Tania León: The Rhythm of Life

The new music community has been impacted, inspired and transformed by Tania León as a musical creator–as well as an interpreter, educator, and organizer–for decades.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

On Sunday (December 4), Tania León was welcomed at The White House by President Joe Biden along with George Clooney, Gladys Knight, Amy Grant, and the four members of the Irish rock band U2 before all of them were feted at the 45th Kennedy Center Honors. And this weekend (December 9-11), the Detroit Symphony will perform her latest orchestral composition Pasajes, a work co-commissioned by five different orchestras led by the Arkansas Symphony (which premiered the work on April 9) through New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program which fosters collaboration and collective action between US orchestras and composers toward racial and gender equity in classical music.

León has received extensive mainstream media coverage leading up to ceremony at the Kennedy Center, perhaps even more than when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year for her orchestral composition Stride which received its world premiere performance by the New York Philharmonic just before the pandemic reached New York City. Particularly poignant and revelatory was Michael Andor Brodeur’s boldly-titled profile in The Washington Post, “Tania León changed the sound of being American.” But those of us in the new music community have been impacted, inspired and transformed by León as a musical creator–as well as an interpreter, educator, and organizer–for decades.

In fact, Tania León holds a very special place here at New Music USA in addition to her being one of the 11 composers involved in Amplifying Voices. Back in August 1999, just three months after NewMusicBox went online, my lengthy talk with her was the very first one-on-one NewMusicBox conversation with an individual composer, a tradition we continue to this day with our SoundLives podcasts. In all those years we have never spoken with anyone twice–until now. Given all the things that León has accomplished in the last 23 years, besides those aforementioned accolades and performances, we had plenty to talk about.

Of course, it was inevitable that we would talk about how the world has changed since 1999. There were so many things we could not have possibly anticipated, including the two most obvious ones: the events of September 11, 2001 and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. And yet there were so many musical topics we talked about back then that have remained timely to this day–the importance of collaboration, awareness of and appreciation for all musical traditions, and the need for greater gender and racial inclusivity in our music-making and programming while at the same time being mindful of how labeling limits people.

“I don’t like to be categorized because my identity’s fluid,” she explained. “The one that I was last week is not the one that is coming to you right now. Every experience in my life molds me in ways that I never know where it’s going.”

One of the ways that León’s music has been categorized is that it displays “rhythmic inventiveness,” a by-product of her growing in Cuba.

“I don’t invent anything; that’s what I hear,” she exclaimed. “It might have to do with the fact that I grew up in a society or a culture that is very rhythmical. … But not everything is rhythmical; I write pieces that might be very slow, very lyrical, but my interpretation of life had to do in a way with the rhythm of life. Even when something is very slow, there’s a current which is behind, you know. It’s like, I’m talking to you right now, but the beating of my heart is very different than the rhythm of my conversation. … Rhythm is not what we translate as digga-da, digga-da. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s the rhythm of life. The rhythm of watching my plants when a leaf comes out and then, by next week, the leaf is bigger. There was a rhythm in that growth that I didn’t capture, but it would be interesting for me just to sit down and stare at the leaf for a week to see if I understand what is the process or what is the pace of the leaf growing up.”

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    Tania León in a red jacket.

    Tania León (Photo by Gail Hadani)

    Tania León: The Rhythm of Life

    Tania León in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
    November 11, 2022 at 11:00 A.M.
    Transcribed by Julia Lu

    Frank J. Oteri: It is so great to see you over Zoom. It’s of course better to see you in person.

    Tania León: I know. I know. We have to correct that one.

    FJO: I’ll take what I can get. It’s hard to believe that we recorded a talk for NewMusicBox over 23 years ago. You were the very first individual composer that I did a talk with. And in all these years, we have never spoken to anybody twice.

    TL: Really?

    FJO:  So you’re the first again with this.  So much has happened in those 23 years: in your life, in your career as a composer, as a musical citizen. It seemed a shame that we couldn’t talk about those things, which we didn’t talk about 23 years ago, because they didn’t exist yet, you know.

    TL: Exactly. Yes.

    FJO: But then also, you know, the world has completely changed. You know, 23 years ago, there was no social media. There was no Wikipedia. It was still the 20th century. Bill Clinton was president. But I read the talk again this morning, and it amazed me, despite it being so long ago how pertinent so much of what we talked about is to the current moment as well.

    TL: Yes.

