When the composer Tania León attended a loft concert in downtown Manhattan recently, she enjoyed a “heavenly” experience listening to chamber music in the small space. “Pauline Oliveros talked about deep listening, and this is what I experienced,” she said, referring to the experimental American composer. “I realized that everybody around me was listening in the same way. You could see it and you got to feel it, this deep listening. We can experience that with big pieces and orchestras as well, but for me [to hear] chamber music is to be intimate with the sound, with the performer, and with the creator of the piece,” said León.  

León, who was born in Havana in 1943, is the 2022 recipient of Chamber Music America’s Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award. Her chamber music catalogue spans some 30 pieces and includes a recent commission called Ethos for the Cassatt String Quartet and the pianist Ursula Oppens. León won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her orchestral piece Stride, commissioned in honor of the anniversary of the 19th amendment as part of the New York Philharmonic initiative Project 19. Inspired by the suffragist Susan B. Anthony and León’s progressive Cuban grandmother, Stride was premiered in February 2020, conducted by Jaap Van Zweden. León reminded listeners at David Geffen Hall that women of color received the right to vote 45 years after white women. 

In a YouTube interview discussing Stride, León says: “In my imagination, I saw this woman from a century ago moving forward like nobody’s business. Such a force.” León’s own career trajectory has certainly been propelled by a remarkable momentum: shortly after arriving in Miami as a refugee in 1967, she moved to New York with no money or connections and unable to speak English. She is now one of the most successful composers of her generation. 

Still, León, who now lives in Nyack, on the Hudson River, waited a long time for her New York Philharmonic debut. She was new-music advisor to Kurt Masur and the orchestra from 1993 to 1997, but they never performed her music. León says she doesn’t know why, noting that she was utilized as a conductor in the 90s by the Phil. “There was not so much emphasis at the time on presenting contemporary music or commissioning,” explained León. “It was a very conservative time,” she added, referring to the 1990s. “Now there is a lot of effort trying to find conductors that are women and to encourage people of color in classical music.” 

León noted that many musicians (including her) have been trying to promote a diverse range of composers long before the 2020 social justice protests spurred major organizations to re-assess their programming. She was an active member of Meet the Composer, which she describes as “introducing composers from all walks of life and all walks of sound.” (The organization merged with the American Music Center in 2011 to form New Music USA.) She founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert series in 1978 as a platform for composers of color and to attract a more diverse audience. In 1994 she co-founded the American Composers Orchestra’s Sonidos de las Americas Festival, directing many concerts of Latin-American music.  

León has been a professor at Brooklyn College since 1985 and a City University of New York distinguished professor since 2010. In an interview with the Recording Academy’s Songwriters & Composers Wing, where she is Honorary Chair, she said: “I think it’s important to listen to the young musicians. The reason a young musician goes to a conservatory or to a university or whatever to study music is because they have the music inside already. The purpose is to get the music out of them, as opposed to [imposing] on them the music we prefer.”

Tania León with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood in 1977.

She founded the annual Composers Now festival in 2010 to spotlight classical, indie, and jazz composers. When she introduces herself as a composer to new acquaintances, León is often asked if she writes jazz, but she asserts that she doesn’t take offence at this assumption. “In fact, that is a very big accolade.

“I say I write music, period. It could be different styles, but it’s all music.”

León, who is of French, Spanish, Chinese, Nigerian and Cuban heritage, acknowledges that “sometimes people associate a genre of music with the ethnicity or race of a person, and we need to demystify that.” 

While actively seeking out diverse voices has been part of her mission for years, León doesn’t subscribe to identity categories and has never wanted to be defined as a Cuban-woman composer. “Labels are convenient, but I have a tremendous problem with them, because labels confine and restrict and classify us. I don’t think a human being has any classification because everybody is unique,” she said. 

León conducting Max Roach in 1985.

“Everybody wants to be validated and appreciated,” according to León.

“But my identity is growing and changing and I'm not the person that I was five years ago or even five days ago."

I can’t say that my identity is this or that because I don’t know where my identity is going. Yes, I know where I was born. But when I go back [to Cuba] sometimes people don’t even know that I am from that place, because there’s a lot of things that don’t identify me to that community. There are some aspects of my identity that don’t match, maybe gestures that I use and even my language. I speak the same language but sometimes I’m using different words.”

Indeed, after returning to Cuba in 1979 after more than a decade away, a young member of her family said she talked funny. “At first, I got sentimental. I was very hurt because it gave me the sensation that I didn’t belong anymore to that community. So that gave me pause to think about identity. What is my identity? Here you call me this, over there they call me that, everyone is trying to define me when I can’t even define myself.” 

During that trip she played recordings of her music for her father. He told her that he heard nothing of Tania in these compositions, which incorporated serialist techniques espoused by one of her early-career teachers in New York, the modernist composer Ursula Mamlok. León’s father took her to hear traditional Cuban music as a reminder of her heritage. León was unable to attend his funeral a few months later because of visa issues but began to take inspiration from Cuban music when composing. It wasn’t until 2016, almost 50 years after she moved to the U.S., that she had a chance to perform in Cuba, leading the National Symphony Orchestra in her own works (including the Cuban Carnival-inspired Indígena) as part of the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music. 

More recently, León contributed a short, elegiac piece called Anima for the violinist Jennifer Koh’s album Alone Together, which was released in response to the pandemic. The composer is also working on a major commission for Koh, who describes her music as “beautifully and very intelligently organized, and also incredibly expressive.” The music of Elliot Carter and León, says Koh, have “a totally different sound world, but structurally there’s strong ties to each other. I think that’s what speaks to me about León’s music: the very clear structure and expressivity.”

