Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

Although raised in Cuba, Tania León was born into a family that had roots from all different parts of the globe. Since arriving in the United States, where she has been based since 1967, she has come to realize that her own multicultural heritage is what makes her a quintessentially American composer.

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.

Tania León
photo by Michael Provost, courtesy Kaylor Management, Inc.

Monday, July 12, 1999
American Music Center , New York NY

Tania León – Composer, Conductor, Education, Artistic Advisor
Frank J. Oteri – Editor, NewMusicBox @ the American Music Center

Interview transcribed by Karyn Joaquino

1. Being an American Composer

TANIA LEÓN: I have always had a lot of situations where I couldn’t define myself, not only being born in a family that had people that came from different parts of the globe, and settled, and the only thing that they had in common is that they were poor people. So it didn’t matter how they looked, or what kind of, you know, ethnicity, if you wanted to call it that way, they qualify for, or they can codify. You know, I arrived in the United States with this mentality, that, you know, it didn’t matter what you look like, because you never knew what was under or behind. In Cuba we have a saying that says “where’s your grandmother?” because by looking at the grandparents, you possibly can actually trace, you know, the many things that this person is about. So therefore, coming here in 1967, and actually walking into the situation with the walks of Martin Luther King and also the death of Luther King, the death of Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, being at New York University trying to learn English, and being thrown in rallies by my friends and asking what people were saying, you know, and they said don’t worry about what they’re saying, just shout, we don’t know what we’re shouting about! [Laughs] So that is how I landed here, and then the year meeting Arthur Mitchell and actually embarking on the first project that I ever embarked in my life which is the Dance Theater of Harlem, and the foundation of a company starting from zero, that is what actually has shaped, I think, the Tania that I am right now. And I’m totally anti-labels, I’m totally anti-pigeon-holing the person under something because that actually demarcates the boundaries of that person and it limits the person, and you know, it has been quite a ride and I think that I am still in the middle of a journey.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s been a very exciting journey so far, and one of the things that I find so fascinating is that you say that your career as a composer really began through collaboration, and that sort of embodies your whole outlook on the world: it’s a battle, joining forces with other people, and even to the point that you composed a piece of music with Michel Camilo, the great Latin keyboard player and this is so unusual in the concert hall tradition, for somebody to co-write a piece of music with someone else, but it’s so natural, and the work flows, the two sensibilities come together as one coherent whole.

“Collaboration goes back to my upbringing.”
RealPlayer  [98 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Performed by Puntilla and New Generation with the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble,
Conducted by Tania León
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: Collaboration goes back to my upbringing. When you live in a household where there is not too many means, everybody collaborates with everybody. So at a given time I had to collaborate with my father in order to actually have the electricity running in the apartment, so therefore, I learned, through him, how to put electrical wires together and how to make connections, so I became his sideman at that time. It was not: “She’s a girl, she’s not supposed to do this.” So therefore, by the time I went out in the world, my whole outlook about working with people didn’t have that much demarcation per se. And actually, beginning with the Dance Theater of Harlem, the process there was that Arthur invited dancers and people in many, many walks of life to put this whole thing together, and everybody actually contributed by painting the walls, doing the floor, you know, it didn’t matter if you were the pianist or not, you were doing the same thing. And the thing was, actually, the process of building, building up, and that is something that I have applied to my associations in the arts, and whether it has been with a choreographer, with another composer, with a painter, with a poet, with a writer, with a theater director, it has always been like that, it hasn’t been, per se, a fight. It has been more like a merging of ideas and propelling into a new way of realizing something.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said at the very onset of our conversation that you don’t like labels. I’m going to ask you a loaded label question. Do you consider yourself an American composer?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I consider myself an American composer. Do you know why? Because I have been born in the Americas. The Americas encompass North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. This is the continent that was discovered by the so-called people from Europe. I say “so-called people from Europe” because, I mean, since man was born on this planet, I don’t know how many years ago, all right, after Big Bang, people have been moving around. You know, the people that so call themselves European, do we know if they come from that spot or they migrated from somewhere else?

FRANK J. OTERI: And certainly, when they came here, there were people here already.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. You know, that’s another thing, you know, it’s a civilization that actually took over another civilization. You know, if we’re going to talk about genocide, what happened here in the Americas, where are the Indians? The real natives of these lands. Are we really Americans?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s one of the things I find so fascinating. You talk about American culture and America is a culture of immigration and the only people who are indigenous to America are the Native Americans, but they themselves are an ethnic minority in our society, they are not the mainstream. I would argue that there is no mainstream. And that’s one of the things that I think makes American culture exciting, and I guess, now when I’m saying American I’m specifically referring to the United States. I had a friend when I was in college who was from Venezuela who would say: “You’re not American, you’re North American. We’re all Americans.”

TANIA LEÓN: [laughs] We talk about the division of the hemisphere. North America, also includes Canada and Alaska. All of that is actually North America. Then Central America, from Mexico on down, and then you have South America from Venezuela on down. You know? And then what are you going to do with the Caribbean? Throw it away?

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

TANIA LEÓN: Then you have the Caribbean, and, you know, the Virgin Islands, it’s part of the hemisphere, the same way that you have, actually, you know, when you talk about the European hemisphere, you include England. You know? You get that island and attach it to the continent, and then you have the continent until you get to Asia.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that’s another really murky distinction. Where does Asia begin? Turkey is physically connected to Europe but we call it Asia. Russia is further east than Turkey and we say it’s Europe. And it extends all the way to the Pacific. So these terms are more political than they are geographic in a lot of ways.

TANIA LEÓN: I believe so, I mean, any study of history and old maps from centuries ago, and you see all the changes of names, and all those changes of criteria of how the world was divided according to the last scientific theory. So in other words, according to the era we are living in, that is how we actually classify and codify ourselves.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I could say if there’s anything that we could say is definitively American for me, it is this mix. Being American is about having a mixed tradition, a mixed heritage, a mixed set of ancestry, a mixed set of ideals. It’s not one thing. And all of the music that’s been created in this country that’s disseminated throughout the world is the product of either immigrants or children or grandchildren of immigrants. And that’s what I think makes us unique in the world. You can describe a Russian musical style, or a Senegalese musical style, or a Chinese musical style. Is there an American musical style? I don’t think there is. There are many.

TANIA LEÓN: There are many. I think that also it has to do with roots of cultures in a specific region. You can go back, for example, if you analyze the music of Spain, music in the north, music in the center, music of the Basque, and the music of the south. And you can actually trace the input of the Moors in Spain if you go to the north. You can hear the inflections in the music, you can hear so many different things. And, I mean, for example, the music of Cuba. The music of Cuba also is a very small territory in comparison with the United States. So the roots of culture in Cuba are much more apparent, you know, and you can actually trace all that mix in a much more apparent way. For example, there’s a lot of talk now about Afro-Cuba, which is something that I actually don’t buy, not because of not giving recognition to the African culture that actually gave so much power to the rhythms in Cuba. But the thing is, that if you isolate only this aspect, you are negating the aspect of the Spanish input. You are negating the aspect of the Chinese input, the French input. I mean, there’s so much going on in that music that is just incredible. So therefore, I mean, only to isolate, the rhythmic impulses that might have a relationship with Africa, is negating the existence of the Cuban music itself. So if you say Afro-Cuban music, what is the other music? Which other one?

2. Cuba

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about growing up in Cuba and Cuba’s music, and the influences that you had growing up there. What were you listening to, growing up?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, you see, I mean, I started studying music when I was four years old. And the conservatory actually was highly dominated by Hungarian and French inputs. You know, that actually is the heritage of my teachers. And that’s why, for example, most of the students from Cuba, I mean, people that develop into musicians trained by conservatory, we’re really {fast} in solfège. Because that’s what we do. It’s solfège training from morning to evening…

FRANK J. OTERI: The Kodaly method?

TANIA LEÓN: No, no Kodaly. I mean, pure solfège. Do re mi fa… Right? And this is something that comes from the French training. You see? So that was my training. My training as a pianist – I thought I was going to be a concert pianist. So their training is very, very high doses of classical training the way it is taught in Europe.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now is there any exposure to local music in that conservatory?