    FJO: You know, a lot of things have changed, but a lot of things have not changed. And a lot of the issues that we’re facing as individual creators and within our society are still very much the same issues. Even though there’s been a lot of positive movement to change things, but these things move very slowly. From your perspective, what would you say is the most significant change in our musical community since the 21st century began?

    TL: Well, this is an aspect that we spoke [about] then and an aspect that is being revisited in a different way right now: inclusion of composers of color, more exposure for women, and more acceptance of people the way they are. The thing that I think as a provocateur as this point [is] How much is being done? And then always the question: is this going to last?

    FJO: Right.

    TL: We will see. Because also there are new generations of composers that have emerged, and they’re giving space at this time for the conversation. When I say how much they are going to be a lasting effect in the environment, the musical environment is specifically when we talk about concert music. That is something that twenty years from now, 40 years from now, one can calibrate to see [if] the impact was real or [if] it was a thing of the moment.

    FJO: Another aspect to this that I think is really significant, and we talked about it back then, is obviously cultural identity and background has an impact on every composer. It’s part of who that composer is because you are the result of your experiences. But at the same time, it is not the sum total. And identity is a lot more complex than these one-liners that we’re boxed into. And I know that for you, you come from people all over the world. So all of those traditions are your heritage. For me, as somebody who’s adopted, it’s the opposite thing. None of them are. But because none of them are, all of them are. So I feel those things get left out when we try to pigeonhole a composer and say you’re this or you’re that.

    TL: Well, you know that I always defied categorization. I don’t like to be categorized because my identity’s fluid. And the one that I was last week is not the one that is coming to you right now. Every experience in my life molds me in ways that I never know where it’s going. It’s very interesting because I don’t see my family as often. And when I have the opportunity to see them, not because I don’t want to see them, but the thing is that we’re in five different countries. And the thing is that when I get to see them, they tell me how much I have changed. And the thing is that I’m not aware of that. But now I realize that, again, I cannot say my identity is this or that because it’s changing all the time.

    FJO: Which is as it should be. If you’re creating, you’re always on to the new project. You’re always growing. You’re always developing. We have these terms that we make for people, even aside from the cultural ones, like emerging composer. Or established composer. Shouldn’t we all always be emerging? Shouldn’t we all be on to the next thing?

    TL: Yes, I mean, that’s how I feel. I mean that’s why I talk about identity in that way. Because I’m constantly emerging, and I’m constantly discovering things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know I could do, or things that actually changed my focus in unexpected ways. And so it’s re-learning myself every 24 hours. It’s just fantastic.

    FJO: It’s great to wake up every morning to a new life. Getting back to this, because it’s sort of shocking to me to see where you’re at now, where your music is at now. When we talked back in 1999, there was only one CD devoted exclusively to your music. That disc on CRI. That was the only one. And I love that disc, and I wanted to talk to you. Since then, there was this amazing disc of ballets, which I remember I did the notes for. I love those pieces so much. One of them was available on LP at one point, but long gone, so great to have that back in the catalog.

    FJO: And then the disc of chamber works on Bridge, and then this brand new amazing solo piano disc. Adam Kent really gets your music. And it was just such a joy to hear that.

    TL: Adam has a lot of experience and not because that informed him, but he has gone many, many times to Cuba. He captures the spirit of the culture. I am blend of many cultures. Also he has gone many, many times to Spain. And that is one of the influences in my family. So he gets into my pieces in a way that is really insightful. And he has a great technique, so whatever demands that I may place on him, he gives flawlessly. He gets it and develops beautifully.

    FJO: One of the things you said to me years ago, and it’s something we’ve talked about off camera forever since then is there’s only so much stuff that you can put on the page for music. Notation gets you very far, but it doesn’t get you to the finish line. And certainly with a lot of your music, and things that you’re responding to, and the various traditions that combine in your music, there’s this whole sense of rhythm, which you can notate precisely on the page, but if you’re so busy being precise, you’re missing the fundamental thing which is to groove. Which is to have tumbáo, as you say. So how do you get that? How do you get somebody who does not have that background to do that?

    TL: One of the things that I have experienced is, when I have an opportunity to play with or to actually work with the interpreter, they tell me that they capture the aha moment, which is very different, because anybody, as far as my rhythmical syntax, is going to interpret what they see mathematically speaking. The whole thing sounds devoid of soul. I don’t do that for effect. It’s something that is natural in me. I get very interested when I have read accounts of my music talking about my rhythmical inventiveness. I don’t invent anything; that’s what I hear. And that is what I put on the page.

