Tania Leon, 2021 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music composition, has not often been
interviewed in the popular press, so here’s a Q&A I conducted with her as published in 1989 by Ear magazine, and Jeremy Robins’ 2007 Composers Portrait of her, commissioned by American Composers Orchestra.
Tania Leon, Assistant conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, has distinguished herself as a proponent of music without category beyond a standard of excellence. Her enthusiasm for contemporary composers regardless of gender, race or national origin indicates an all-embracing world view as befits a warm, lively woman who accepts no imposed limits on her own activity. We spoke at a midtown Beef ‘n’ Brew, and were interrupted mid-interview by an assistant manager who claimed we needed “approval of the manager” to conduct our interview in his restaurant. Tania Leon laughed that off, but later shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she said of the unnecessary intrusion. “I’ve been in the United States a long time, but I’m still surprised by the mechanical way some people approach others.”
HM: What have you been doing?
TL: This summer I did some courses fsor the LIncoln Center Institute in Memphis, and something at Bard College with Joan Tower. And of course I did all the concerts in the park for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which started in May when Lukas Foss and I did a concert to celebrate the 70th birthday of Leonard Bernstein.
As fas as my music is sconcerned, this summer I finished a commission from the American Composers’ Orchestra that will premiere December 4 at Carnegie Hall, with Dennis Russell Davis conducting and Ursula Oppens on piano. I also wrote a quintet for the Da Capo Chamber Players, which premiered November 24 at a celebration of Joan Tower’s birthday.
Now I’m writing a piece for National Public Radaio. It’s going to be the theme for a new daily broadcast called “Latin File.” I’m writing all the themes and the buttons — all the musical activity
HM: Is that fun?
TL: Yes, tremendous. After that I’ going to be immersed in a collaboration with the composer Michel Camillo, written for the Western Wind vocal ensemble. Then I have to write a piece for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Brooklyn College. It’s a symphonic piece with text by Allen Ginsberg that will premiere at Carnegie in 1990.
HM: Do you work on all these different projects at once, or sit down with one at a time?
TL: I work project after project. Unless something collides.
HM: What are you doing now?
TL: The radio program.
HM: Is that different because you have to composer for small periods of time?
TL: It’s a different language altogether, because the music I want to write for the program is “Latin music” — what you identify as Latin music. It’s not going to be strictly contemporary music.
HM: But as a composer your heart is with contemporary music?
TL: Oh yes, very much so. But as far as being a conductor, anything that is new to me is contemporary. Even the oldest score of early music I would hear with an open ear. I play and conduct all kinds of music. But as far as producing music and being part of that community, yes, that is where my heart is.
HM: How much control do you have over what you conduct?
TL: When I guest conduct, something the program is completely put together by the music director of the management. Sometimes I’m able to input one, maybe two pieces. Some want a program with X theme to reach such and such an audience, or they would like to implement such and such a style in the overall programming of the orchestra. In the case of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, where I have been based, it has been a bit different because I have been leading a series of concerts that I founded.
HM: How did that come about?
TL: It was originally an idea between myself and composers Julius Eastman and Talib Hakim. We started around 1977 or ’78. I ended up pursuing the project. We went into urban com unities with all types of music, but with a big emphasis on living composers and composers who had something to do with the communities. We’re talking about so-called ethnic composers, meaning more the ethnicity of the composer than the ethnicity of their music. There were up to 12 concerts a year.
HM: Was anybody else doing that?
TL: No. And in fact I don’t think there’s any other orchestra that has done it. But that series has gone on 10 years, and no one seems to move it out of what it is. The program was needed at the time it was implemented, but I find that it is completely segregated.
HM: Did you hope at the time that it would grow into a more normal way of concertizing?
TL: No. I thought the people it addressed would feel more comfortable coming to the concert hall because they found out they had something to do with it. But the way it has been done has perpetuated segregation. Those composers are not included in any other programs, and nby not including them in a more integrated way, their communities don’t come to see anything.
These composers are part of the comm unities, and the communities relate to them. The people in the community know who they are. If my piece is played, for example, a lot of Hispanic people come out, a lot of Cubans. Because of my participation with the Dance Theater of Harlem, the black community comes, too. A lot of people who never come to the concert hall show up for that occasion.
HM: And if you conduct a Muhal Richard Abrams piece, for instance, I come, as do other people who follow avant-garde jazz. But we are a self-selected community. I chose to belong. . .
