Tania León

Pianist, composer, conductor, contemporary music promoter and cultural ambassador, Tania León radiates Cuban character, charisma and creativity. Born in Havana, she showed musical talent from an early age, taking solfa and piano lessons at four; her grandfather bought her a piano at five. A close neighbor was José Urfé, composer of El bombín de Barreto (1910) and father of Odilio and Orestes, who were already adults when Tania was born in 1943. Since she was young she liked classical music and also Cuban music; even as a child, her talent in piano was recognized. She graduated from the Peyllerade Conservatory with two degrees, in theory and solfa and in piano (1960). Her first public performance in Cuba took place in 1965, along with a young seventeen-year-old clarinetist named Paquito D’Rivera.

The influences on León’s work are multiple and far-reaching: Bartok, Stravinski, Ligeti, Janacek, Stockhausen, Boulez, Prokofiev, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, George Crumb and, on the Cuban side, Roldán, García Caturla, Lecuona, and Julián Orbón. Of course, there are also contemporary composers who nurture her creativity, such as Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman (deceased), Wadada Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton, as well as a group of younger composers with whom she maintains an artistic and aesthetic dialogue, such as George Lewis, Anthony Davis, Bun Ching-Lam, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, among others. The eclecticism characterizing her influences is also found in León’s music, which can combine the ethereal aspects of Crumb, the experimentalism of Carter, the lyricism of Lecuona, along with Yoruba rhythms and abrupt changes in motifs and rhythms as in Stravinsky, without ever losing her own voice.

Her Cuban upbringing and training are significant: “My upbringing gave me an ear for everything. No one had taught me to reject something because it was not suitable. So I enjoyed everything, from the music of the peasants and that of other countries, to musics of tremendous complexity, like Boulez and Stockhausen,” she tells me.

In this regard, León is part of a long Cuban tradition that draws from deep local roots to create a body of work nourished by a broader, global musical world.

Tania León is reluctant to identify herself as a woman composer or Afro-Cuban or black woman composer. In our world of identity politics, she rejects the labels used by critics and academics to talk about non-white people or artists. This is not to say that she is unaware of her own existence as a black, woman, and Cuban in the United States, even more so when she arrived in New York in 1967 in the midst of the civil rights movement. A year later she met Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018), an African-American choreographer who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in 1969, a company that still exists, under the direction of Virginia Johnson (in 2023 it will be Robert Garland’s turn). León was musical director of the DTH from 1969 to 1980 and, immersed in the African-American environment, she was able to understand the upheavals and racial dangers of American society. In her life –be it as an educator, composer or cultural promoter– she has always publicly advocated for diversity and equality. As Alejandro Madrid points out in his biography on León, there is no contradiction between her private stance and her public statements; rather, one must read her rejection of labels as a willingness to see people in all their individuality and complexity. León’s ancestry reflects this complexity: she has African, French, Chinese, and Spanish blood; in other words, she is distinctly Cuban. One critic described her as “a Cuban-born American composer”, a definition that she approved: indeed, born in Cuba, but an American composer, not in the strict sense of US citizen, but belonging to the Americas, ranging from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

Tania León with Leonard Bernstein in 1988.

Likewise, León has kept a careful distance from the political controversies surrounding Cuba. Her motivation for leaving Cuba was not political, but due to her intention to go to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (which she never managed to do). Although she has been out of Cuba for more than fifty years, she has not joined the most strident voices of anti-Castroism, nor has she affiliated herself with the regime’s apologists. She has always maintained that Cuban culture is a single entity, no matter where the artist lives, rejecting the false dichotomy of “Cubans from inside” and “Cubans from outside”. She has always encouraged cultural exchanges between the island and the diaspora, something that has sometimes brought her mishaps, as when she organized the Sonido de las Americas-Cuba festival in 1999.

