A Woman with Purpose: Tania León

A Woman with Purpose: Tania León

A presence in the American music scene for over 50 years, Tania León has always done things her own way. She has composed orchestral, chamber- and choral works, and opera and ballets – music that draws from classical training but most from her sharp musical instincts, which fuse the rhythms and colors of folk music she grew up listening to in Havana.

Arriving in the United States from Cuba as a 24-year-old refugee, León became a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and its first music director; was New Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic; conducted many orchestras; and worked as the music director of theater pieces by director Robert Wilson. Alongside her career as a composer and conductor, she dedicated her work to celebrating the diversity in gender, culture, and genre, which led her to found Composers Now, a non-profit organization empowering all living composers. Tania León affords new music the same import that we more automatically assign contemporary art or literature.

In 2021, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for “Stride”, a work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to honor the centenary of women’s suffrage, and in December 2022, León was named one of the five Kennedy Center honorees. 

Stride, your Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, was inspired in part by your grandmother and the work of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. What was the idea behind it?

That it takes aim, determination, and courage to change things. I did not know much about Susan B. Anthony when I was approached by the New York Philharmonic to write a piece celebrating the 19th amendment and the fact that women were allowed to vote for the first time in 1920. But I connected Anthony’s ambition and hope to the motivations of my grandmother and my mother, coming from a family of very poor means, and their momentum to provide an education for my brother and me to create a better future for us.

In 2010, you founded Composers Now, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and celebrating living composers. Why do you think it is still difficult to get people to listen to new music?

It has to do with how you approach things. Everything is new when you hear it for the first time. I think it is important to celebrate contemporary composers because, in a way, they are creating a document that is going to be discussed centuries from now, the same way we discuss Mozart or Beethoven today. These are the composers that contribute to our society nowadays, and we should support them, just like we go to a museum and not get scandalized by an artwork that does not look like an artwork from centuries ago.

Throughout your career, you never accepted the labels others try to place upon you. Can you explain why this is important to you?

I do not like human beings being labeled. Human beings should, first and foremost, be called by their names. Everybody is an individual. But labels put you in a box. They are dangerous because they make us expect people to act as these labels tell us, even though that person might not render examples of that label. For example, we call people poor because they have no money. But somebody can be very rich in attitude, in knowledge, very rich as a human being.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

It is an advice without words. I think the most important thing in life is that you get support and encouragement. Especially as a child. That you have people that believe in you. It helps you not to be afraid of the future. That is something that I have received from many of my mentors. Whenever I have to make a difficult decision, I have their voice in mind, telling me, “Don’t worry, it will be ok.” It enforces my inner strength.

What is the one piece you especially enjoyed conducting? And can you explain to us why?

My own opera Scourge of Hyacinths, when I was working with Robert Wilson in Europe. It was a very special moment because I would never have thought of being able to compose an opera and conduct it myself. I also enjoy conducting pieces by other living composers because it gives me an opportunity to exchange musical ideas with them and, by that, to better get to know them and their work.

What action or decision are you most proud of?

Some people would probably say that I took a plane from Cuba to flee to the United States. But to this very day, I still try to comprehend: “How did I get into that plane?” I think I just believed in the moment. So, the only decision that I am proud of is that I listened to my inner voice. And still do today. It was an inner force that guided me. Intuition tells us something.

What next projects are you working on?

Right now, I am working on a piece that I am really looking forward to premiere. It is for an extraordinary flute soloist, Claire Chase. She is part of the ensemble of The Crossing, the Grammy-winning chamber choir from Philadelphia. It will actually be a piece for her and the choir, with poetry by the famous Rita Dove, the first African American to serve as poet laureate of the United States.

Tania León - 45th Kennedy Center Honoree for her Lifetime Artistic Achievement

Discover more about Tania León on her official homepage.

Tania León in a red Akris sequence gown accepting Kennedy Center Honor
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