TL: But the point is not that you chose to belong to the community of Muhal, but that you came to the concert where Muhal’s work was played. If Muhal gets to be played more by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic and by New Jersey, and so one, perhaps you will subscribe. You will go, and you will feel comfortable.
HM: When you’re conducting a piece by an Asian composer, for example, do you have to do some research on their ethnicity in order to authentically interpret it?
TL: Well, this is something personal about me. My family has had many cultures in it — Chinese grandfather, white Spanish from Spain, my grandfather’s father, French, and Afro from the Nigerian region. The way I grew up, these cultures were a part of me and it was natural. So I have the tendency, the flexibility, to get into a culture very easily. I am a sponge, in a way.
HM: You grew up in Havana?
HM: Have you gone back?
TL: I’ve been back seven times, with a special visa to visit my family.
HM: Have you conducted there?
TL: No. I haven’t done any progressional activities there.
HM:When did you come to the States?
TL: 1967. May 29, 1967. Two o’clock [laughs]!
HM: You must have been looking forward to the change for a long time.
TL: I don’t know. Since I was little I liked looking at books with pictures of different sites of the world. I was in love with the Seven Wonders of the World, and my dream was to go to Paris and live around the Eiffel Tower.
But I never thought leaving Cuba would be such a dramatic experience. Unfortunately we are all caught up in this territorial situation — you cannot go over here, you cannot go over there. I’ve always been very terrestrial, part of the entire planet. I’ve always found it imposing that we have so many limits. So I left Cuba with the curiosity of exploring growth and culture and expanding my musical possibilities. I came out as a simple pianist just graduated from the conservatory. All of this, becoming a composer and conductor, has been growth.
HM: Did you become a composer and conductor at the same time?
TL: Not really. When I was in Cuba, the first compositions I did were boleros, bossa novas and popular music. My last year there I wrote some simple preludes and things for piano.
I did have one piece that became very well known. It was something I wrote about two months before my graduation recital. Paquito D’Rivera and me, we graduated together, and we played Brahms, Kabalevsky, all these things. Then, as an encore, we decided to surprise the conservatory by playing and improvising on my bossa nova. We created an uproar [laughs]! That happened 24 years ago. And last weekend Paquito gave me the surprise of calling me and telling me that on his next album he’s bring out my bossa nova again. I never thought I would become a composer; I was just putting things together. To write symphonic music or music would accuse of being “contemporary” — that was not on my mind.
HM: What about the conducting impulse?
TL: Conducting!?! First of all there was no role model. Women conducting a symphony orchestra? Taboo. It was completely unheard of. It never crossed my mind.
I met a man here who I consider part of my family, like a brother or an extension of my father. That man was Arthur Mitchell, founder of Dance Theater of Harlem. I met him within a year after I arrived here — a coincidental meeting. A friend of mine was sick and asked me to replace her as pianist for a ballet school in Harlem. This man walked in looking for a studio to begin his company. He heard me and he said, “Look, I appreciate the way you play. Would you like to become my pianist?” We talked. Since I didn’t speak English at that time, we communicated with the little bit of Spanish and Portuguese that he had. I became their first pianist. I also create a music school at Dance Theater of Harlem, and we started giving scholarships to kids in the area. Some of the kids have become real musicians.
The first year or so I played with him I never played from books, I improvised everything. He would dictate a combination and I would make a piece out of it. He persuaded me to write a ballet with him. That was my first piece, called “Tones.” In fact, as part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of Dance Theater of Harlem, that very same ballet will be danced next week. I never knew that was the beginning of something for my own creativity.
About two years after that we went to the Spoleto Festival in Italy, and that was my first opportunity to conduct an orchestra. Arthur Mitchell, along with Gian Carlo Menotti, the director of the festival, thought it would be better to have the music done live than on tape. So where’s Tania? Of course she knows the pieces, so she should conduct them.
From that I came back to the States and got in gear. Having redone my Bachelor’s at NYU, I took a Master’s in composition. About two years after that I got the conducting urge, and I started studying.
HM: What do you study to learn to be a conductor?
TL: You study conducting. There are wonderful teachers. And you go to a lot of rehearsals. You learn by watching a lot.
HM: What are you watching for?