León exudes a cosmic humanism. She tends to see the human species from a galactic perspective underlining how small we are within the vastness of the universe. “We worry about material things, class and race differences, but next to the vastness [of the universe] we are ghosts,” she once told me. That cosmic perspective does not come from a religious belief, but rather from a spiritual one: “religions impose many things on people,” she also said. León does respect religious heritages, and, in the case of her music, she has used the Rule of Ocha as a source of inspiration. The titles of a few works are telling enough in this regard: “Kabiosile”, “Batá”, “Batey”, “De Orishas”, and “Oh Yemanjá (Mother’s Prayer)”, an aria from her opera Scourge of Hyancinths (1999). But perhaps she would agree with Bartok’s phrase: “If I were to sanctify myself I would mean in the name of Nature, Art and Science”.

Tania León also resists aesthetic labels. When asked if her work is dodecaphonic, modernist, expressionist, avant-garde, free jazz, experimental, post-serialist, minimalist, postmodern, aleatoric, neoclassical, or collage, she answers with an impish smile that she is a pianist who composes music. And why not? León composes polyrhythmically, but she does not resemble Stravinski (remember that the Russian composer went to Cuba and tried to write down the rhythms of the Batá drums and threw in the towel, defeated). Some of her works have a minimal aspect, but in nothing sound like Glass or Reich (maybe a bit like Adams?). In her early work there are hints of Webern, but she does not abandon tonality completely. In her piano music there are accents of Art Tatum and Lecuona; these accents are never mere quotations but instead a starting point or an elaboration. Tyshawn Sorey (1980), drummer and composer, produces a music that many try to classify without much success; Sorey himself calls it “post-genre” music. Tania León’s work would fall within (and without) this term coined by Sorey.

León’s compositions have been recorded, but in a scattered manner. There are only four albums entirely devoted to her work: Indígena (1994), Singin’ Sepia (2008), In Motion (2011), and Teclas de mi piano (2022). The first focuses on orchestral works, the second on vocal and chamber compositions, the third on ballets, and the last one on piano works. Many works are found on anthological discs that include one (or two or more) work(s) by León, where more than twenty compositions have been collected. There are several to be found on YouTube (Abanico…, Ácana, Four Pieces for Violoncello, Rítmicas, Toque). Compared to her fellow countryman Orlando Jacinto García (1954), who is a decade younger and already has nine recordings dedicated to his work, Tania’s work is still waiting to be recorded.

Tania León (2007).

León’s early compositions in the United States were primarily ballet and were commissioned by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is not surprising given her position as the company’s Music Director. In eleven years (1970-1981) she composed six ballets, including Tones (1970-71), Haiku (1973), Spiritual Suite (1976), and Belé (1981), the latter in collaboration with Geoffrey Holder. Spiritual Suite was a collaboration with the great contralto Marian Anderson. Since then she has written only one ballet, Inura (2009), which was commissioned by Brandon Fadd for DanceBrazil.

Haiku and Inura are grouped in the album In Motion (2011). The former, about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, is a leisurely piece, with space between the notes. It is composed for bassoon, flute, koto, guitar, cello, bass, percussion (various), and electronic tape. It has a narrator who recites the poems, some seventeen in all. León handles the rhythms with great dexterity, using cajón, drums (taiko and otherwise) and other percussion instruments. The piece emanates a pointillist style, if by that one means scattered and disjointed textures with short notes, many rests and big leaps in the intervals.

Inura, on the other hand, is a highly percussive composition, of strong rhythms and melodies. It consists of about twelve voices, a string quartet, a bass, marimba, and percussion. Brazilian instruments such as the agogo and berimbau are heard among the percussion. It has eight parts and lasts a little over thirty-five minutes. Inura explores the Afro-Brazilian world, especially Candomblé religion. The first segment, entitled “The Sharing”, has robust percussion, strings, and vocals (operatic and otherwise). The second (“Respect”), with sumptuous strings and almost son-like percussion, sounds like something the Camerata Romeu would play. León alternates tempos in each part with great dexterity and the realization of the vocals is dazzling.

