A Master of Synthesis: An Interview with Tania León
Departments - Feature Articles
Saturday, 04 February 2012

A Master of Synthesis: An Interview with Tania León

Tania León was born in Cuba, her ancestry spanning four continents. Coming to the U.S. in 1967 and engaging in graduate studies, she ended up settling in New York. Her many honors and performances include being the subject of profiles on most North American television networks, as well as independent films. León’s opera, The Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a play by Wole Soyinka with staging and design by Robert Wilson, received more than 20 performances throughout Europe and Mexico. Commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the 1994 Munich Biennale, it took home the coveted BMW Prize. The aria “Oh Yemanja” (Mother’s Prayer) was recorded by Dawn Upshaw on her Nonesuch CD The World So Wide.

León has received the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Koussevitzky Award, and numerous others. A professor at Brooklyn College since 1985, she was named Distinguished Professor of the City University of New York in 2006. In 2010 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was involved in the premiere of a new work when I caught up with her by phone in early December 2011, but managed to find a few moments to answer my questions.

Q: What was the musical scene like in Cuba when you were growing up and studying music there? Did Cuba have anything comparable to El Sistema in Venezuela?

A: As to your question about anything corresponding to El Sistema in Cuba, well you would be surprised at how many variations of that famous music education program exist throughout Latin America! From what I know about Cuba, the importance given to music education is quite apparent by the number of orchestras that are in each one of the provinces. These orchestras are composed of the professors at the conservatory plus their students, and they often play music by the local composers. It’s all integrated, and the musical culture in Cuba is deep and diverse. Cuban musicians are all trained in the conservatory; they are trained in European music, and in sight-singing, solfège, conducting, and such things.

I was raised in a culture of inclusivity, with many influences from the relatives who converged in my household. I actually began studying music when I was four years old—I could read notes before I could read words. My first recital was when I was five. Such an early training is a real part of the Cuban culture, but in my case, my grandmother recognized my interest in music, and helped find teachers for me at the conservatory. On the weekends, I would hang around with other students, play salsa music, improvise, and play just about any instrument. However, when we went into the conservatory we were playing our Chopin! I also liked to dance when I was young, and would dance to just about any music that I heard being played. That was just a natural part of my development.

Q: That might explain the dance-like quality I hear in some of your music. How integral to your music do you consider the element of dance to be? Does your phrase “movement is music” relate to this?

A: Well, that phrase can mean many, many things. For example, when I hear a chord, it infiltrates my mind, and whatever the contour of pitches of the chord is, I see it almost as a movie in my head. Some people hear music associated with colors, but for me, it’s almost more like an EKG, where the sounds make patterns in my brain—it’s association by images. Hearing and seeing music this way is probably why, as a young musician, I could hear any piece of music on the radio and go to the piano and play it.

Q: Which Cuban musicians and composers were particularly influential upon your musical development? And were there non-Cuban musicians that you particularly admired?

A: My degrees in piano, theory and solfège —these were all strictly European-based. At that time, I thought I was going to be a concert pianist—I was winning competitions, performing concertos by Schumann, Mozart, and so on. Of course, during my piano studies, I was also playing piano pieces by Lecuona and other Cuban and Latin American composers, such as Villa-Lobos.

Q: So when did you begin to realize that you wanted to compose music, too?

A: In retrospect, I began to realize that I had tendencies toward composition when I used to play in a combo that my brother had. As a member of this group, I would put together songs, also write the lyrics, and I would sing them with my brother. This was some of our weekend entertainment. But this kind of writing didn’t really make me think that I was—or would become—a composer. My piano teacher, upon my leaving Cuba, said that music would lose a pianist, but gain a composer, basing the comment on my habit of learning a piece, but then recomposing my own version of it.

Another push for my career in composition came when I was studying at New York University. While subbing for an ill friend of mine for a dance class for which she played up in Harlem, I happened to meet Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He needed a pianist to collaborate with the group of dancers he was forming, and when I sat down to play for him, he exclaimed, “Just improvise, and follow the choreography of my steps.”

Q: What brought you to the United States in the first place?

A: I’d had a longstanding dream to study at the Paris Conservatory, where I would have met and potentially studied with Nadia Boulanger, but my family didn’t have the resources. With the help of a family of a classmate of mine who had emigrated to the States, I came to New York after being in Miami for only three days following my arrival from La Habana.

Q: Is your music played today in Cuba, or do the powers that be resent your having left for the United States?