TL: You have to learn the patterns that will determine the beats in a specific measure of music. Once you have that, you incorporate it into your body. You have to coordinate your baton arm with your free arm, and get not only the patterns, but the nuances. You have to create expression with your hands. These patterns become expressive and translate the character of the music. It’s a whole elaboration of movements that in a silent way conveys what you want to happen — specifically for precision and interpretation. After all, if you’re conducting a group of 40 to 70 players, you need a very precise way of creating unity.
HM: You have a very expressive face. Do your facial expressions convey meaning to the musicians, too?
TL: It seems to me that is bound to happen. I haven’t seen myself conducting, so I don’t know. I’m not that self-involved — I get very involved in the music. When I do anything, I am lost into that.
I think conducting is about being expressive, and expressing something so your colleagues can receive it not only through the technical medium but through the spiritual, or whatever you want to call it. Yoiu would be surprised how one orchestra can sound completely different under different people.
HM: It was unheard of for a woman to be a conductor. People of color were also unusual. Have you had experiences you think are unusual because of these circumstances?
TL: For me, people are not black or white ore yellow. People are souls. You may have a body people resent because it’s too beautiful. Apparently we don’t like to work with differences — sometimes they become a threat. But I’ve always loved differences. Perhaps because my family environment was so different, I gravitated towards feelings and other types of communications which were not based on the physical aspects of a person. I’ve never understood segregations or discriminations.
Another thing is that specific people are thought to be good for specific things, like an “Oriental” dancer is good for dancing “Oriental” material. Or if you happen to have dark skin you might be very good for tap, or things that move the torso in a “primitive” way. We go through a lot of codifying or labelling. I am opposed to this, because labels limit my possibilities. I don’t like confinement.
When I have confronted these situations, my feelings have not been hurt the way they would with someone who may feel inferior because they look different. And when I went into conducting I never that of myself as a conductor from the point of view of having skin color or of my origin in the Caribbean. You come as a package deal with teeth, eyes, nose and skin. But still human.
HM: What happens when someone gets on the podium in front of an orchestra who doesn’t seem like their immediate image of what a conductor is? Can the orchestra have a bad reaction to that?
TL: If therre have been bad reactions, there have been very good cover-ups. I think the reaction I have seen the most is astonishment. “Who is this person? What is this person doing up there? Let’s check this out.”
HM: Then you begin to work with the music. . .
TL: And then there is a communication in music and you don’t see the people. You communicate in sounds and feelings. It doesn’t even have to be sounds — when we really communicate, all the barriers are gone.
HM: This goes for 20th century music, too, which many people feel is foreboding. They are not comfortable with this part of the repertoire. They have not accepted it yet.
TL: I think everything is changing. We’re close to the 21st century, and we’re going to see some big changes. I mean big. Because nowadays you have musicians who are making waves such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams. There are many establishments, many communities of musicians: Uptown, downtown, this university, that university, the blue collars. . . We’re finally creating, somewhat, a primitive merging.
By my criteria, what we inherited from Europe was a tremendous degree of sophistication of their primitivism. I listen to Beethoven, and I listen to the folk music within his music, and I trace the dance steps of that music in his music. Something tells me of the region of the world where he was coming from. And it’s not because I have been trained classically; it’s a matter of how I receive the music. That’s my ear — I don’t hear any difference.
Since our continent is so much younger than Europe, we have often modeled after it, imitating its forms and sounds. But things like television and being able to fly around have opoened us a lot. We can go to other communities in the wworld andn actually listen to their music. Now we are very into Bali, into Asian and African music. Everybody is doing research — Ligeti, Messiaen. We are starting to recognize the classicism of music in every culture. It’s like ethe classicism of jazz. Aftere so many years of denying that quality, we are finally gewetting down to it.
HM: Do you conduct jazz?
TL: I conduct everythhing. I’ve conducted and premiered many jazz pieces for very valuable colleagues. The last pieces I premiered were by Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins.
HM: Is there one piece you’ve especially enjoyed conducting?
TL: There was a piece by Noel Da Costa I conducted three or four years ago, for orchestra and soloist. The soloist was a drummer. And the drummer was Max Roach. And I will never forget that piece.
Thanks to Iris Brooks of Northern Lights Studio for providing a pdf of this article from Ear/New Music News, Volume 13, Number 9, December-January 1989 — also featuring articles on conductors Butch Morris, Lukas Foss, Yip Wing Sie, Oliver Messiaen (by Kent Nagano), and Kronos Quartet, Ursula Oppens, Nurit Tilles.