Среда, 1 февраля, 2023
ДомойMusicThe unplanned, unstoppable profession of composer Tania León : NPR

The unplanned, unstoppable profession of composer Tania León : NPR


Tania Léon conducts the Youth Orchestra LA within the premiere of her work Pa’lante at Walt Disney Live performance Corridor in Los Angeles.

Craig Matthew/Courtesy of the artist


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Craig Matthew/Courtesy of the artist

Tania Léon conducts the Youth Orchestra LA within the premiere of her work Pa’lante at Walt Disney Live performance Corridor in Los Angeles.

Craig Matthew/Courtesy of the artist

Within the spring of 1967, Tania León received the lottery. Her reward wasn’t any money prize — as an alternative, the 24-year-old budding pianist boarded an airplane simply east of her native Havana, sure for Miami. León was one among an estimated 300,000 Cubans who left as refugees on the so-called «Freedom Flights,» a program that ran from 1965 to 1973, organized by the U.S. and Cuban governments in a uncommon cooperative effort.

Though she got here from a poor household, with a mom who could not learn or write, León had wealthy goals — in addition to the assist of some well-wishers in her neighborhood who invested in her expertise, together with the present of a piano. From the U.S., a mere stepping stone in her grand plan, she hoped to journey to Paris, the place she would proceed her research and launch a profession as a live performance pianist. However her dream was deferred: As a refugee from Cuba, she realized she was required to remain within the U.S. for 5 years. She could not go to France; she could not even return house.

León rapidly made her strategy to New York, the place she met the dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell, who was busy with a dream of his personal. After listening to her play, Mitchell requested León to assist him set up the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and inspired her to compose music for the corporate. The writing of that first ballet got here so instinctively to León that she modified her main at NYU from piano to composition. She has adopted it with six extra ballets, an opera and a broad vary of instrumental and vocal music.

León says she by no means deliberate to grow to be a composer, a lot much less one who earned a Pulitzer Prize. She received the award in 2021 for Stride, her orchestral work impressed by Susan B. Anthony’s activism and premiered by the New York Philharmonic. She additionally by no means thought she’d be a conductor, however a bit nudge from composer Gian Carlo Menotti and research with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa proved that she possessed that talent inside her too. And thru her 35 years as an educator on the Metropolis College of New York and the founding of Composers Now, a nonprofit group devoted to supporting and celebrating dwelling composers, she’s discovered methods to reinvest these abilities into her area.

In July 2022, León achieved one other lofty distinction: Kennedy Middle honoree. The gala ceremony, which incorporates fellow honorees George Clooney, Gladys Knight, U2 and Amy Grant, takes place Dec. 4 on the Kennedy Middle in Washington, D.C., and shall be televised Dec. 28. On a video chat from her house in Nyack, N.Y., the now 79-year-old composer defined how one fateful aircraft journey compelled her to reimagine herself a number of occasions over, all through a singular profession.

This interview has been edited for size and readability.

Tom Huizenga: We spoke in 2021 on the day you received the Pulitzer for Stride, and also you mentioned then that the ladies’s rights activists who impressed that piece had actually taken a «failure just isn’t an possibility» strategy. I am questioning should you had an identical concept in thoughts whenever you, at age 24, stepped onto that aircraft out of Havana.

Tania León: I come from a really poor household, a household built-in by individuals of various cultures. However what we had in frequent was the truth that we had been poor and dreaming of one thing that was just about unimaginable. It was my grandmother who bought an concept that I preferred music due to the way in which I reacted to music on the radio. She would inform me, «You are going to see your title within the marquees of the theaters.» And I noticed these individuals scraping pennies, actually, to supply me with my training. That man who purchased me a piano after I was 5 years previous — to at the present time I say, «Was he loopy?» You do not purchase a secondhand piano for a kid. However it was to supply us with one of the best training potential, and the discuss was all the time optimistic: «You are able to do this, you are able to do that.»

An 8-year-old Tania León working towards at her house in Havana, Cuba.