    It might have to do with the fact that I grew up in a society or a culture that is very rhythmical. And something that I didn’t notice until I returned after many years that I realize and it’s in the people’s walking, the people’s gestures. Everywhere you’re walking there’s music in the background. I have no idea, but not everything is rhythmical; I write pieces that might be very slow, very lyrical, but my interpretation of life had to do in a way with the rhythm of life. Even when something is very slow, there’s a current which is behind you know. It’s like, I’m talking to you right now, but the beating of my heart is very different than the rhythm of my conversation.

    FJO: Hmmm.

    TL: And that is what I’m talking about. Rhythm is not what we translate as digga-da, digga-da. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s the rhythm of life. The rhythm of watching my plants when a leaf comes out and then, by next week, the leaf is bigger. There was a rhythm in that growth. that I didn’t capture, but it would be interesting for me just to sit down and stare at the leaf for a week to see if I understand what is the process or what is the pace of the leaf growing up.

    FJO: One of the problems we got bogged down with in the 20th century, that hopefully we’ll get bogged out of in the 21st, is people were so obsessed with getting notes and rhythms right. What was on the page. And maybe in so doing, not feeling it, and in that process, they got the answers right, but they failed the test. Right? There have been amazing performances of Milton’s Babbitt’s music and Elliott Carter’s music when a player interprets it and makes it their own. But when you’re so busy saying, oh, this is so hard, but I gotta make this right, you can hear it, and it’s not fun to listen to at all.

    TL: In Milton Babbitt, I still hear jazz reflections in some of his passages that might be very intellectually realized by others. I see it like like a fluid moment you know. It’s like letting go, in a way, maybe because I know about his background and even conversations with, that we talked about that. There was a famous conversation that I could never ever, ever, ever forget. We were in a Chinese restaurant on Columbus Avenue. Of course, none of that exists right now. But it was Milton Babbitt, [Morton] Feldman, [John] Duffy, and myself.

    FJO: Wow.

    TL: And we were talking about each other’s background. And that is when he talked about playing jazz, how involved he was with that before he turned. And it was an exhilarating conversation. We were laughing. We were carrying on. We were having fried rice. It’s something that I will never forget; the ghost of that conversation and their images still linger with me.

    Tania León conducting (photo by Gail Hadani)

    Tania León conducting (photo by Gail Hadani)

    FJO: It was wonderful to see you on stage just last weekend at Town Hall conducting Laura Kaminsky’s new opera. As somebody who’s involved in the performance of music as well as the creation of it, you get that it has to breathe. That it has to have this life. This energy. This constant changing. Growing like the leaves of a plant as you say.

    TL: I enjoyed that piece tremendously, besides working with Laura. Getting to know what she wanted out of the music and the singers and musicians. And the thing is that closed a circle with us in a way, because the first time that I interpreted her music was precisely at Town Hall 40 years ago.

    FJO: Wow.

    TL: I know. I mean, we were like wow, is this really happening?

    FJO: And of course for her, it was just such a tremendous homecoming because she was the artistic director there. And it was just so wonderful seeing all the people who love her there in that audience. The only thing I thought when we were there was wow, there are so many people, and we’re masked up, it’s like we’re still not over this ridiculous pandemic, and is this safe? But it felt so good that I don’t want to worry. Another circle that I want to talk about. A really big one, because so many things happened in between that circle. And it’s a lot shorter time span, but it is a huge circle. And that is the circle from February 2020 to October 2022. It’s just two and a half years, but in February 2020, I was in the audience for the world premiere of your orchestra piece Stride. And it was one of the last concerts I went to in that space. And of course, that space was closed while they were redesigning it and re-doing the sound and everything. But it was also closed because everything was closed. The world completely shut down. But I remember feeling so exhilarated at that performance, and loving that piece, and such an energy in the room, not knowing that just like a few weeks later, we’d all be locked in our apartments and not going anywhere for like a year. But then, to come back and hear it again, to hear the piece, a new piece, that is now not a new piece. Right? It’s not a premiere. And it wasn’t the opening work on the concert. It was on the second half. In the same hall, but it’s a different hall. You know, the sound is different. It was just such a wonderful circle and of course, in between, you know, no small thing, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