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was there Ernesto Lecuona?

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. You know, one of the things that I believe that happens in the smaller countries is that those that become their classics are really nourished. And, you know, it’s a perpetuation. Conservatory, the concert, let me see, it’s some kind of cultural pride to understand or know what can happen with the local music in all spheres, not only in the popular, but in what we term the serious music, you see. So therefore, for us to learn Lecuona and Ignacio Cervantes and many other of the very well-known, by then, you know, composers, was a matter of…

FRANK J. OTERI: Like Esteban Salas who I just heard about not long ago?

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So therefore, for us to study Chopin and to study Lecuona, it was on equal terms.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. We don’t have that in the United States.

TANIA LEÓN: You couldn’t learn to play the 24 Études by, you know, Chopin, without learning the Lecuona Dances or the Cervantes Contredanses.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s great.

TANIA LEÓN: You see. I told you I was a pianist. So I learned all about it simultaneously.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, by the same token, would somebody like Arsenio Rodriguez or the Trio Matamoros or any of the great Cuban master musicians in the early part of the century be acknowledged in the conservatory as great music?

“…the very same people that would go to the conservatory and would go to the concert hall to listen to all these things will go also to the dance floor…”
RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from A La Par
Performed by Christopher Lamb – piano & Virginia Perry Lamb
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: Well, that was not knowledge in the conservatory, but it was a knowledge in the popular culture. So therefore, I mean, again when you’re living in a small country, you are bound to know what’s going on. So therefore, the very same people that would go to the conservatory and would go to the concert hall to listen to all these things will go also to the dance floor and dance the cha cha cha, and sing, you know, the Guantanamero, and, you know, follow up what was going on with Arsenio Rodriguez or the Perez Prado orchestra, so it’s actually national pride. Specifically, since the music of Cuba was recognized as something quite interesting outside of the global island. So that’s our globe. When you live on an island, that’s the world. So therefore to hear that the outside world is interested in what you’re doing, that’s why people pay so much attention in the way, in their popular traditions as well.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there’s something very interesting that happened, and this is a result of politics and migration patterns, but Cuban music really flourished in Cuba and then separately as well in the United States. You have somebody like Celia Cruz who made these great recordings with La Sonora Matancera but then she came here and Perez Prado was here, I believe, and so was Mario Bauza, Machito and Graciela and all of these great Cuban musicians because they had fled. And then they continued to evolve their music here. Now, once they were in the United States, did the records they made here travel back to Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea about the influx of materials going to Cuba. Now as far as, you know, how much people know, I think that, under the table, you know, probably everybody knows of everybody, and people have probably recordings in their houses and things like that. I don’t know if that is acknowledged on the radio or in public television situation. I think that to be part of this phenomenon, whether it’s Cuba or Russia or anybody else that is caught in the middle of these incredible battles, it’s an incredible lesson about what we human beings are capable of doing in such a small planet. And I say that, because, I mean, regardless of who is in control, the only thing that I feel that suffers the most is the individual. And the individual is actually the component of the small cells of civilization, which are the families. So the families, all of them, are suffering, because of this tug of war. You see what I mean?


TANIA LEÓN: And I don’t think that it’s beneficial to anybody. And specifically, culturally speaking, I think that it’s a phenomenal situation to see artists that migrated and actually had their strong convictions about their music, to the point that whoever were their followers outside helped them re-emerge. You see? I mean, Celia Cruz was very well-known before she left Cuba. So by the time she left Cuba, she had already a community waiting for her, and that community made her presence available and valuable to the community of the world. Now you can find Celia Cruz in Japan, in Jakarta, everywhere.

FRANK J. OTERI: She’s probably one of the most famous Cuban-Americans on the planet.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. On the planet.

FRANK J. OTERI: And now there are all these musicians we haven’t heard of for years as a result of this Buena Vista Social Club recording session, like Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: And now all of a sudden they’re getting recognized. I thought one of the most moving concerts I have been to is when they did the Buena Vista Social Club concert at Carnegie Hall. And all of these 80 and 90-year-old musicians came to America for the very first time, they played in Carnegie Hall, and they unfurled a Cuban flag in the audience and brought it up on stage. This was a great moment. And all of a sudden it was no longer about the Fidelistas, or the anti-Fidelistas, it was suddenly, we were together as a people and they were in the United States, and there was an acceptance. It was beautiful.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I mean, I think that the total world that we have been actually part of is something that most Cubans are already tired of, you know, and the fact that you have here the music of the past, that’s the music of my grandparents, you see…


TANIA LEÓN: …that out of tradition, they actually made me sing. When I hear these people playing, I sing along all the songs. I know the songs. I can go to the piano and play the songs. You know, I play the guaracha, I do the tumbau, and I do the claves. You see? And the thing is, that it’s going back not only to my roots but going back to my childhood. That is very powerful. So what you probably saw, not only out of the United States audience that were there, you probably saw a lot of or heard a lot of Cubans in the audience.


TANIA LEÓN: You see? The Cuban community went there because they had to do with this, and if these people are 90 years old, I mean, we’re talking about tradition, we’re talking about history.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what I thought was so interesting is, I’m comparing that to a concert I was at, I guess it was 10 years before that, there was a concert at Town Hall with Mario Bauza and Graciela and Paquito D’Rivera was there as a soloist, and somebody made a comment on stage, I don’t even remember who now, and they said, “In the future, Cuba libré,” and half of the audience cheered and the other half booed, and it was so divided. But last year at Buena Vista Social Club, this attitude was gone. The division between the sides. It was no longer about the politics, it was about the culture and the music and the people. And, I guess, you have the United States and the Soviet Union fighting over this little country, and the rules have changed, and now this country is left and that fight is over but they’re still caught in the middle.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I think that I really can’t pinpoint who started the fight. You know, either one of the big superpowers or the little country. I have no idea. You know, the people that are fighting this power are totally invisible to me, you know, they’re represented by the names of the presidents of these different congregations or, you know, systems.


TANIA LEÓN: However, these people, I don’t know them, they don’t know who I am as an individual, you know, from that land, or from that country, and that is a situation with many, many of us… I mean, most of us don’t know, and yet we are actually constantly played with as though we are puppets. And I don’t think that that is only the history of the United States and Russia over Cuba. I think that that’s unfortunately the history of the world.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s what’s playing out now in Yugoslavia, or the former Yugoslavia.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. Exactly. And you’re caught up in the middle. Sometimes, you know, I mean, most of the time you don’t have anything to do with anything. And, you know, you end up being killed, or you end up drowning in the sea because you’re accused of being on one side or the other.

FRANK J. OTERI: When you came to America, did you come with your family? Do you still have family in Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: I came to America by myself. And it was an act of dreams and courage at the same time, and, because, again, you know, I mean, with no means, I had to actually fabricate a way of getting out of the island. I have been born in an island, you know, I mean, which I still love very much. However, my spirit is not an island spirit. You know, I felt trapped not being able to go elsewhere without a boat or without… you see? So therefore, I just wanted to go abroad and actually extend my studies. I love music, and as I told you, I’m a graduate as a pianist, you know, with concertizing and everything in Cuba before I left. And by the time I finished my degree, I said I have to go somewhere and continue this. So the only opportunity for me was a free trip, something called Freedom Flights that began with the Kennedy Administration?


TANIA LEÓN: Well, I actually applied and I…, it was like a lotto ticket.


TANIA LEÓN: My number came up.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it was not based on any sort of politics or oppression.