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An 8-year-old Tania León working towards at her house in Havana, Cuba.

Courtesy of the artist

How did you determine you needed to go away Cuba?

Once I was 9 years previous, I instructed my household that I used to be going to dwell in Paris, and so they checked out me like I used to be nuts. I began making an attempt to go away after I was 17. After struggling so a few years, and eventually getting the assist of a household in Miami via the Catholic Church … I bought a telegram telling me that I used to be to fly on the twenty ninth of Could. And one of many issues that occurred boarding the aircraft — I did not know that impulsively I used to be a citizen of the world, not a citizen of my nation anymore.

Not lengthy earlier than you boarded, you realized that after you left Cuba you would not be allowed to return anytime quickly. What had been you considering?

To begin with, I used to be in shock. Second, I felt I did not have something to do with the opposite Cubans on the aircraft, as a result of I’ve by no means been into politics. They had been speaking about issues that had been none of my concern. And that’s how I arrived right here. I used to be very afraid.

Afraid of what — simply the act of leaving itself?

My grandmother tried to steer me to not go away. She had an amazing hope that the Cuban Revolution was going to actually be superb for everyone and for the nation itself. She thought that if I stayed there, each dream I needed to realize was going to be potential. However I had already took the steps. I mentioned to her, «Look, you gave me wings, and now you do not need me to fly.» I mentioned, «Keep in mind, if issues do not work out, I will be again.» And that was one thing that all the time ruminated in me — these phrases and the face of my grandmother — as a result of I promised her one thing that was not potential. She died 4 years after I used to be right here and there was no method for me to return. I did not have a visa, I did not have permission to go to Cuba, to her funeral. It was completely devastating.

I am glad that earlier than she handed, your grandmother knew that you simply had been firmly in your path to success in New York.

At the very least she knew by then that I had joined forces with Arthur Mitchell, and that I used to be a key member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, one thing that she was actually very pleased with. As a result of my grandmother was a mixed-race girl. Her father had origins from Spain, her mom was one of many totally different manifestations of the African individuals, and he or she was all the time leaning towards the liberation of individuals of African descent.

I wish to return to your early years in New York. Beside the truth that you got here with out talking English, there was upheaval within the U.S. on the time. Inside a couple of yr of your arrival, each Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. What did you consider all of the unrest right here?

I used to be petrified. Cuba just isn’t that large, and Havana, even because the capital, is a small metropolis compared to New York. I had no concept that this was occurring right here. I noticed the marches of Martin Luther King on tv for the primary time in my life.

It was proper after the assassination that I met Arthur Mitchell, in an opportunity encounter. It was my first time going to Harlem and to the Harlem Faculty of the Arts — I went to exchange a classmate who bought sick. And that is the identical day that Arthur Mitchell went on the lookout for a spot to start out his challenge. He heard me play the piano, approached me and requested for my quantity. About two weeks after, I bought this telephone name from any individual talking Spanish, telling me to go to the identical place. And that was the primary class of the Dance Theatre of Harlem — 4 feminine dancers with a barre in the course of a form of health club, and a piano, Arthur and I.

Tania León with Karel Shook (heart) and Arthur Mitchell, founders of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, trying on the rating of León’s first ballet, Tones, circa 1969-1970.

Marbeth/Courtesy of the artist


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Tania León with Karel Shook (heart) and Arthur Mitchell, founders of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, trying on the rating of León’s first ballet, Tones, circa 1969-1970.

Marbeth/Courtesy of the artist

As you mentioned, your authentic plan was to get to Europe. That was the aim for a lot of American musicians of your era, particularly musicians of shade, who felt extra doorways would open for them there. Do you ever really feel you will have missed alternatives in Europe by staying right here within the U.S.?

Probably not, as a result of I used to be a part of a challenge that, for me, was unbelievable — the creation of a classical firm the place individuals of shade would have the prospect to actually show that they may really do that artwork type.