    TL: Every time that I think about that piece, and writing the piece, writing a piece for the Philharmonic, which I had a relationship with from the past, and seeing so many players that are still there that greeted me like greeting a family member. It was really something else. You know. And of course, I mean, the first time when you hear your pieces, I don’t know, you’re there, but you’re not there. You recognize some in the piece, but then others you don’t recognize. And then the nervousness of having a piece written for a premier orchestra and what was going to happen. So I had no expectation whatsoever. And I was surprised about audience reactions and comments from friends, and even the musicians and the music director. I worked with Jaap. He’s a composer also. So therefore, our conversation was deeper in a way. It was not about how to conduct this, I mean, it was more the meaning behind each section. And what we were after. The thing is that listening to the piece again, now I was listening to the piece for the first time. Something that in a way, that I didn’t do when it was premiered because I was just too nervous. And the piece brought me back to one of those moments that I experienced when writing it.

    You remember in the middle of the piece, there is this thing that appears that becomes sort of like a march. I can tell you when I was writing the piece. My mind went back to my arrival in the United States. I equated the impetus of Susan B. Anthony going with all those women to petition. And I put that in balance to what I witnessed for the first time in my life, which was the marches of Martin Luther King, because he was alive when I arrived here. And that is when I saw for the first time something like that. So that came to my mind, and that provoked that moment where everything stops. And all of a sudden, this sort of like seemingly gigantic foot starts walking slowly at a pace that you cannot count because I put it always in an entrance that it was unexpected.

    So it’s not with the beat. It may be entering in a fraction, of a sixteenth note, as a 32nd, something like that. It was wonderful watching the bass section; it’s for the bass and percussion. It’s with a sand block, if you’re wearing a boot or something like that, and you are on a rough pavement you have that Shhh kind of thing. Right? And when I heard it the first time again, this time, it sent me to the same place.

    FJO: Hmmm.

    TL: It’s like I left the hole, and I got in my mind, the picture of these marches again.

    TL: And that is something that I value, at least in my writing, because I don’t write from my head only. Of course, we have all these techniques and all of these things that we employ, and we know what pitches to use and things like that. But for me, intuition is very important. And that was a moment of intuition that translates nowadays and goes into the piece. They talk about that moment. My intuition told me at that moment this. I didn’t doubt it.

    FJO:  Well, it was extremely effective both times I heard it. I didn’t have the pressure of it being my piece being premiered, so I was able to hear it the first time. But what I will say is so interesting, you know, comparing those concerts, on that world premiere performance, you were the living composer. Right? Everything else was repertoire.

    TL: Yes.

    FJO: I think it was the Brahms Violin Concerto and Rosenkavalier, war horses that are great music, but all stuff we heard before. This was the first thing that we never heard before on that concert. And then the concert that just happened, there were three living composers. And all of them were there. And it was so exciting. And one piece was a world premiere. And you know, I’d obviously heard your piece before. So it wasn’t a new piece to me, but it might have been a new piece to other people in the audience. Marcos Balter’s piece was brand new. John Adams’ piece has been done before. I certainly heard it before, but I didn’t hear this orchestra do it. It was interesting that the Respighi was outnumbered by the new pieces. And it kind of made the Respighi interesting in a way perhaps more interesting than it would have been if it was just one work on a standard repertoire concert. It gave every piece a little bit more special flavor, which I thought was beautiful, and especially beautiful for an opening concert. You know, it’s so nice to see that an orchestra trusts that an audience will come to an opening concert if it’s mostly new music. Of course they’ll come. They were there.

    TL: Yes. It was packed. I was very impressed about that, too. You know, and that the audience embraced each of the living composers’ pieces in a way that was significant every time that a composer went on stage to take a bow, it felt so good for the three of us. We were talking about that actually.

    FJO: And I thought the pre-concert talk was also wonderful. It was great to have that, and the fact is this wasn’t a new music concert. It was a New York Philharmonic concert, but there happened to be three living composers there. And it was presented as though, this is the way things are. You know?

    TL: Yes. Um hm.

    FJO: But it’s so often not the way things are. And I wonder, you know, I wonder hearing Stride, the first time, when it was the concert opener. Once upon a time, certainly back when we talked in 1999, the way a living composer got on a program, if they got on a program of an orchestra, most of the time, was to write a short, upbeat piece that could be put at the opening. And then the people who don’t want to hear it, come in late, and they get their concerto with the top soloist, and their Tchaikovsky symphony, and then they go home. Um, but now, you this is so different to have new pieces played all through a program. Pieces by living people and this is really the way it should be.

