or the ensemble functions, and how they sound, and why. There’s always that degree of learning that takes place from workshopping a piece of music and then doing another piece of music with the same musicians, that you enter a greater degree of mutual understanding, of mutual respect – so there’s a greater freedom to be able to ask questions, to be able to give and receive feedback.

It’s not only about writing good music but it’s also about writing music that’s going to communicate to the musicians, so composers know how to write their intentions clearly, and also as a direct result, see how the audiences they’re writing for respond. Because I honestly don’t believe in writing in a vacuum. I’m looking to influence, to impact in some way or another.

In April you yourself will be performing with the WSO, as the soloist in your First ‘Latin’ Piano Concerto. What are the challenges of performing your own work?

I wrote it for Zubin Kanga, and I made it difficult. There are some very tricky passages. At the time I was writing it, I thought, “if I can play them slowly, then I’m sure a professional pianist will be able to play them.” But when I started learning it, I’m realised that a fair bit of it I can do, no problem – but those passages require incredible amounts of concentration and it’s very risky. If you’re not really fully focused, it can turn around and bite you! I also improvise the cadenzas, which makes each performance unique. You will never hear that cadenza again unless somebody grabs a recorder. So that keeps me on the edge, it keeps everybody on the edge, and it kind of in a sense makes a little bit of music history at that time.

Daniel Rojas is Composer-in-Residence with the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He will perform his ‘Latin’ Piano Concerto with the WSO in their Glory programme at The Concourse, Chatswood April 29–30 and Claire Edwardes will perform Rojas’ Marimba Concerto with the WSO in Miracle at The Concourse June 17–18.

The Willoughby Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 season opens with Genius at the Concourse March 4-5.