TANIA LEÓN: I mean, at that time in my life, you know, I was in the beginning of my twenties, I had no association with politics, never belonged to anything, not even after the Castro revolution, you know, I was not prepared to actually put my entire life into political action, which I didn’t really understand that much. So therefore, rather than being a hypocrite to the people around me and to myself, I said, no, I mean, what I like is music, and I want to pursue a career in music. And that’s how I actually, when that number came up, I took a plane and I arrived here completely by myself.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. And your family is still in Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: My family is still in Cuba. The only other member of my family that lives outside of Cuba is my niece, she’s in Barcelona studying music also. And the rest of the family is in Cuba.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you visit Cuba periodically to visit your family?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, of course, my mother is in there, and, you know, every time I can, that’s the first thing I do.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the most ridiculous bureaucratic things in our country is that you have to go to a third country in order to get to Cuba; you can’t go directly. Now I think there’s a rule, you have to spend a night in a hotel in the third country, you can’t leave the same day because officials have figured out that people making stopovers to get to Cuba and they want to make it more inconvenient…

TANIA LEÓN: Is that true? I had no idea. Last year, when I went with Michael Geller to actually interview the composers out there, we went to Cancun. And from Cancun, in a matter of hours, we flew to Havana.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. I imagine in the next few years there’ll be direct flights again.

TANIA LEÓN: I just don’t know what to say. When you’ve lived through this for 32 years as I have, and endured so many incredible things that I’m not ready to discuss here, you understand what it takes out of you, you know, this whole thing. I mean, the energy, the emotional energy is overwhelming, and unfortunately the years go by and you cannot recuperate. You lose a lot of members of your family that you will never see again, and you go, and you don’t even have the time to be there at a time when it was needed

3. Nationalism in Music vs. Culture in a Pluralistic Society

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about your own music and how your own music is a synthesis of all these different experiences. Your music is certainly informed by clave, but it’s also informed by a lot of other things. It’s informed by European modernism, or should I say European American modernism. How do you put your music together? Basic question.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, you know, I mean, probably the same way that Franz Liszt put his together and he never had so many questions asked about it! [laughs] You know what I mean?

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] That’s the question we always get back to. I always find it interesting that, you study music, and you study the music of the 19th century, and Dvorak is considered a nationalist, and Rimsky-Korsakov is considered a nationalist because they incorporated their own musical traditions. Manuel de Falla is considered a nationalist, and yet Brahms is not a nationalist even though his music is as much informed by German folk music as Rimsky-Korsakov’s is by Russian folk music.

“…every single music is informed by certain tendencies of the composer which I call language, the language of the composer…”
RealPlayer  [51 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from “Oh Yemanja” (Mother’s Prayer)
Sung by Dawn Upshaw (from the CD The World So Wide, Nonesuch 79458)

TANIA LEÓN: Well, these are the very same questions that have been posed every time I have a talk of this case. I think that every single music is informed by certain tendencies of the composer which I call language, the language of the composer. Whether the language comes from the roots of his or her culture, whether the language becomes following Arnold Schoenberg, that’s a language as well. It’s a language that was created by this man. Whether it comes from the school of Vienna or not, who cares, but it was actually a language that we put together, and then there were followers of that language. You see. So therefore language could be anything. A language could be, you know, clave. What is the term of clave? The clave, the Cuban clave is really different than the Nigerian clave, for example. There is only one clave that have actually survived Nigeria, which has been carried out by all of the different diasporas of every time this clave appears, it’s all the same, it’s even been used by Steve Reich, it’s “ta ta, tata, ta tata, ta ta.” That comes from Nigeria. You see what I mean? So therefore you find it in Cuba, you find it in Venezuela, you find it in Brazil, you find it in Haiti, you find it everywhere, and everybody employs it in a different twist.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now there are people I know who are salsa musicians, who are so strict in their belief of the clave that they believe that anything that is not in strict 3-2 clave is not music.

TANIA LEÓN: [Laughs] Well, who says that the perfect English is only the English that is spoken in England? You see? So in other words, it’s a matter of whatever you actually want to determine, that that is the thing by which we should measure everything, and, I think that composers since day one have been working with long memory, a lot of what they know best, and going back to, speaking of Beethoven, for example, I didn’t understand Beethoven so much until I was in Germany, until I was in his region, until I started visiting different cities that he spent time at, you know, until I actually visited his home.

FRANK J. OTERI: But we’re taught in music history that Beethoven was not someone that was coming out of tradition, but somebody who was breaking the rules and creating his own musical language and expanding the symphony and modulating to places that had never been modulated to before, putting a chorus in a symphony, expanding the orchestra with trombones, and all of these other things that he did. But he very much came out of a tradition.

TANIA LEÓN: Of course. Of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: And, you know, we still have this idea which I think is a rather dangerous idea in the late 20th century, this great man idea. That there are a handful of people throughout history who did great things, and everybody else sort of looks at them in awe and say these are the great people. And I think that’s one of the things that’s hurt 20th century music because yes, this music of Europe in the 19th century is fantastic, it’s wonderful, but it’s not the only great music there is. There’s a lot of other great music.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, the thing is, what can happen, and I think that what helped our understanding of the music that came out of Europe had to do with music notation. Music notation is the first document that was able to be sent elsewhere. It was the first kind of idea of a tape recorder. You know? You couldn’t hear it but you could see it and you could replicate it. And specifically, you know, being actually carried out those that understood the system already, and had not only that, it had the sound memory of how the music was, then you would have then Toscanini coming here and saying, “O.K., this is the symphony, and this is Mendelssohn, and this…” You know? He knew, he knew the material, he came with the material, he disseminated the material, he created his own, let’s say, springboard, per se, you know, not only for himself, for all of that community of musicians who knew this material already. You see? So the language was actually brought into, and recognized as something great. By the same token, I think that we are needing now at this point, that there have been other systems now all over the world, you know, with great other music that we don’t know anything about, with other instruments, with other composers, with other types of sounds, you see, for us to admit that there is something other than the opera as we know it, and admit that in China, there was actually parallel to the opera in Europe there was another kind of opera going on, you know, which has tradition, which has great stars, it has, I mean, you know, great body of works.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you see any of The Peony Pavilion at the Lincoln Center Festival?

TANIA LEÓN: Not yet.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was there last week for the first part. It was spectacular. Amazing.

TANIA LEÓN: You see? Now is when we’re finding out all that. So what I think is we are offspring of a civilization and a tradition and a culture that actually raised us. You know, you raise a child, and you tell them, rice and beans. So the child says, “Wait, I mean, come on, rice and beans, it has everything” you see, and you’re very proud of rice and beans. But now we are admitting that there is Thai food, you know, and there’s sushi, and [laughs].

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, along these same lines, I always found it so fascinating, I read an interview a few years ago with Lou Harrison where he said he heard the Peking Opera, the Chinese opera, before he ever heard Verdi, growing up in San Francisco, as a kid. So for him, that was his tradition, his tradition of opera was Chinese opera, not Western opera, he came from that first. And I think it’s so exciting that, being here in America, versus being in Germany, or even being in Cuba, where there’s, and maybe I’m wrong about this, a dominant musical tradition, we don’t have a dominant musical tradition here. All of it is a possibility: we have jazz that we could spend a whole lifetime listening to, we have the blues that we could spend a whole lifetime listening to, and European concert music, we have salsa, we have bluegrass, we have all of these systems, and there’s no one great system, although for years, even here in America, it was the European classical system that the newspapers reviewed. In the 1930’s and ’40’s, The New York Times only reviewed concerts of classical music. There were no reviews of Duke Ellington, there were no reviews of Tito Puente, there were no reviews of Bill Monroe, but now, now all of it gets covered, now all of it’s on equal footing, even heavy metal, hip-hop and…

TANIA LEÓN: To put it on equal footing, which means to have an equal understanding of what we are listening to, makes it a bigger task for those that review. I mean, the reviewers have a whole world for them to immerse into and get knowledge, so they can actually inform the people the best way possible, and I’m saying that, for example, when you talk about salsa, salsa’s just a concept, but it doesn’t mean that you can group all of these and say everything’s the same.


4. Latin Music

TANIA LEÓN: You can, you know, when you talk about all these incredible polyphonies, polyphonic attitude and rhythm, so it’s polyrhythmic. When you talk about these polyrhythms, you have to know the nuances that actually separate one thing from the other. You see, the salsa as it’s played in Santo Domingo is not the same as it’s played in Puerto Rico which is not the same as it’s played in Cuba. They all are different. And if you don’t know how to understand that variant, or that nuance, you know, then you tend to group everything together.