Indígena, the first album entirely dedicated to her work, contains five compositions, all written between 1987 and 1991. The title piece is brilliant in its handling of the twelve-piece chamber orchestra and León serves as conductor. Of particular note are the trumpet (Richard Kelley), and the wind instruments. “Parajota delaté” (to “J,” or Joan, from “T,” or Tania) is a tribute to American composer Joan Tower (1938). It is lilting, with its deft blend of flute, violin and cello. It ends very tenderly with the cello in a lyrical gesture. “A la par” is a duet for piano and percussion, where the percussive aspect of the piano is highlighted by using varied and unexpected rhythms. “Batey”, the longest piece (almost 21 minutes), was composed in conjunction with the great Dominican pianist Michel Camilo. The lyrics were written by both artists. Here León employs rhythms and instruments from Cuban popular music: there is a section devoted to rumba (guaguancó), and another one in which she uses Batá drums (played by Puntilla and Nueva Generación). The voices were performed by the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, a group of six singers (two sopranos, two tenors, a baritone and a countertenor); it is the vocal part where the most contemporary aspect of the composition stands out. The Afro-religious aspects, on the other hand, come from the Yoruba tradition and the finale refers to Yemayá. (The fifth work, Ritual, for piano, will be discussed below).

During the 2022 Bang on a Can Festival there was a program devoted to León’s piano work, which included (in addition to Ritual, 1987), Homenatge (2011), Momentum (1984), and Tumbao (2005), impressively performed by the formidable Vicky Chow. On the album Teclas de mi piano (2022), this instrument is played by Adam Kent, an outstanding interpreter of music from Spain (Turina, Mompou, de Falla, Albéniz) and from Latin America (Villa-Lobos, Oscar Lorenzo Fernández, León). In Ritual, the pianist has to “attack” the keyboard, which is not to say that it is an aggressive piece but a fiery one, of enormous vigor. The fire is slow and calm and, after two minutes, the attack begins. This piece is dedicated to Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, the two principal choreographers of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The composer said of Ritual: “It’s about the spiritual fire of people who inspire other people, because sometimes they see something in that person that they themselves don’t see. It’s the fire that starts something”.

Homenatge was dedicated to the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge, author of Cinco canciones negras (1945). One of the five songs is titled “Cuba dentro de un piano” (“Cuba inside a piano”), a sentence that seems to summarize León’s work (she learned of Montsalvatge’s music from her niece Yordanka León, a contralto who works with the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona). The homage is genuine, but musically León’s treatment is very different from the original, and, being songs, there is a vocal part and a full use of the orchestra. The second song, “Chévere”, and the fifth, “Canto negro”, are inspired by poems by Nicolás Guillén. León based as well three songs from 1987 (Pueblo mulato) on texts by Guillén (“Canto negro”, “Organillo” and “Quirino”). As for her approach to Guillén’s work, she owes more to Roldán than to Montsalvatge. Her version of “Quirino” is a storm of sound that lasts only ninety seconds and where every instant radiates power and vitality.

Momentum is dedicated to Joan Tower, a close friend and one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. Tower lived in Bolivia for eight years and learned Spanish, something she shared with León, who struggled with English for several years. It is also dedicated to Venezuelan pianist Yolanda Liepa. It begins slowly as a kind of dodecaphonic Monk, followed by a section reminiscent of Satie (but of restrained lyricism), and then by a torrent of notes that evokes Art Tatum, one of León’s favorite pianists. At certain moments the pianist stands up, reaches inside the piano and plucks the string.

Tumbao is dedicated to Celia Cruz, whom León met by chance on a flight in which the two artists agreed to collaborate on a project. Sadly, a few months later the singer passed away. The piece is fast, with bearable motifs, using the left hand to carry (and vary) the rhythms, while the right hand is used to string together fast melodies or rhythms. The whole piece sounds like the montuno of a son, including (non-traditional) guajeos; let’s say a non-dissonant, but dissident, montuno.

