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Composer Tania León honored for her pathbreaking impact on music
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Geoff Bennett: A major American composer with her own deeply American story to tell is receiving recognition for a lifetime of work.
Jeffrey Brown talks to newly minted Kennedy Center honoree Tania León for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A work titled "Stride," based on the struggles of women for equal rights, it's a celebration of achievement. Composed by Tania Leon, it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2021.
Jeffrey Brown: There was Leon at the Kennedy Center Honors in December receiving more recognition for a lifetime as a pathbreaking composer, known for mixing traditional orchestral sounds and Latin rhythms, as a conductor and advocate for contemporary music in all its diversity.
As she put it recently at her home in Nyack, New York, she has always lived in a state of wonder.
Tania León, Composer: I keep talking about the fact that, yes, my spirit resides here, but, I mean, through my eyes is little Tania looking out.
Jeffrey Brown: Little Tania?
Tania León: Yes. She's like, oh, my God, look at this. Look at that.
Jeffrey Brown: And now you're looking at older Tania getting all kinds of honors.
Tania León: It's unimaginable.
Jeffrey Brown: Now 79, she's been performing and having her work performed for many decades. But she easily recalls the working-class Havana neighborhood where she grew up. Her grandmother and mother had worked as maids as children.
But when Leon showed an early love of music, her family made sure she would have opportunities, including music lessons in a conservatory beginning at age 4.
Tania León: I call it the Tania project.
Jeffrey Brown: The Tania project?
Tania León: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: What does that mean?
Tania León: The Tania family project, yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
You were the project?
Tania León: Exactly right.
Jeffrey Brown: The original goal, to be a concert pianist. She got an accounting degree as well just in case.
But, in 1967, at age 24, she left Castro's Cuba alone, a refugee on what were known as freedom flights, and essentially started over in New York.A chance meeting with famed dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, changed everything, when he invited her not only to play piano, but to compose the music for a ballet.
Tania León: I saw the entire thing on stage, and the recording, which I was a pianist in the recording, and the lights and the audience and the whole thing, and I said, oh, my God.
Jeffrey Brown: You were hooked?
Tania León: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: She's gone on to compose some 40 chamber works, 10 orchestral pieces, one opera, and numerous solo piano works.
But, early on, a comment from her father also helped change her sound.
Tania León: My father, the last time that I saw him, he said that my music was very interesting, but where are you in your music?
Jeffrey Brown: Where are you in your music?
Tania León: Exactly. Yes. Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Ah.
Tania León: He perceived that something was missing, the Tania that he knew.
It was my intuition, in a way, to realize that there were a lot of things that I knew about rhythm, about syntax, about traces of influences of the Cuban music that I could use in my music, if I wanted.
Jeffrey Brown: I see you have circled something.
Tania León: Yes, because I definitely like this combination.
Jeffrey Brown: León sketches out short sequences and passages in a notebook she always carries and then tries them out at the piano. Eventually, some will make it into her scores.
Tania León: When I get an idea, I write it somewhere.
Jeffrey Brown: The ideas can and do come any time and anywhere, including while shopping for groceries.
You mean, between the oranges and bananas, you hear a passage?
Tania León: Yes. Maybe, maybe I am actually dealing with the oranges and the bananas, but my mind or my subconscious is working on something.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Tania León: And then I hear it. And when I hear that clear, and I said, wait a minute, I have to write this down.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Tania León: If somebody see me writing music in the middle of the grocery, they probably think, is she nuts?
Jeffrey Brown: A strong sense of humor, a strong sense of purpose and determination. As a woman of color in the classical music culture that hasn't traditionally been open to either, she's needed both and pushed for more opportunities for herself and others at the podium and as composers.
Tania León: There have been all kinds of instances of people saying things.
Jeffrey Brown: What were you being told? You mean that, as a woman, that you…
Tania León: Well, that I mean, a woman of color conducting an orchestra. Hmm?
Jeffrey Brown: She developed close relations with mentors, including Leonard Bernstein, and founded an organization called Composers Now to foster more diversity in new music and serve as a mentor in her own right.
Tania León: I'm not the kind of person that gets impressed when somebody is predicting my future. I just smile and say, well, it's like, who are you to tell me what is going to happen with me? That kind of thing.
And I think that comes from the encouragement that I get from my family. I mean, for them, I could do anything. And that was very, very inspiring, because now that they are not around, I still hear them telling me, you can do it.
I'm just me, and this is the way I look like. And I have no problem, as far as the way I look like.
Jeffrey Brown: You mean you refuse to be put into a box.
Tania León: I don't like categories, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
I mean, and I think that labels is the worst thing that you can do for a human being.
Jeffrey Brown: But people do want to label you.
Tania León: Oh, I have been labeled.
I mean, even I am a rare bird, even that one.
Jeffrey Brown: Not until 2010, 43 years after she left, was Leon's music played in Cuba. And, in 2016, she returned as composer and conductor, leading the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.
And, today, she continues to receive commissions at home and abroad.
How important has it been to you to kind of expand the audience for classical music?
Tania León: Because of accessibility? People didn't realize that there are composers that look like me, you see, and that there is an opportunity to understand why I do what I do, why I write what I write.
And the minute that they get this close to me as a human being, all of a sudden, they start listening to the music first as a curiosity, and then because they know me.
Jeffrey Brown: Tania Leon is currently working on an orchestral piece and another set to a text by former poet laureate Rita Dove.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Nyack, New York.
Geoff Bennett: It's really great to see her get this well-deserved and long overdue recognition.
Amna Nawaz: It is long overdue. She's getting it.
Now, I love the advice from her dad, by the way: Put yourself into the music.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: Dads know best, right?
Geoff Bennett: That's true.