A: Actually, last year was the first time that I traveled to Cuba to hear a concert of my works performed. At the invitation of composer-conductor Leo Brouwer, I was invited to be a featured composer of the festival that bears his name. Do you know who he is?

Q: Certainly! In fact, I reviewed a CD of his string quartets recently for Fanfare.

A: In October of 2010, he presented a program of music of Cuban women composers living outside the country. This marked the first performances of my music in my native country in 43 years, other than a piano piece that was premiered in 2003 by Ursula Oppens on a solo recital. It was a tremendous experience to hear my music performed by Cuban musicians, including young performers, and even have the opportunity to coach them.

Dennis Russell Davies and I co-founded the American Composers Orchestra’s Sonidos de las Americas, a festival devoted to building musical bridges between the U.S. and Latin America. Based at Carnegie Hall and venues throughout New York, there were six festivals: Mexico, Venezuela (I actually met José Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, at that time), Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, and finally Cuba.

Q: In the notes of the Bridge CD, you refer to the fact that Cuban music draws influences from many parts of the world, including Africa, Europe, Asia, and indigenous American peoples. How do you see your music as a “mixing, absorption, and intersection,” as the liner notes mention?

A: I typically immerse myself in the culture of the piece I’m working on. For example, in preparing to compose Haiku, I read as many Haiku as possible, trying to understand both the form and the culture that had produced it. I followed the same approach for Inura. While on a research trip to Brazil, I heard some incredible musicians! I knew that I wanted to work with an ensemble of spectacular drummers and feature their ensemble. We sent recordings of their parts to Brazil, which they memorized. When they arrived here, they were joined by Erik Charlston, a percussionist who plays with the New York Philharmonic. Eric has had a lot of experience in playing music of various cultures, so he was very helpful in the rehearsal process.

Q: The result on the CD is stunning! How do you help your composition students find their own compositional voices?

A: Those who come to me to study composition, I feel, have a tremendous passion for sound. So my job essentially is to bring out of my students their creative voices, so that they can put together who they are, musically speaking. These young composers are very passionate about sound and want to say something utilizing sound, so my role is to help them discover and develop their craft as composers.

Q: Well, you have done some amazing things, both in and outside of your composition!

A: Thank you! I feel privileged to have been given the opportunities to grow as a musician and cultivate my compositional voice. I could never have imagined that the path of my childhood dream—traveling to Paris to study for a career as a concert pianist—would change course to place my destination in New York, ultimately as a composer and conductor.

LEÓN Haiku. 1 Inura 2 1,2 Tania León (cond); 1 Rajoe Darby (narr); 1 Dance Theatre of Harlem Ens; 2 Son Sonora Voices; 2 Son Sonora Ens; 2 DanceBrazil Perc ALBANY 1284 (67:36 Text and Translation)

LEÓN Bailarin. 1 Singin’ Sepia. 2 Axon. 3 Arenas d’un Tiempo. 4 Satiné. 5 Horizons 6 1 David Starobin (gtr); 2 Tony Arnold (sop); 2 David Gresham (cl); 2 Renée Jolles (vn); 2 Joel Sachs, Cheryl Seltzer (pn); 3 Mari Kimura (vn); 4 Speculum Musicae; 5 Quattro Mani; 6 Peter Ruzicka (cond); 6 NDR SO BRIDGE 9231 (56:02 Text and Translation)

Warning! There is an allure in the music of Tania León that immediately grips the listener, and demands his undivided attention, drawing him into her distinctive world. This is not background music that can be listened to with one ear while the other is focused on something else. Although one might perceive influences from Harry Partch, John Cage, Peter Sculthorpe, Hans Werner Henze, and any number of the other innovative composers of our time, the artistic voice of León is utterly distinctive, and once one has listened to her music for any length of time, it will not be mistaken as the work of any other composer. Some of her works and their polyrhythmic characteristics are driven by the concept of the clave, a distinctive rhythmic pattern that “functions as a kind of metronomic device that is superimposed over the binary and ternary independent lines,” as the composer has written.

These two CDs seem to me to give a good overview of this composer’s work, containing as they do two substantial works of more than a half-hour’s duration each, and six shorter works, ranging from four to 13 minutes.

Both of the works on the Albany disc, In Motion , are conducted by the composer, and were intended for choreography. Thus, they evince much more of a dancelike character than do the shorter works on the Bridge disc. The first composition, Haiku, a half-hour work for narrator and mixed percussion-rich ensemble, was written 35 years before its discmate. It sets 17 haiku, each of which is composed of pithy 17-syllable poems, according to Japanese tradition. For those who are not enamored of works that use narration, don’t let that turn you off from this work: The poems (here translated into English), are employed more as headers for each section of music than as integral parts of the music itself, which flows out of the essence of the poems.