FRANK J. OTERI: In the Dominican Republic, merengue is totally different.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. A whole different thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s twice as fast as salsa.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly, exactly. And you have to know how to actually be able to identify a merengue from a guaracha. A samba is not a bossa nova, a bossa nova is not a guaguanco… You know? I mean, you hear all of these incredible systems that have a specific pattern, just like a waltz is not the same as a mazurka. But that’s something you have the chance to break down in a conservatory so you understand where the accent was placed in the 3 / 4.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the popular musicians all play numerous dance forms; you don’t have somebody who just plays guaguanco, or just plays son. They play all of them, and what I thought was so interesting, getting back to Celia Cruz, I think she was one of the first non-Dominican artists to record merengues, to actually do merengues on all of her records, and that must have been a big deal in the 1950’s.

TANIA LEÓN: Um hmm. Well, it’s a big deal — you know why? Because it’s a recognition of a different language which you can also speak. You know, okay, I’m speaking English but I still speak with an accent, you see. And the thing is that if you understand what you are supposed to do, that you are flexible enough to actually go with that degree of syncopation, then you can do it. For that matter, also, you have to learn the culture, and the culture is not only the music, there is the food, there is actually living among them, and it’s moving among these people for a little while, for a while until your body adapts, and then all of a sudden you own the material.

A good example of the melting pot of salsa: Cuban émigré Celia Cruz teamed up with Nuyorican Willie Colón to perform a Dominican merengue.
RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – WILLIE COLÓN/CELIA CRUZ: from “Pun Pun Catalu”(from Willie Colón and Celia Cruz: Only They Could Have Made This Album, Vaya 0698 distributed by Fania)

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what I think happened with salsa that was so interesting is that in Cuban musicians coming to the United States and then meeting with Dominican musicians who were here, and Puerto Rican musicians who were here, sort of a Pan-Latin American music emerged, so that you have somebody like Ruben Blades, who’s from Panama, and you have somebody like Johnny Pacheco, who is from the Dominican Republic, and Celia Cruz, who is from Cuba, and Willie Colón who was born in New York City but whose parents are from Puerto Rico, and they all performed together…

TANIA LEÓN: And Oscar D’León…

FRANK J. OTERI: …from Venezuela…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. So you have all these people performing together, and it’s no longer a single national music. It isn’t just Cuban music, it isn’t Dominican music, it isn’t Puerto Rican music…

TANIA LEÓN: It’s a Pan-Latin music.

FRANK J. OTERI: The same thing happened here with jazz. You had players who were from Kansas City, you had players who were from Chicago, you had white musicians, black musicians, they all played together. And everybody likes to point to Benny Goodman in 1938 having an interracial band at Carnegie Hall, and say that this was the first time that this had happened. But Jelly Roll Morton was playing with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the early 1920’s.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, what I have found that has happened with the races is totally artificial. It’s again another political whatever, you know, I mean, it’s a means of control – of control of one over the other. And I think that the substance of what actually is happening is divide and conquer, as opposed to, you know, let people do what they’re supposed to do, and we will actually emerge with better results. So therefore, we have been very unfortunate that this has happened and there are still traces that you can find in our society that have not been really clear of all this dissemination of very low thinking. As far as what I feel about the music of the United States, it’s just such an incredible pool of richness.

5. First American Music Impressions

TANIA LEÓN: When I first came here, a clarinetist from the Conservatory gave me an LP of Art Tatum. And I flipped out. I said, what is this? What kind of a pianist is this? I mean, where is this man? I just flipped out. And I didn’t know anything about jazz, I didn’t know anything about American music, you know, and the most I had heard of American music was Rhapsody in Blue, and some clips of West Side Story.


TANIA LEÓN: So I didn’t know anything, you know?

FRANK J. OTERI: And West Side Story was an attempt to incorporate Latin musical rhythms.

“…the piano is in my head…”
RealPlayer  [93 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Rituál
Performed by Clemens Leske – piano
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: Well, there were clips of that on Cuban television, you know, showing what Bernstein had done, and the most I knew and the most I remembered was the song Maria. You know? So that’s how I arrived here. So for me to hear Art Tatum for the first time, it was like, my God, I don’t know anything about music, you see? So therefore, I mean, that’s how I actually immersed myself not only in rhythm and blues, you know, and blues, and jazz, from classic jazz to progressive jazz, and growing up in a way in Harlem with the Dance Theater of Harlem hearing all different kinds of music. That’s how I started to understand the diaspora possibilities, the cultural movement that we’re all alive and kicking, you know, in one nation. And, you know, even country music, rap, I mean, anything, for me has been amazing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you came here in the late ’60’s…


FRANK J. OTERI: …which was a great time in rock music as well in America. This was a time when rock n’ roll became rock and became more experimental. . .the whole psychedelic movement. There were rock groups that were doing extended improvisation.

TANIA LEÓN: Everything. Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: In San Francisco, groups like the Grateful Dead were playing for half an hour, and groups like the Velvet Underground in New York were experimenting with feedback and different sonorities, having a viola in a rock group. It was…

TANIA LEÓN: It was tremendous! I remember the Moody Blues, I remember, you know, I mean, for example, going downtown to learn Agon you know. We’d been coached by Balanchine…

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, the Stravinsky ballet.

TANIA LEÓN: For me it was not so much the Stravinsky ballet, it was Agon. [laughs] You know what I mean? And Stravinsky was alive, you know, I mean, this whole thing was happening, and then you go uptown and you work with Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, you know, Marcos Nobre was coming into the country to stage a new percussion score with Dance Theater of Harlem, I mean, Marcos Nobre is from Brazil. You know, so therefore, I mean, it was a coalition of information that was amazing. I just didn’t know whether to look right or left, you know, because it was just a lot at the same time.

6. Improvisation and Musical Analysis

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, we were talking about you hearing Art Tatum for the first time and hearing these amazing improvisations. Before you had come to America, did you improvise at the piano?

TANIA LEÓN: Oh we all do, I mean, this is part of a tradition in Cuban musicians. When we were down there, Michael Geller told me that he didn’t understand that much how this worked, and I think that perhaps it has to do with the fact that whatever you learn at the conservatory is strictly classical, but yet you made your livelihood by making music outside of the conservatory, so therefore, we actually had an opportunity to have dinner in a restaurant where we heard this incredible improviser on the violin, and then, you know, we were so really amazed with this man, that we actually talked to him and he told us he was a member of the symphony orchestra. [laughs]


TANIA LEÓN: And we said, oh, you’re kidding, you know? The thing is that, that’s what you do. You live by making music all the time so therefore you don’t only read, but you also do improvisation.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that’s happening here more and more as well with people who play new music. There’s much more of a chance nowadays than there was say 20 or 30 years ago of a musician playing in a symphony orchestra, playing in a jazz group or even playing in a rock band and being familiar with all of these different languages, as we say.

TANIA LEÓN: Oh yes, exactly, exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: To the point that now we’re having, you know, music that’s being written by composers associated with the Bang On A Can Festival — it’s mixing all of this music up. Is it rock, is it jazz, is it classical, what is it? It’s this amazing hybrid that I think is a chance to bring in so many different audiences, in a way that…

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know that you don’t like labels, but you mentioned Arnold Schoenberg and we talked about claves. What is your system? Is there a system from one piece to another?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I really don’t know, because I am still growing up, you know, and I try not to actually be complacent. I’m always looking for something else.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is your music dodecaphonic? Does it use serial techniques at all?

“I don’t think that when we are writing we are applying formulas in a way that is of scientific type of method.”
RealPlayer  [49 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Parajota Delaté
Perfomed by Continuum, conducted by Tania León
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea how it was to be codified or classified. When I read reviewers or when I read the different opinions from different parts of the globe about what I write, I am also surprised and amazed to hear what different people have to say. And nowadays, you know, I have actually a whole book, you know, that is being put together in Spain by this woman who has made this entire analysis of some of my pieces. And she sent me actually the first proof and I was amazed by my own work. [laughs] To hear what she was discussing and how this linked with this and this here. Joseph Kerman, the author of the book Listen, analyzed one of my pieces. And he even actually printed some of the measures and made a comparison and I was just stunned to see this whole thing. So in other words, I donât think that when we are writing we are applying formulas in a way that is of scientific type of method.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you’d say it’s more intuitive.