    TL: I think that now we are starting to understand the weight of the new, which is not so new in a way, because this is the way the arts have been for centuries. And always the same reaction, sometimes favorably, sometimes not favorably. Every time that I go to the opera to actually listen to the opera Carmen I always remember the disaster of emotional impact that it did for Bizet. At that time it was totally negated the quality of this piece that he wrote., The critics were saying that the piece was vulgar. And by the time the piece was actually performed, he died. So he never understood that his piece will become a classic. Now, it’s a piece that is in every opera house constantly, celebrated by audiences. This is the tragedy that has to do with the arts to be validated.  I always say that whatever we’re doing artistically right now is actually the legacy and the testament that we’re leaving for future generations. So you yourself as a composer, you have written operas, you have written all kind of musics, orchestra. Who knows what is going to be discussed in year 3000 as far as the music that was created in this era?

    FJO: It’s true. I think it is important to have this balance. When I was younger, I would say, we heard all these old pieces before, let’s just hear the new pieces. I think there does need to be a combination. There does need to be a synthesis, and of course, it was so interesting, John Adams’s piece was a 20th century piece, so it’s an old piece from the perspective of now we’re in a new century. He’s still very much with us, and from an orchestral context, it’s a new piece. But it’s not a new piece. And that’s great. It’s great that it becomes repertoire. And now Stride, just premiered only two years ago, now it is repertoire as well. You want these pieces to have a life and to continue. As we’re talking, I just had this crazy idea that the new piece in the past was the concert opener. Maybe the concert opener should always be an old piece. That way you kind of settle in. This is what you know, and it prepares you for the thing you don’t know yet that’s coming up.

    TL: That would be fantastic.

    FJO: I don’t know if there are enough older pieces that are, that are short and high-energy enough to fill that role. But maybe there shouldn’t be one mood for these kinds of pieces.

    TL: Well, you know, in my consciousness, I think that all these pieces have to be played. And that composers have to have the opportunity to have a space the same way that the museums–you go to MoMA and you see the biggest artists and the ones, as you said before, emerging. There’s a whole display, and nobody actually runs out of the room because they don’t understand the graphics or the images in the canvas. So I think that the same thing should happen in the concert hall. And, as far as the concert hall is included, all genres of music count.

    FJO: Yes. Yes.

    TL: The Philharmonic did a collaboration with Etienne Charles and then all of a sudden, the Philharmonic was playing a rhythm that later I was talking to Jaap about, where Jaap was actually in three and then the ensemble was playing maybe in 9/8 or 12/8 with a syncopation that is called cinquillo, which actually accents over five. The coordination was spectacular. The audience was literally dancing in their seats. And it was announced as the first time that the Philharmonic does that kind of collaboration. And it was a totally different genre of music.

    FJO: And of course, you know the Philharmonic did a great job doing Sondheim’s musicals and they were able to make that come across. I’m reminded of the talk I had a few years ago with Hannibal about his work with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    TL: Yes.

    FJO: Now we have musicians who are playing in orchestras who also play in salsa bands, who play in jazz groups and rock groups. People are more poly-musical, poly-stylistic than they once were. They aren’t in just one pocket. Which seems to me an interesting segue to talk about the Kennedy Center Honors that are coming up for you. There was a long time when the so-called classical music world didn’t pay attention to any other music and kind of disparaged any music creator who was working in any genre. I’m so happy everything has opened up, and that there’s all this other stuff out there, but my fear is that sometimes in the popular music world, they will pay attention to every type of music making except so-called classical music because maybe they just assume that it’s just people playing a bunch of old, dead guys from 200 years ago. And they don’t realize that there are people still doing this. So it made me so happy to see that in addition to Gladys Knight and U2, who’ve done amazing contributions to music, they’re also honoring somebody who’s written tons of music, but who’s written for the orchestra: you.