Filling out the disc is Inura, a setting of texts from prayers of the Yoruban Candomble religion. This explains the fact that the language of these texts doesn’t look remotely familiar to me (the first line is “E e e Oni Èsà arole”), even as someone who has handled records from about 135 countries. Fortunately, English translations are supplied. Like Haiku, Inura uses a five-member percussion battery (in this case drawing upon Brazilian drummers). However, unlike Haiku, the texts form an integral part to this work, which ranges in moods from tonal a cappella writing to hypnotic and obsessive Latin American-infused rhythms to lyrical writing for the string nonet. This is an utterly captivating work from beginning to end, and the musicians of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Son Sonora ensembles play with precision, musicality, and skill. The blending of Brazilian and American cultures in Inura I see in some sense symbolized by the blending of these musicians in their performance of this work.

The Bridge CD, Singin’ Sepia , contains music in a number of different styles, none of which have such overt Latin flavors as are found on the Albany disc. Bailarin, the first work on this CD, probably comes closest, not so much in the style of the music, but by the fact of its scoring for guitar, the quintessential Latin instrument. Its lines are extremely disjunct, but somehow suggest to my ears the tropical venue of its composer. León’s brief work is relatively simple in its effect (albeit likely not in its playability) and produces a direct appeal, enhanced by the secure playing of Bridge’s resident guitarist, David Starobin.

Singin’ Sepia forms quite a contrast. This song cycle puts the singer through a maze of leaps, often in the form of upward swoops to a staccato high note. Kudos must be given to Tony Arnold, who negotiates the maze with seeming ease. Praise must also be given to the musicians of Continuum, who give a most convincing performance of very difficult music, which includes most innovative figurations that are impossible to describe in words. The five poems (“Wiring Home,” “Persephone Abducted,” “The Slave’s Critique of Practical Reason,” “In the Bulrush,” and “Then Came Flowers”) are the work of poet Rita Dove, and León’s setting spans the gamut from dramatic intensity to quiet resignation, from atonal lyricism to pointillism.

Her virtuosic writing doesn’t end here, but continues most dramatically in Axon, for violin and interactive computer. The title comes from the filaments in neurons that carry impulses through the nervous system. The violin part has extended techniques, such as over-bowing that causes notes to sound below the range of the instrument (normally a G below middle C). The violinist Mari Kimura not only brilliantly and flawlessly executes all of the demanding technical challenges of the work, but also programmed the interactive Max/MSP software that allows the computer to react in real time to the most subtle nuances of the violinist. That’s quite a lot to expect of one’s performers, but Kimura was clearly up to the task. The result is one of the most dramatic and exciting works I’ve ever heard for my favorite instrument. Mind you, as all of León’s work, this is not music for the timid, or I should say, for those whose ears have not been stretched and tuned to the most advanced music of our era.

Arenas d’un Tiempo (Sands of Time) is a trio dating from 1992, performed here by the group Speculum Musicae, which is composed of clarinetist Allen Blustine, cellist Eric Bartlett, and pianist Aleck Karis. This superb group may be heard on other Bridge releases, as well as on numerous other classical labels. The inspiration of the work came from a trip that León made to Rio de Janeiro, during which she noted “the striking change in the appearance of a beach’s sand when the wind disturbs its tranquility and re-forms the sand into a pattern of ripples.” I doubt that many, myself included, would hear this in the music, but it is no less an impressive achievement for that.

Satiné is a tree native to French Guiana, Brazil, Peru, Panama, and Venezuela. León’s composition with the name is written for piano duo, and is structured on a series of ostinati that first make their appearance 17 seconds into the work. These are alternated in the work with rapid-fire, fractured unison runs and sections of relative motionlessness. Quattro Mani, the piano duo of Susan Grace and Alice Rybak, provides a breathtaking performance of this challenging work.

The Bridge CD closes with an orchestral work, Horizons. The complexities found in all of the previous pieces on this CD reach their zenith here. It’s in the same league in that respect as Akira Miyoshi’s Concerto for Orchestra (one of my “desert island” pieces). Peter Ruzicka and the NDR Symphony Orchestra effect a triumph here that must be heard to be believed.

In summary, these two compact discs provide ample evidence that Tania León is one of the most innovative composers of our time. The rewards attending both of these discs will be ample indeed, and I am delighted to give them a very high recommendation. David DeBoor Canfield

Last Updated ( Saturday, 04 February 2012 )