In Teclas de mi piano there are four early compositions, all from 1965. The “Homenaje a Prokofiev” is staccato, and alternates between melodic and dissonant parts. The “Rondo a la criolla” has an easy-going melody, with intricate repetitions. My favorite is “Preludio No. 2 Pecera,” in a minor key and somewhat somber, perhaps because of its theme evoking loved ones saying goodbye through glass at the airport.

The three longer compositions are excellent. “Variation” (2004) is dedicated to Bach and here the composer displays some baroque character and quite a swing, although there are several fragmented parts; it is moving until the end when the tempo begins to slow down. “Going…gone” is dedicated to Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021), the great composer of musical works. León has ventured into the world of musical theater, even collaborating for a short time in the production of The Lion King. Mística is a work dedicated to her mother and Ursula Oppens, one of the most outstanding pianists of contemporary music. In 2003, Oppens was invited to play in Havana and, to top it off, for Mother’s Day. Excited, she shared the news with León and said she wanted to play something by the Cuban composer. León told her she would compose something new in honor of her mother. Oppens played Mística and at the end got up and asked if León’s mother was present in the theater. Her mother stood up and identified herself, and Oppens said, “This piece is for you, it’s your Mother’s Day present.”

Mística has pointillist features, but it is also highly percussive, with a hammering on the part of the left hand. Midway through, the tempo slows down and, in several parts, León uses both ends of the keyboard at the same time, effectively and movingly. Elsewhere, the rhythm seems to evoke someone knocking on a door. The door to the soul? Mística is key to understanding Teclas de mi piano, an album that represents an excellent sample of León’s work and should be understood as a series of conversations with different voices, composers and traditions. How many composers could carry on conversations within one album with Bach, Sondheim, Celia Cruz, Art Tatum, Prokofiev, Monstalvatge, Monk and Joan Tower, without missing a beat?

Bang on a Can also presented Four Pieces for Violoncello and Rítmicas. The former, composed in 1983, dedicated to her father, arose from a conversation with him in 1979, when she returned to Cuba for the first time after twelve years of absence. Until then in her work, León did not emphasize the Cuban elements in her music. Her father challenged her to consider incorporating her roots into her music. Unfortunately, her father died months later, in 1980. She recalls: “I felt an explosion inside me. I realized that I was denying certain precious things of mine. And I felt that the sounds of my environment, the sounds of my childhood, started to come back.”

The composition has four movements: an initial “Allegro”, which sets the tone of the piece; the second (“Lento doloroso, sempre cantábile”) is elegiac; the third, “Montuno”, definitely lively, and the fourth (“Vivo”), where the performer shows their virtuosity. The “Allegro” is lyrical and abrupt at the same time, and with great sonority. The “lento doloroso” is more fluid, but sad, a kind of prayer or lament for the composer’s deceased father where sometimes the strings moan. But quickly the third movement (“Montuno”) is introduced, which changes the mood by introducing elements of Cuban son. It is percussive, with the use of pizzicato, fist blows on the instrument and stomps; here León recreates her father’s “tumbao” in a joyful way. The piece ends (“Vivo”) with delicate and fast toccata-style sequences that require great virtuosity from the cellist. It is a masterpiece that combines complexity and emotion with great finesse.