    TL: I grew up in a conservatory with the training that was French training, with solfege from day one. And then all the repertoire of a pianist. And that is how I arrived in the United States, thinking that my career was concert pianist. I had the chops. I had won competitions. And composition came out of the left field. It was not in my consciousness. I didn’t have plans for something like that. It just happened, When I was in Cuba, I was at the conservatory, but on the weekends, we would go out and play all kinds of music. We were playing all the popular music. I was doing songs with my brother; we sang duets. He had a little group of musicians. And then, at every opportunity, we were dancing salsa. To this day, I say okay, I can conduct Stravinsky, play Hindemith, but I dance salsa. That is in me, and nobody’s going to take that away from me. So therefore, for me, popular music is something that is part of my canvas as well. I have no problem with that. And with the Dance Theater of Harlem, the dancers would teach me the dances of the time. After doing ballet, you know, Swan Lake and everything, we would end up in a discotheque, dancing whichever dance was of the moment. So therefore, I have never established that kind of demarcation where I said, well, I’m this. Or I’m that. Or I favor this. No. I was in China, and now we have all these pipa concertos, and erhu concertos, instruments that 30, 40 years ago, we were not able to explore.

    And that is helping bring change dramatically. I went there, and I was actually exposed to the Peking Opera which to this day has captivated me, because I don’t know anything about that system. And I am captivated by tabla drumming, which is totally different than the type of rhythmical complexities that we were talking about before. I think that the music of the cultures of the world is actually the seed of the leaf of what we do musically speaking. We call it folk music. But the thing is that that music that came out of the intuition of that culture is what had germinated into everything that we do. The languages that have been created, from 12-tone language to tonal language, to what we call atonal or post-tonal, all these words that we invent to describe these things, it germinates out of the same thing. It was the human spirit and the human creation in all manifestations. So therefore I’m very honored and I was very surprised with the call that told me that I was going to be part of this group. Because I said, “How come? What happened?” Who thought of something like this for me to represent our community.

    FJO: We say “our community.” Ideally should be no walls between musics, but there are.

    TL: Yes.

    FJO: And the classical world isn’t the only world, the only silo, that puts them up. Other communities do, too. The popular music community, and there are many of them, also have their walls. So it made me very happy to see that this is an embrace of so many different things. This gets to you as a musical citizen. And I want to spend some time talking about that, and the importance of that. I know for both of us, and for so many other people in our community, John Duffy and Fran Richard have been really important mentors. And both of them instilled this idea that living composers must be visible. That we need to see this person behind the curtain; that it isn’t just the notes on the page. At the end of the day, we need to know who that person is. You’ve done such a huge job with that in a very grassroots way, with Composers Now. I know for me certainly during the pandemic, it was a lifeline to be able to hear all those talks from those different composers, to actually do one myself. It was just such a wonderful thing.

    TL: At Composers Now, we are having conversations with all kind of composers. In fact, the upcoming festival, the opening is going to for the first time have a composer of hip-hop coming with his group. It’s interesting for me because we have had conversation of composers of different aspects of music or different genres of music, whatever you want to say. And it’s interesting because after talking for five minutes, they are all talking about the same thing.

    FJO: Yes.

    TL: They are talking about the same techniques. They’re talking about structure. It is fascinating to hear them, one asking the other how are you doing such and such. It’s like finding family members in other parts of the world that you didn’t know exist. And that is what fascinates me because it’s about the art of composition in whichever way you manifest it. Not everybody has to write a symphony. What about the composer that writes tangos? What happened when we discovered Piazzolla? All of a sudden, the so-called classical music community embraced Piazzolla. Everybody wanted to play the tango. Sometimes, just for argument’s sake, I say what’s the difference between a waltz and a mambo? All of these manifestations are very interesting. And at Composers Now, this is what we do. We have these discussions, we expose the world of a specific composer in their own words.

    We don’t interfere. We give a chance to the composer to talk about his or her development or what they’re trying to do. It doesn’t have to be acoustic work. It can be an electro-acoustic work. It can be actually installations; it could be anything. But it’s about the art of composition. And, as you said, it’s an organization which is grassroots. And In a way it’s a continual [continuation] of the work that John Duffy began and that Fran Richard supports. She’s [still] here with us. They were both big mentors of mine. And it’s something that I want to give back, because I arrived here never knowing that this was going to happen after so many years. They embraced me and encouraged me and supported me. It’s something that I would never forget.

    Tania León (photo by Gail Hadani)

    Tania León (photo by Gail Hadani)

    FJO: A final area I want to talk about–I listened to it again this week in preparing to talk with you. I hadn’t listened to it in a number of years. Thankfully I have a private recording of it because it was never released commercially–your opera Scourge of Hyacinths. It’s a sadness to me that that still has not been commercially recorded and that there haven’t been productions. I’ve never seen it. I’ve only heard it. It hasn’t been done here. But what amazed me about it was how timely that also is for this current moment. When you have leaders in the world like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Bolsonaro, and all of these people who are these strongmen forcing ideas of obedience. I feel like now the time is ripe for this opera to be done all over the world and to talk about these issues about why we keep glomming onto these strongmen figures all over the world.