TANIA LEÓN: I think that we composers absorb a lot of material, then study, you know, of course, a lot of material. Because, I mean, one thing I can tell you, I’ve studied a lot of music by as many composers possible in this planet. Let me tell you, if I go to Timbuktu, you’ll see me in the store there, finding out who the composers are there, I mean, can I see some of the scores, I mean, can I see, can I have some of the CD’s, you see, so therefore I’m constantly acknowledging all these different trends of what’s going on elsewhere. And there are some things that I probably might be drawn to and some things that I probably would reject completely, but, you know, how I compose myself is a process that is constantly moving and evolving.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you compose at the piano?

TANIA LEÓN: Not necessarily. You know, I can compose from my head to the paper, because, you know, being a pianist at first, and, you know, when I was attempting to be a pianist, I used to practice even 8 hours a day, so, I mean, the piano is in my head. You know, I can pick and play a note and I can tell you what it is.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you still play piano at all?

TANIA LEÓN: Yes. Absolutely, yes. I still play. So therefore, I mean, if I don’t have a piano, no big deal.

FRANK J. OTERI: And do you play other people’s music as well as your own?

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you conduct as well.

7. Conducting

TANIA LEÓN: Conducting has been as surprising to me as composing. I say that because I never thought that I would develop a career in these two fields. I totally wanted to be a pianist. Working at Dance Theater of Harlem, one day, Arthur said, “why don’t you write a piece, I’ll do the choreography” and that was the beginning of this whole thing, you see, so conducting was the same thing. We went to the Spoleto Festival and the Juilliard Orchestra was there, and he said “Why don’t you conduct?” So that’s the whole thing, you know. So, and, it had been really a wonderful detour and a wonderful input, because conducting also teaches you a lot about composition. And being a composer/conductor has been to me, I mean, a healing grace.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now is there a preference you have for the type of music you conduct? Do you prefer conducting new music, older music?

TANIA LEÓN: Nope. I mean, because there is older music which is new to me, you know. And there’s some young music that might be old to me, in a way.


“Conducting teaches you a lot about composition.”
RealPlayer  [63 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Indígena
Performed by Continuum, conducted by Tania León
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: So therefore, for me, the possibility of conducting is the most remarkable situation that one can be placed under. And it’s specifically not only when you work with colleagues whom you know, but when you go elsewhere and you sometimes work with musicians with whom you can’t really communicate because you don’t have the same language.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. If you’re off conducting an orchestra in eastern Europe…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly, exactly. You know, I mean, I cannot relate but with what little I know, German, and they don’t speak English, and they don’t speak Spanish.


TANIA LEÓN: So therefore we have to actually bring up our musicianship. And it is incredible what happens with those performances, because then there is actually another level by which we communicate, musician to musician, and actually when we reach it, it’s just spectacular.

8. Gender

FRANK J. OTERI: As a woman composer, and as a woman conductor, what do you feel the perceptions are in the community?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I could say that the world is changing. But hopefully things that might be a little bit tricky now might be part of the routine years from now. Certainly by the time we finish the century, there are more women composers that did not have to go through what Antonia Brico had to go through. You see? And that there’s some recognition, you know, and there’s some more, many more opportunities.

FRANK J. OTERI: Who is Antonia Brico?

TANIA LEÓN: Don’t you know Antonia Brico?


TANIA LEÓN: In the Î60âs or in the beginning of the Î70âs there was a big concert with the New York Philharmonic, which they actually gave her to conduct. She was pretty old. I cannot recall how old she was, but she was up there. And in the ’20’s and ’30’s she actually wanted to be a conductor, and in fact, you know, she cut her hair short, and you know, she worked with Pablo Casals and she actually procured some opportunities but actually the doors were slammed on her, not because of her talent, but because she was a woman, and that was not part of what a woman was supposed to be at that time. And it was in light with the fact that women could not register at that point in a university per se, they could not actually be lawyers or doctors just because they were women. And, now by the end of the century, you know, we have women pilots, we have women astronauts, you know, the fact that we have women conductors, you know, that’s part of the whole movement.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what I found so interesting is this year a woman won a Pulitzer Prize in Music, Melinda Wagner and it’s the third time that it’s happened. And the first time it happened, when Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won, everyone said “wow, a woman won the Pulitzer Prize,” and then when Shulamit Ran won the Pulitzer Prize, everyone said “wow, another woman won the Pulitzer Prize,” this past time, it really wasn’t news.

TANIA LEÓN: Oh, no. Of course. Because…

FRANK J. OTERI: …it’s just a composer winning the award. It wasn’t…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly, exactly. It’s part of, you know, our everyday acceptance now. It’s part of what we term reality.

FRANK J. OTERI: And this is a great thing.

TANIA LEÓN: It’s a great thing.

A work inspired by the traditional drums of Cuba.
RealPlayer  [39 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Batá
performed by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Leighton Smith
(Louisville Orchestra First Edition Recordings LCD 10)Order from Amazon.com

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting now back to Cuba. I have a friend who plays the traditional bata drums and he taught women how to play them, and the elders got very angry. In 1999, he was told “These drums are sacred. Only men can play them.” This is still the feeling in that community. When you say: “I’m a composer, I’m a conductor” do older people in Cuba have a problem with that?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, let me tell you something. I have not had the chance to do that in Cuba. I have never performed in Cuba. Ever. You know, so I have no idea how this would be taken. One thing I can say, of course, I mean I live here, so therefore I have had many conducting opportunities in the United States, you know, big orchestras, smaller orchestras, smaller ensembles, I mean, you know, but my surprise has been conducting elsewhere, specifically in Europe. And it’s a blessing in my life at the point that I can conduct these renowned ensembles and I’m taken very seriously. For example, you know that we just did with my opera with the Orchestra of the Suisse Romande; that was just sensational. And I had the possibility to work not only there, but in France and in Austria, and with the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg. It’s something that I am liking more and more, because the value is not that I am a woman, or that I am of a certain ethnicity, or that I was born in Cuba, or because I look like this or this like that. The point is, I think that it’s beyond that already, you know. It’s about the music, it’s about what I am able to do as a conductor, and if I happen to be conducting my own music, it’s about what I am able to say also about my own music for them to be able to grasp and to come up with an interpretation. So, I mean, I can tell you that this time in my life it’s a very fortunate time at the moment, you know, because of all these experiences.

FRANK J. OTERI: You say that you’ve never performed in Cuba. Has your music been performed in Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea. I cannot tell you. I don’t know.

9. Organizing Composers

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. Let’s get back to the issue of the orchestra. And it’s great that you have the opportunity to work with so many orchestras. But so many composers find the orchestra situation really frustrating, because as a contemporary composer, it’s very hard to get through that door because that door is blocked by Brahms and Dvorák and Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and all these other composers. What are the opportunities for the contemporary composer to write for the orchestra and how do you break that stranglehold of the music of the past?

TANIA LEÓN: I think that in order to encourage conductors, who are music directors of orchestras, I think that a concerted effort has to be put in place, and composers have to be a little bit more vocal. I see my colleagues and we all talk and sometimes, you know, people sound a little bit frustrated. I think that we don’t accomplish anything, sitting at home and talking about the lack of opportunities. It’s much better to organize a group of composers and ask for a meeting with a music director. Give the music director encouragement to actually go out there and entice an audience as well, you know, about the fact that art hasn’t stopped and that includes music.

FRANK J. OTERI: I’m a composer and when I talk with other composers everybody says that one of the problems is that there’s a perception that contemporary music is not listener-friendly and then there’s a perception that audiences aren’t going to like it and that the older music is written by people with names that everybody knows and it’s going to sell. When I spoke to Zarin Mehta last month in Chicago, he said something that we don’t often consider. He said, “well, we only have a budget for 2 or 3 rehearsals with an orchestra, so it’s much easier for the orchestra to play a piece that they already are familiar with. It’s a lot cheaper.” And I was amazed, because I was blown away last year when the Chicago Symphony did the Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphony at Ravinia and they did that in three rehearsals. Our players are a lot better now than they were, say, in the 1920’s or 1930’s, when Varèse couldn’t get a good performance even after 11 rehearsals. But that’s a big issue. You’re introducing new repertoire, you come in as a guest conductor and say, okay, I want to do this program of new music. They don’t know you, they don’t know the repertoire, and you have to work from scratch with this material. How can we get around that problem?