Rítmicas (2019) owes its title and five movements to Amadeo Roldán’s Rítmicas 5. As its title indicates, the emphasis is on the richness and complexity of the cadence, and León uses variants of son and guaguancó as part of the structure of the piece. It is scored for a chamber orchestra of thirteen instruments: piano, harp, string quartet, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, alto saxophone, and two percussionists. The first movement, brief (barely two minutes in length), sets the tone: strong use of percussion together with the whole orchestra that creates a mass of sound, a kind of sonorous manigua where the strings converse with the winds with a layer of brass giving another texture, and all dragged by an explosive percussion. The only part where there is some respite is in the third movement, which begins with the solo clarinet followed by the string quartet. In the fourth part, the piano carries the rhythm, which although it has Cuban touches also borders on a funk-tinged blues; there is also an intense interlude with the two violinists that is amazing. It ends with the whole orchestra playing together –but not in unison– a bit like the Art Ensemble of Chicago (multiplied by three, of course). Rítmicas is, entirely, an energetic journey through a dense, sparkling mass of sound.

Alejandro L. Madrid’s recently published book (Tania León’s Stride. A Polyrythmic Life, University of Illinois Press, 2021) is a valuable contribution to the studies on Tania León’s work and life. In addition to sketching an intense and memorable life, Madrid provides insightful analyses of some of her works. In several passages, when analyzing a particular work, the author first gives a brief general introduction, followed by a short interview with the composer about the piece; then comes an analytical discussion and lastly what he calls an assessment, where he contextualizes what was discussed within León’s entire oeuvre and that of other composers. In the interview and analysis, Madrid liberally quotes from the score discussed. It is a method of analysis that allows him to delve into the subject with much discernment. In one appendix, the book includes an excellent chronology of the pianist’s life, as well as a musical and social-historical chronology; in another one, it offers an extensive and complete discography.

Interestingly, the book ends with a short discussion of a work of León’s, Stride (2020). It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Oregon Symphony and premiered on February 20, 2020 at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fischer Hall) in New York. It is an orchestral piece, about fifteen minutes long. It is dedicated to suffragette Susan B. Anthony. In June 2021, León learned that Stride had won the Pulitzer Prize. It was not the first time she had won a contest or award, but the prestige of a Pulitzer put her on a par with Charles Ives, Ornette Coleman, John Adams, George Crumb, Mario Davidovsky, John Harbison, Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Du Yun, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Davis. It seems that Madrid’s book was already being printed because it could not include this news. But that in no way detracts from the excellent and necessary nature of his study, nor from the just and well-deserved award extended to Tania León.

Tania León’s music is characterized by an impressive breadth and diversity. It is not an easy work, but neither does it leave the listener perplexed, frustrated or overwhelmed. On the contrary, León respects (and challenges) her audience, because her work is born out of personal or historical stories. León knows how to narrate with emotion, although the story is not always linear. Sometimes it is fragmented, dispersed, but it always comes together again. Madrid speaks of her use, for example, of a technique, Klangfarbenmelodie (German), in which a musical line or melody is divided among different instruments, adding color and texture. Although León uses this procedure often, it does not define her post-genre work, her voice. Madrid observes: “Nevertheless, what is truly remarkable about her personal use of technique is how she uses it within a larger palimpsestic texture to speak about resilience and hybridity based on her unique life experiences. It is at that intersection of style and idea that Tania León’s compositional voice emerges clear, recognizable, and unique.” It is a voice that comes from that lifelong conversation, with her Havana neighborhood, her family and mentors, with her ancestors, with the composers who motivated her (Cuban and from all over the world), with nature and the luminosity of the cosmos. In this Tania León reminds us of Martí’s verse: “The universe speaks better than man”. The same can be said of Tania León’s music.

Alan West-Durán (Havana, 1953). Poet, essayist, translator and critic. He has published the poetry collections Dar nombres a la lluvia (1994) and El tejido de Asterión (2000). Of literary-cultural criticism he has published Tropics of History: Cuba Imagined (1997) and Cuba A Cultural History (2017). He has been editor-in-chief of African-Caribbeans: A Reference Guide (2003), Latino and Latina Writers (2004) and Cuba: A Reference Guide (2011). He has translated Rosario Ferré, Alejo Carpentier, Luisa Capetillo, Nancy Morejón, and Nelly Richard. He is a professor at Northeastern University (Boston).


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