    TL: The text came out of Wole Soyinka, a man that espoused very, very high standards. I owe that to Henry Louis Gates, the one that sent him my music, thinking that would be interesting for us to collaborate. And it really happened! 21 performances in five different countries. Not in the United States, but mainly Europe and Mexico. One of the things that I felt in terms of my interpretations of society and humanity is when people attain power, I don’t know what the sensation is for a human being to be with a microphone in front of millions of people shouting their name. I have no idea what that does to that human being. Some of these people that get to that kind of power might believe they’re gods. And then all kind of rules and regulations start coming up in order to control the mass and also rules and regulations spoken in the name of a mass. I have never been involved in politics, even though I know politics is everything. There’s politics in families. Politics in neighborhoods, in the office, in the towns, in the countries.

    But it’s something that I have avoided from the first time of thinking rationally in terms of that type of situation. Maybe because I don’t believe in what I’ve been told. I have had the experience really going against odds to accomplish anything. And maybe because anything offering me a part of that is what is this person talking about that they are going to do for me that I cannot do for myself? That is something that really, really make me very keen to actually work on this opera. Besides that, the mother in the opera was praying to a deity that I knew before the text was given to me. And that is the deity of Yemanjá, which is a deity that comes from, in Cuba called Santería, the mix of Catholicism and Yoruba traditions brought by the Africanos, forced labor translated into slavery. That is the same deity that my mother and my grandmother, every time that my brother and I were sick or my brother and I had to take a test or exam, they would always pray to this same this deity for us. So when I read that in A Scourge of Hyacinths, A Scourge of Hyacinths is actually the name of the novel that Wole Soyinka wrote for BBC Radio. And then what I did is I took the A away, and then the title of the opera is Scourge of Hyacinths. So when I read that, I said, oh my god. I have to write this opera.

    It was so incredible for me to read that this mother was praying to this very same deity for the salvation of her son. And that my grandmother and my mother, since I was a child, were praying to the same deity. So I found a connection immediately. And I said to Wole, of course. And then you know, we worked very hard. I must say also that Hans Werner Henze  is the one that believed that I could write an opera. When he told me I want you to write an opera, I said, “I don’t like opera.” You know? I never write any opera. He said, well, you’re gonna write an opera. I said “Okay. Okay.” So that’s how the thing started.

    FJO: Wow. I never knew that.

    TL: The first director was Mark Lamos in Munich. München. And then, the biggest production was with Robert Wilson in Geneva with the Orchestra of the Suisse Romande. I conducted all of the performances; that’s where my chops as an opera conductor [were] really polished.

    FJO: The time is ripe for it to be done in the United States. Because even here, the kinds of things that we see happen in the world could happen here too. And I think this opera is a very instructive warning to where a society can go if we’re not careful about protecting our democracy, our freedom.

    TL: I don’t know, I have no idea, but I think that sometimes when I think history and I equate that to our times. Everything is a repetition.

    FJO: Yes.

    TL: We’re repeating, and repeating, and repeating. Even slavery, it might be in different forms. There is actually slavery in forms of women being treated as slaves or children treated as slaves. It’s power, mind power over people. I sometimes think about, when I go to Rome to the Colosseum, these images about lions eating people. And some people applauding.

    FJO: And they would today as well.

    TL: When masses of people just go like a herd behind ideas, thinking that an idea is going to actually get them to the paradise that they think without the effort of really working hard every day and preparing oneself in order to understand others, and treating each other kindly.

    FJO: And to be a new person every day.

    TL: Absolutely.

    FJO: To end this on a more positive note, everything does repeat itself. I am so happy that we repeated having another conversation. And we had a very different conversation that was also filled with so many thoughts that hopefully will resonate with a lot of people and inspire people. So thank you.

    TL: Thank you. Thank you so much. I just want to make sure that you know how much I admire you and love you.  You’re a colleague that have been there for me and for many of us doing real work in order to give us voice through NewMusicBox. It’s not only giving us a space, but actually with respect, how you communicate with us and how we exchange ideas and put things to work. That is something that I just want you to know. I’m very grateful. I love our friendship and collegiality.

    FJO: I do too. Thank you, Tania.