RealPlayer  [58 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Carabalí
performed by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller
(Louisville Orchestra First Edition Recordings LCD 10)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: Well, again, I was saying that, first of all, the way that moneys are put together for a season or for a specific program, you know, a lot more money could be actually raised if an audience was behind the concert, or behind an effort. And if an audience recognizes that our only way of leaving traces of our civilization for the next century is by actually fostering the works of the artists that are living at this point, or actually consummating the art of composing, so then therefore, we know that we will have to perform these works in order for these works to be able to make it to the end of the next century. And so therefore, it gives the audience much more insight and a bigger role in the life of a new work, even if they listen to the work only once. For an audience to be able to participate by planting the seeds of the life of that work is very important. For example, you know, the Bang of a Can effort of commissioning, or helping commission a work…

FRANK J. OTERI: The People’s Commissions.

TANIA LEÓN: That’s a brilliant idea. Because then the people that participate, even with one dollar, for that work to exist, I think, says to me that they have an emotional attachment to the work.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things that happened that was so interesting is when Meet the Composer initiated the orchestral residencies program, is that it had a two-way effect. On the one hand, suddenly, orchestras had composers working with them, so it wasn’t this mysterious thing that there was some composer from far away, the composer was actually on staff. But at the same time the composer got to work with the orchestral musicians and I think it changed the shape of what all American orchestral music was sounding like.

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. There are still some older residencies, but if it doesn’t work at that level, there is still an incredible community of composers out there. What if we donate one dollar each and buy a page in the New York Times, with the name of all of the composers, you know? You follow me?


TANIA LEÓN: Whether it’s in the city of New York or anywhere else in the nation, people will pay attention…

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

TANIA LEÓN: …if they see all the names. There’s an incredible amount of composers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s what we’re trying to get across here at the American Music Center.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So therefore, I mean, you have all these names with that advocacy. We need to be played; we need to be heard. We are the culture of the future. You know?

FRANK J. OTERI: And next year, we’re in the 21st Century and you’ll still have orchestras playing music now that’s not 100 years old, it’ll be 200 years old.

TANIA LEÓN: You see? At a given time, Beethoven was contemporary as well. You see? No one is saying don’t play Beethoven, but we are saying is what about these other works?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, I say don’t play Beethoven. And I’ll tell you why. Because, for me, growing up and listening to music, it took me a much longer time to appreciate Beethoven than to appreciate Varèse and Messiaen and Steve Reich.

TANIA LEÓN: I understand, but…

FRANK J. OTERI: I was able to relate to the dissonance, the harshness, and Beethoven didn’t sound radical to me, because I didn’t grow up with the context of Haydn and Mozart.

TANIA LEÓN: I understand, but we are talking about the politics of our world, right? And, you know, change is gradual. Change is never like, poof, change, that’s it, you know?


TANIA LEÓN: Okay. So the gradual change that we need now is actually the embrace of the audience that we are claiming who don’t go to the concerts.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. There’s a whole generation now of audiences for whom the concert music of the 20th Century is not alien because they’re listening to Tchaikovsky or to Dvorák or to Mozart. It’s alien because they’re listening to alternative rock bands, they’re listening to Phish, they’re listening to Smashing Pumpkins, they’re listening to Lauryn Hill, or Beck, or music like that, and they’re not in touch with the concert hall tradition at all. And I think that if you’re going to bring younger people in who are interested in adventurous pop music, adventurous rock music, I think you’re more inclined to bring them in with contemporary music than you are with music of the past.

TANIA LEÓN: No one is objecting to that. But the big orchestras, the big institutions, have a natural nervousness as far as how they’re going to survive, how they’re going to balance their budgets, to actually be in the black as opposed to the red. So what I wanted to say, that, if our communities… You see, the composers we are talking about are not people that live elsewhere. They live in Brooklyn, they live in Manhattan, they live in Staten Island, they live in, you know, I mean, utilizing New York as an example, for example, right? These people have friends, these people have families, these people have colleagues, these people have… each of them, you know, self-contained has, let’s say, a hundred people. Right?


TANIA LEÓN: So if you put ten of them, you already have a thousand.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you can raise…

TANIA LEÓN: This is what I’m talking about. You can actually build up the consciousness that you are part of the creation of the culture of our time, to actually be part of what will be analyzed and talked about a century from now. That’s the main drama that I think is being played right now, that we need to be participants and not only, you know, which people, you know, I mean, we wish that it was different, but we have to do something about it. It’s what organizations such as the American Music Center, Meet The Composer and American Composers Forum are about. I think that all of these organizations are very good and strong organizations, yet, you know, the work is being done over here, a little bit over here, a little bit there, you know, and I think that what we require at this point is a little bit more of a pool of all these organizations coming together, even for a retreat or something like that, and sort of like merging of ideas in order for us to create a global approach.

FRANK J. OTERI: Look at other countries, and this is something I get back to with people so much of the time, you go to a country like Finland, and Sibelius is on the money. You go to a country like Germany. Clara Schumann is on the money. Not just a composer, a woman composer. In America, we have former politicians on the money. There’s no recognition, you know. Duke Ellington isn’t on our money, Charles Ives isn’t on our money, Gershwin isn’t on our money, Amy Beach isn’t on our money. But how do we get the awareness of who the great American creators are, and how do we compete with the other countries’ musical culture in the classical tradition, when their promotion of their own culture is so strong?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, this is precisely what I was talking about. I mean, it has to do with the fact that they recognize culture. You know, they recognize their culture. So therefore, culture is what they recognize. It’s not only their culture. If I have the opportunity of being commissioned by an orchestra in Germany — I don’t live in Germany. Why are they giving me a commission? You see what I mean?


TANIA LEÓN: And I think that it has to do with their tradition of culture. You know, I might not be a woman Beethoven, but maybe they find something that is intriguing to them, to the point that they say, “okay, shall we have a work by this person?” And I don’t know what the mechanism is by which they actually procure the money. But they find the money, and they call you, for example, the composer, and they say “we would like you to write a piece. Can you write a piece?” You write a piece and you go there, and it’s a big event, because you wrote this piece. And these people don’t even know the street where you live in New York!


TANIA LEÓN: So therefore, for me, you know, what I think is that we have this awareness of culture. Culture is something that needs to be actually elevated to a height where people really feel a part of it, or that people feel that they want to know who these people are.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, here, if you have a piece of music on a program, it tends to be, okay, let’s do a contemporary music piece at the beginning of an orchestral program. It’s like a 10-minute piece, and then let’s get through it and forget about it and then that’s the end. And now… I think there’s beginning to be a change. I was at the national conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and finally, in the very last year of the 20th Century, 1999, well, okay, they say we need to focus on contemporary American composers. I’m like, wow, finally, finally there’s going to be incentive to play, not just 10-minute works that are concert openers, but symphonies written by Americans, concertos, you know, large-scale pieces of music, that… There’s finally an attempt at doing this, but we need to do much more.

TANIA LEÓN: Look at what is happening, for example, with Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony. You see? He has a developed an incredible audience, you know. He’s playing incredible materials. The materials are very, very contemporary, and there is some kind of enthusiasm about the whole thing. Is the audience that is going to these concerts all that knowledgeable about the materials? I don’t know. I have no idea.

10. Sonidos de las Americas

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about Sonidos de las Americas because I think that was such a great example of how you can bring composers together. I remember going the very first year, the orchestral concert, the Mexican concert, and all the composers came out on stage. All the composers who were involved, and this was a very big part of the event every year, bringing in these composers from another country and having them all stand together, from one end of the hall to the other, and it was this amazing thing that rarely happens with composers, and I think it made audiences aware of composers being part of the community, and I think we need to do more of that.

Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Brasil Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Argentina Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Mexico


TANIA LEÓN: Well, I, you know that we just finished with that project. I have my reservations about the entire effort. The effort was a very courageous one, and a very much-needed one, because in spite of the understanding of why it was done, there was the history of the reasons that made this possible, and it had to do with the fact that prior to 1960’s, there was a incredible communication, back and forth, between the composers of Latin America and the United States. And that’s the reason why we knew so much about Villa-Lobos, for example. It’s something that hadn’t happened for a long time.


TANIA LEÓN: When Villa-Lobos was alive, he would be back and forth here, and he would have these relationships with Bernstein and Copland and you know, these were old-boy relationships. So the reason why Bernstein write those songs in West Side Story, or why Copland wrote Danzón Cubano. They had a relationship with the activities and the composers and the musical entities of Cuba. None of that seemed to be that strong when we began this project and this is one of the things that the festival tried to correct. The fact that these entities, which are from the same hemisphere, need to talk to each other, whether they agree or disagree with the music that they are writing. You see. And one thing that I could say as far as the effort, yes, it was very incredible, and, you know, working with the American Composers Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies and Paul Lustig Dunkel, we actually thought that it would be fantastic to have also a delegation of American composers that would relate to these composers on a one-to-one. For me it was encouraging and very discouraging. Discouraging, because outside of these composers that were part of the delegation, when there was time to be actually at the concert halls, I didn’t see that many composers that would come in out of curiosity.

FRANK J. OTERI: You mean composers who were not part of the delegation?

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. You know. As a community, to meet these people that came from elsewhere, and to start some kind of intellectual dialogue, or even merely friendship.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things that clearly needs to happen and one of the things that we’re trying to do here at the American Music Center is to build a community for composers, to build a community for people interested in the music of this country, in the composers, the performers, all the various parts of the ecology that make it work, and it’s something that I think has been lacking for a long time and I think that’s been the problem.

TANIA LEÓN: If you do a concert in France, you know, like, for example, Nancy, I was in Nancy, and all of a sudden, after the concert, you find out that there are some people that traveled from Italy, some people came, you know, driving from Geneva, some people came, you know, I mean, it’s a mob, my God! All these people took this effort to come to this place, because it was happening and they were curious.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, you see, here we have a real splintering between various styles and various attitudes. I know when I talked with the directors of Bang On A Can for the first issue of NewMusicBox, they described how the first festival they played Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich on the same concert, and Babbitt walked out before the Reich piece was played, and Reich did not walk in until the Babbitt piece was over. They did not talk to each other. And Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who write in a similar style to each other, don’t talk to each other. There’s no dialogue. So you have all of these pockets of isolation in this country. And they were saying one of the reasons they formed Bang on a Can, as three composers, was to have this dialogue with each other, this ongoing dialogue with themselves, with other composers they brought in, with the 6 performers in the All-Stars, so there was this attempt at community where there was none before. And I think we need to do this on a much larger level.

One of the highlights of Sonidos de las Americas: Brazil was the unusual guitar music of Arthur Kampela.
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Sound sample – ARTHUR KAMPELA: from from Percussion Study No. 1 for guitar(Exclusive to NewMusicBox, courtesy Arthur Kampela)

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I think that we need to do this, and at a level where we actually don’t talk so much about what we are doing as a special number into the politicization of what we call music. Right? But as a human expression, you know, an extension of a human expression which might have a certain degree of sophistication. Let me put it this way. And I think that if we are actually concerned that we have had that kind of division at that level where people don’t talk to each other because one may assume or think that what the other one is doing is not up to what the standard should be, you know, and that is a very personal idea, you know, what the standard is, is like describing reality. Reality is very different for everybody, right? So therefore, I think that it’s a much bigger problem that we have, because, for example, how can you then talk about problems that we have with the races, for example, when composers are classified or codified by the color of their skin, you know, as opposed to the value of what they’re doing. Then we’re having a problem. So if that is something that we do at that point, when composers are classified because of their gender, then we have a problem. So therefore, it is not unusual that you might have a composer that might not talk to another composer because they have different styles. You see? So in other words, to me, it’s much more a human phenomenon that we may have to address and work with as opposed to what kind of music are you listening or writing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the Sonidos Festival lasted 6 years. And within each of those festivals you had composers who were so far apart from each other. Such a diversity. There are certain things that I remember that come to mind. I’ll never forget this piece on the Brazil Festival by Tim Rescala which was sort of a Contemporary Music 101, and made fun of all the different styles of contemporary music: it was marvelous!

TANIA LEÓN: Ah, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Each year you had this wide range of people, older composers, younger composers, male composers, female composers, and they all seemed to be perfectly amicable with each other.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, let me say the following: There are a lot of things that we found that are similar to the situation here. What’s dissimilar was that these composers were brought in from different parts of the region of their home countries, and so by being here as a delegation, whatever friction, or whatever was going on among them was totally ironed out, because in this case they were representing not only their different aesthetic concerns, but they were coming from this region, and the region could have been called Venezuela, for example. So therefore, they became a unified force.

FRANK J. OTERI: However in the very last festival, the Cuba Festival, and this is my perception as an audience member and as an outsider, I think the friction was probably greater than ever, because here you didn’t have just composers from this region but you had composers who were living here in exile, so the question of national identity and region was even more potentially…

TANIA LEÓN: …more potentially explosive. Besides that, you know, I mean, there was a lot going on that we had to deal with and that had to do with political overtones, you know, because, I mean, the people that were not really happy that this was happening among the U.N. community tried in a way to prevent this from happening, you know…

FRANK J. OTERI: Whereas with the other festivals you really had the support of the people here.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So therefore, fortunately, by the time the whole thing finished, the entire community recognized that this was a very specifically historical event because this hadn’t happened for 40 years and there were people that didn’t see each other in 40 years and hadn’t talked to each other for 40 years and for the first time they were in front of each other composer to composer, two Cuban composers, one that remained and another one that left, who used to be very close, and they didn’t see each other again until this moment. So, I mean, there was a lot of drama being played behind the scenes that people didn’t know was happening at the same time.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, why did it stop? There are so many other countries whose music could be explored? I’m thinking of Chile, has a lot of interesting contemporary music. I know when I was down in Peru in the early 90s, I got recordings of fabulous piano music by contemporary Peruvian composers. Did the budget run out? I thought initially that this was supposed to be a decade-long project.

TANIA LEÓN: I don’t know. That’s part of the project that I don’t have anything to do with. I usually work on the artistic endeavors but not on the budget.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that New York is going to be an emptier place this next season without the Sonidos Festival.

11. Reaching Out

“…the best that we can do is listen to one another, say, as individuals because now composers are not addressing music from the point of view of a specific party…”
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Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Pueblo Mulato
Performed by Voices of Change (from the CD Voces Americanas, CRI 773)Order from Amazon.com

TANIA LEÓN: You know, I think that the Sonidos Festival should apply to all of us in general. I wish some day we would have a festival that didn’t have people demarcated, you know. That we didn’t have to say this is Latino, and this one is black, and this one is a woman and this one has a sexual preference. You know? These are composers. And the best that we can do is listen to one another, say, as individuals because now composers are not addressing music from the point of view of a specific party. We are not the serialist composers or, you know…

FRANK J. OTERI: When Sonidos came along, you couldn’t hear this music anywhere else. There are no recordings of most of this music. It was all new. And yeah, they got lumped together. Okay, now we’re doing the Venezuelan composers. Now we’re doing the Cuban composers. But it was a way to get the word out that, wow, this was a bunch of new music that many people got together and said, we should hear, this is worth hearing. I wish every concert were as much of an event. How can we make a regular concert on a subscription series as exciting as those concerts were?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, this is precisely what we were talking at the beginning what I was thinking of, you know, I mean, that excitement shouldn’t be only music director, but it should be the audience, it should be the musicians in the orchestra, it should be the PR department of the orchestra, you know, it should be an event to the tune that happens when festivals are put together. Usually a festival has an atmosphere that regular seasons may not have. So, I mean, how to create the festivity in what we do in order to celebrate the people that are creating an art that is going to be perpetuated in the future.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. Now we talked about how to disseminate the music out there. And, you know, we have the concert hall, and we talked about composers being more public, and getting together and putting an ad in the New York Times. But we have this amazing technology now with recordings and with the Internet. We can actually get music into anybody’s home. Just press a button and wow, we can hear this piece of music if it’s out there. And this is even better than the advent of the LP or the CD where you can go to the store and buy all the new music you want. The orchestra in your town doesn’t play new music? Well, you can go to Tower Records or you can order this CD over Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com and hear all of the Tania León you want to hear, you can hear all the John Cage you want to hear, all the Milton Babbitt you’d want to hear. And now over the Internet, we have a chance to really make a community for new music in ways that used to require much greater resources,… I mean, do you see this being an effective tool for your music in the future?

Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Puerto Rico Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Cuba Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Venezuela


TANIA LEÓN: Well, it could be an effective tool. I know that there’s a lot of talk about the different things, such as MP3 and different sources that are actually making this possible. The question is, how to control these new entities that are emerging into a force that probably will actually become something very big. And it has to do precisely with the livelihood of the composer, because if anyone can actually take this piece of information and only this piece of information without actually giving a share to the composer, we are back to square one. And the composer nowadays, I mean, how many composers are making their livelihood out the money that they earn through their music?

FRANK J. OTERI: Very few.

TANIA LEÓN: To me, I mean, composers are in a very incredible situation, when you are an entity that creates the music, you know, giving music to the world, and then you have to share all the profits to the tune that you end up sometimes being the person that receives the least.

FRANK J. OTERI: And often times the composer has to pay for a work, to get the very work performed. You have to hire musicians to play it, and then, or you have an orchestra does a piece of your music, you don’t have access to the tape and no one can hear it.

TANIA LEÓN: Or also, you know, you have to produce all the copies, the score, everything. So, I mean, it’s a heavy-loaded situation for the composer, even though the composer is hoping to have his or her music played and known and accepted. And this is the thing: acceptance. You know, I mean, the composer has such an incredible appetite for acceptance that sometimes, you know, they make a lot of sacrifices.

FRANK J. OTERI: When I talked to Foster Reed from New Albion for our 2nd issue, we were talking about how you could really sell people music over the Internet and get people to buy music over the Internet in ways that you really can’t reach them in a store. Maybe the store isn’t going to house the CD if it doesn’t sell, but as long as you have a Web site, and if you have a way of having a secure line and getting a credit card, you can actually sell the music directly and reach people directly.

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely. That is happening more and more, and I think that, you know, based on that information, a lot of composers are becoming entrepreneurs, are much more business oriented, trying to protect their legacy, and also trying to make a living. All solutions are welcome.

12. Recent Compositions

FRANK J. OTERI: You just got back from Hamburg. What were you doing in Hamburg?

TANIA LEÓN: Thereâs a festival in Hamburg that actually closed for the century. And I was invited to open the Festival with a work of mine called Drummin’ that utilizes supporting orchestra, 21 percussions of different cultures, plus 3 percussions in the orchestra, so that means that itâs actually 24 or 25 percussions total. And this is the work that opened the entire festival. And then I actually was invited to write a piece for the NDR Orchestra. And this actually was the piece that closed the festival. So I actually…

FRANK J. OTERI: Closed and opened the festival.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. Any chance of us hearing those pieces?

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea. Well, I know that Drummin’ is a piece that was written for the forces of the New World Symphony and the percussionists in area of Miami and the piece was actually performed in November 1997. So I was very, very surprised that this festival in Europe was actually interested in the piece. And the piece utilized 70% of the percussionists from Miami. They were flown into Germany and then 3 other groups, percussion groups from Senegal, from India, and from Turkey actually participated as well.

FRANK J. OTERI: Over the weekend I went to see Robert Wilson’s The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III, I’ve always been interested in his work. You’re worked with him as well on Scourge of Hyacinths.

“It marked the 50th Anniversary of the Human Rights Convention.”
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Sound sample – Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Scourge of the Hyacinths(Exclusive to NewMusicBox, Courtesy Peer-Southern)

TANIA LEÓN: We started working on it last year and it opened in Geneva, Switzerland on the 19th of January, it marked the 50th Anniversary of the Human Rights Convention which happened right there in Geneva.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is this your first opera?

TANIA LEÓN: It’s my first opera, it was written in 1994 for the Munich Biennial. And this is the second time that it was on. The first time it was staged by Mark Lamos, and then Robert Wilson took an interest in it, and it was a spectacular situation. We were very favored by the critics from different countries…

FRANK J. OTERI: So who did the libretto?

Scourge of Hyacinths
scene from Scourge of Hyacinths
photo courtesy GTG / Carole Parodi

TANIA LEÓN: I did the libretto myself. And it’s based on the text by Wole Soyinka, with his approval, of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did Soyinka come to the performance?

TANIA LEÓN: Yes. It was an incredible event.

FRANK J. OTERI: Any chance of the production coming to America in the near future?

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea. I know the producers are working diligently.

FRANK J. OTERI: Any chance of a recording happening?

TANIA LEÓN: Actually, I believe that the Orchestre of the Suisse Romande is working on that endeavor, at this point. I mean, they were very interested in getting that CD out.

FRANK J. OTERI: Terrific. I know I’m a very big fan of the one disc that I have on CRI, and I’d love to have more recordings of your work. I’d love for there to be more recordings of your work out there.

TANIA LEÓN: Thank you.

Tania León

Tania León
photo by Michael Provost, courtesy Kaylor Management, Inc.

Tania León is one of the most vital personalities on today’s music scene. In demand as both a composer and a conductor, she has also been recognized for her significant accomplishments as an educator and as an advisor to arts organizations.

In January 1999, León’s opera Scourge of Hyacinths was given to great acclaim with ten performances by the Grand Théâtre de Genève; further performances were given in February and March by the Opéra de Nancy et de Lorraine in France and the St. Pölten Festspielhaus in Austria. Presented under the direction of Robert Wilson and conducted by the composer, the work is based on a radio play by Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. It was commissioned by the Munich Biennale in 1994, where it won the BMW Prize as best new work of opera theatre in the festival. The aria “Oh Yemanja” (Mother’s Prayer) from Scourge was recently released by Nonesuch on Dawn Upshaw’s CD The World So Wide.

León’s latest commission is an orchestral work for the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, to be premiered in June 1999. She recently finished “Bailarin” for the guitarist David Starobin, “Entre Nos” for Trio Neos, and a new work for the baritone Tom Buckner and ensemble. Her other recent commissions include Drummin’, a major multimedia work premiered at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami; Sol de Doce, for Chanticleer, on poems by Pedro Mir; and Singin’ Sepia, a song cycle collaboration with poet Rita Dove for the Continuum ensemble.

A brief discography of León’s music includes Indígena, a CD of León’s chamber music, released on CRI; the orchestral works Batá and Carabalí on the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Records; Rituál, a solo piano work, on Albany Records; an arrangement of the Cuban song “El Manisero” for Chanticleer on Teldec; and Journey for the Jubal Trio, also on CRI. Her music is also featured on the Newport Classic, Leonarda, Mode and Opus One labels.

A 1999 recipient of an Honorary Doctorate degree from Colgate University, León has received awards for her compositions from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, NYSCA, ASCAP, and Meet the Composer, among others. In 1998 she held the Fromm Residency at the American Academy in Rome; she has also been to Yaddo as a MacArthur Foundation Award winner and to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.

Born in Havana, Cuba, León came to the U.S. in 1967. At the invitation of Arthur Mitchell, she became a founding member and the first musical director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, and founded the Dance Theatre’s music department, music school, and orchestra. She instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978. Starting in 1993, she held a four-year position as New Music Advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. Currently, she serves as Latin American Music Advisor to the American Composers Orchestra, where she co-founded the award-winning Sonidos de las Americas festival. León has held masterclasses at the Hamburg Musikschule in Germany, and has been Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University and Visiting Professor of Composition at Yale University. A 1998 recipient of the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, León is a Professor at Brooklyn College, where she has taught since 1985.