[Early on,] Arthur turned to me and mentioned, «Why do not you write one thing, and I’ll do the choreography?» And that turned my first ballet. After that I went again to NYU — I used to be already there validating my diploma as a pianist — and mentioned, I wish to change my main to composition. As a result of the primary piece I wrote was instinctual, however I needed to actually know the methods. I needed to really perceive the artwork type.

That first ballet was Tones, from 1970.

Precisely — which is devoted to my grandmother.

Talking of writing music, I spoke with composer Julia Wolfe lately and he or she talked about your title. She mentioned, «It has been a lot simpler for me than, say, the era earlier than me — individuals like Joan Tower and Tania León and Meredith Monk, they actually needed to get the machete out and carve a path. No one was actually, really recognizing girls composers in that era.» Did you ever really feel that you simply needed to work more durable to get consideration paid to your music?

All of us have a mind. All of us are able to doing something. We have now skills that do not have something to do with the way in which you look or your pores and skin tone or how tall you might be or how previous you might be. That has been my mantra. So subsequently, I’ve by no means accepted anyone placing me down due to one thing like that.

The motor behind my coronary heart has to do with my grandmother, my grandfather — all these folks that, whereas I used to be rising up, had a lot religion in me. They believed a lot in my expertise. And as [classical music] got here into the home, they embraced it and needed to take part. I’ve no downside saying that my mom did not know learn and write, however she might acknowledge the piano concerto by Robert Schumann. To me that was unbelievable — to see that they had been so invested on this, that they understood what was occurring, musically talking. , all of us dance salsa, however we had been additionally listening to and discussing these items on a really excessive stage.

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As I perceive it, after you left Cuba, your music wasn’t carried out there till 2003?

I do not know. The primary individual that I consider interpreted a piece of mine there was [pianist] Ursula Oppens — I wrote a chunk for her known as Mistica. Actually, the day of her recital was Mom’s Day, and after she premiered the piece Ursula stood up and requested if my mom was within the viewers, and gave her the rating as a result of I had devoted [the piece] to her.

Many composers who’ve left house put their craving for his or her homeland of their music. Have you ever accomplished that at all around the years?

It’s not a lot all the island of Cuba, as a result of, as a consequence of our monetary state of affairs, I do not know Cuba. I do know a bit little bit of Havana. As a toddler, in class, they took us to see the Viñales Valley, so I knew a bit little bit of that province. I do know Varadero due to the seaside. And earlier than I left Cuba, my mom took me to Sagua la Grande to say goodbye to her older sister. [But] I do not actually know the nation the place I used to be born.

You mentioned in an interview, «Composing is inner. Your music has to return from within you from that non secular half, the a part of you that basically talks to you deeply.» In your individual work, how have you learnt whenever you’ve reached one thing profound?

Effectively, I’m very near my items. Once I take heed to them, I am going to that second of the sound — not the photographs or the locations that join me to a sound, however the second of the creation of that sound. This occurred with Stride: I used to be writing that piece and impulsively there’s one thing like these gigantic steps — I felt them. I used to be writing the piece and this factor got here into my thoughts.

I am not a composer, however I think about it should be an incredible feeling — prefer it’s one thing nearly larger than your self.

Precisely. Impulsively, I heard this factor, and it was like seeing the marches of Martin Luther King once more, and imagining the march of Susan B. Anthony. Each time individuals wish to ask for one thing they really feel they have been disadvantaged of, they acquire themselves and so they march. That got here in, and I trusted it. And the extra that I wrote that passage, the extra that I had the imaginative and prescient. I do not know the way it works. I simply hear this factor, I belief it, and put it on the paper.

Paper? Many composers lately use laptop software program to assist them write out a rating, but it surely feels like you might be old fashioned — you continue to write instantly on manuscript paper?

All these musical instruments for us to work with now are improbable, however I do not like the pc to inform me what to do. For me that is simply mathematical — it would not have the motion. I imply, you and I are speaking, and but we’ve got an unbelievable clock going that’s in a unique tempo, and that could be a beating of the guts. Computer systems can’t breathe.

This is perhaps an excellent time to speak about rhythm, as a result of it performs a key position in your music. That position could be very apparent, just like the Brazilian beats and devices in your ballet Inura, or extra advanced, similar to in a solo piano piece like Momentum. What’s it about rhythm that fascinates you?

Rhythm has to do with my inside tradition, the tradition the place I grew up. You go to Cuba, to Puerto Rico, you go to the Caribbean, that is one thing rhythmical. I labored with a musician in Europe who performs the kanun [zither]. He’s from Turkey, and I felt very snug with what he was doing. Mentally I can hear the totally different layers and the way they convey. I feel that has to do with the coaching we had — cultural coaching that’s so rooted in rhythmical atmosphere.

One among my favourite items of yours is Horizons, the orchestral work you wrote in 1999 for a pageant in Hamburg, Germany. I like the way you described the piece — you mentioned, «Somewhat than being in a hard and fast type, Horizons is extra like a stream that widens and narrows unpredictably, following a winding course.» I am questioning if that description is sort of a compositional philosophy for you? As a result of the music is meticulously thought out, but it surely sounds like a winding, unpredictable river.

Effectively, you simply hit it on the nail. One among my goals that I used to be capable of notice is that there are pockets of that piece which are navigating in a unique tempo from the bulk, so impulsively you’re feeling this rush. One of many composers that impressed me to do this was Charles Ives. It’s my exploration, one thing that I actually want to proceed doing, however I notice may be very tough for an orchestra as a result of it requires quite a lot of rehearsals.

Tania León with Leonard Bernstein in 1988. León studied conducting with Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood.

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Tania León with Leonard Bernstein in 1988. León studied conducting with Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood.

ASCAP/Courtesy of the artist

I wish to be aware that you simply spent a number of many years as an educator on the Metropolis College of New York’s Brooklyn School, starting within the mid-Nineteen Eighties. I do know you are retired now, however what would you say is vital for younger composers to grasp lately?

One of many issues that I attempt to encourage in a composer from the very starting is to get in contact with exactly what we’re speaking about — the inner drive that truly makes them write music. If you’re compelled, it is since you really feel that you’ve got one thing to say on the earth of sound. Whenever you examine the early works of any composer, there are traces that develop into the later compositions — you discover the seeds there. So should you as a pupil wish to get into this, it’s important to take note of what you are doing from the very starting.

You will be 80 subsequent yr, and within the run as much as that milestone you have been acknowledged with two significantly large American awards: In 2021 you turned a Pulitzer winner, and this July you had been named a Kennedy Middle honoree. Had been there any little ideas behind your thoughts questioning why these two awards did not come earlier?

No, not likely. Actually, I used to be stunned, as a result of I’ve all the time been doing my very own factor. Years again, we used to explain the totally different traits [in New York Music]: «uptown,» «downtown,» «midtown,» no matter. And I all the time mentioned that I used to be «out of city,» as a result of I knew all people, I liked all people. I used to be an excellent pal of John Cage. I bear in mind when Julie [Wolfe] and David [Lang] and Michael [Gordon] began Bang on a Can. I used to be the primary defender of Philip Glass. By the identical token, I had a improbable friendship with Charles Wuorinen, and have been form of an assistant to Joan Tower from the very starting. I imply, I like composers no matter what they write — it may very well be Broadway or musical theater or electronics, it may very well be something. They’re the kings and queens of sound.

I ask the query as a result of whenever you received the Pulitzer, I heard many individuals saying the identical factor: «It is about time.»

I heard that. Folks wrote me and mentioned: «Lengthy overdue.» Once I bought the decision from Kennedy Middle, I used to be able to say, «Are you positive it’s me?» As a result of I’ve not performed the politics — I’ve by no means put my title into any competitors, so that they have been actual surprises to me. These issues do not decide the way in which I wish to write, or the way in which I’ll be manifesting myself as a musician. How for much longer am I going to be on this planet? I do not know. I am not involved about that. I hold going.

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