León conducting the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles
León conducting the Dance Theater of Harlem

In 1988 León composed a piece for the composer Joan Tower, a commission from the Da Capo Chamber Players in honor of Tower’s 50th birthday. Tower said her friend’s music is notable for its melding of three major influences, including serialism, dance, and Latin American genres. “Every once in a while, one of those influences will come forward more than the other one. The rhythms are always very Latin. But the pitches are sometimes more serial, almost 12 tone,” said Tower.

León’s broad catalogue includes virtuosic pieces for piano solo such as Ritual (1987), which reflect the influence of Carter and Mamlok and incorporates Cuban rhythms, and the kaleidoscopic Batá for orchestra. Many of León’s signature works feature percussion, such as Inura for voices and percussion, commissioned by Dance Brazil. Her irresistible Batéy is scored for chorus and Afro-Cuban percussion ensemble and included on Indígena, a recording of León’s chamber music named after her raucous work of the same name. Her large chamber catalogue also includes an alluring duet for flute and piano (Alma), a woodwind quintet (De Memorias), and pieces for brass ensemble; violin and electronics; piano quintet; string quartet; clarinet, bassoon and piano trio; and large mixed ensembles. 

Her first opera, Scourge of Hyacinths, was commissioned in 1994 by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennale. Based on a BBC radio play by Wole Soyinka, it had staging and design by Robert Wilson and received the BMW Prize for best new opera at the festival in 1999. The opera’s centerpiece aria, the nostalgic Oh Yemanja (Mother’s Prayer), was inspired by Léon’s memory of her own mother singing a folk song and has been recorded by Dawn Upshaw.  Recent commissions include Ser for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ritmicas for the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble, and Pa’lante for the International Contemporary Ensemble and YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles). 

León has spoken often of her humble upbringing in a non-musical family, who nonetheless encouraged her to study music. She demonstrated perfect pitch as a young child and enrolled in the music conservatory in Havana at age four, thanks both to her talent and her grandmother’s persistence with the school’s administrators. Her grandfather bought a piano when she was five and her grandmother taught her about American artists such as Josephine Baker, Leonard Bernstein, and Marian Anderson. (Bernstein and Copland were the only two American composers she was exposed to in Cuba). At home, she enjoyed improvising on pieces by Chopin, sometimes syncopating the melodies, although she didn’t dare do so in front of her teachers. But her grandmother told the school about the little girl’s creativity at the keyboard, and the teachers thought she might turn out to be a composer. 

The young pianist had other plans. In those early years, León—whose mother and grandmother worked as maids from childhood—dreamt of being the next Martha Argerich and of earning enough from her performances to support the family. When her piano teacher sent her a postcard of the Eiffel Tower, León fantasized about living in Paris, from which she would tour the world as a concert pianist. At 24, she secured a spot on a flight to the United States, a first step towards her cosmopolitan dreams. But her “Freedom Flight” to Miami rendered her stateless: she lost her Cuban citizenship and discovered she was only able to apply for American citizenship after waiting five years in the U.S. Her goal of living in Paris thwarted, she moved to New York shortly after arriving in Miami. 

While earning her bachelor and master’s degrees in music in Havana, León had received a certification as a CPA from the school of commerce. She worked as an accountant at the Americana Hotel in NYC while pursuing music and studying English at NYU. In 1969, just a month after she arrived in New York, she subbed as a rehearsal pianist for the Dance Theater of Harlem, newly founded by Arthur Mitchell, NYC Ballet’s first principal Black dancer. He asked her to improvise instead of reading from music while accompanying four dancers. Mitchell was so impressed he hired her as the first music director of the group and commissioned a piece. León was still aiming to be a pianist and had no formal training in composition, but studied on her own to create Tones, which Mitchell choregraphed. (The work was featured by the company in its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019). León also had opportunities to collaborate with the choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

León’s first meetings with Mitchell were life changing events that inspired her to pursue a career as a composer instead of a pianist. It was also Mitchell who saw her potential as a conductor, giving her the opportunity to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra for a Dance Theater of Harlem tour in Europe. She was initially apprehensive, given her lack of experience, but the performances were a success. When she returned to New York, she decided to pursue conducting alongside composition, and early in her career conducted Broadway shows such as The Wiz. She studied conducting at Tanglewood with Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. 

León participated in many civil rights and Vietnam War protests with her NYU classmates: since she spoke minimal English at the time, they told her what slogans to shout. Her music has since drawn extensive inspiration from political and civil rights events. Little Rock Nine, an opera commissioned by the University of Central Arkansas, is based on the story of the African American high school students who in 1957 braved a hostile crowd to enter a recently de-segregated school. 

She says she was unfamiliar with racism until she moved to the U.S. and saw segregation and discrimination firsthand. When asked by NBC about whether she identified with the Little Rock students’ struggle, León responded: “I come from a cradle where we were all united by poverty. We were multi-racial, multi-everything but what we had in common is that we were poor. So that kind of diversity is how I see the world and without diversity, there is no progress.” The opera also explored the theme of rejection. León told the online magazine I Care if You Listen: “We all, at one time or other, have been rejected. And in that way this story represents the universal ‘human tragedy,’ not simply the racial divide in our country.”

Tower, who said that she has frequently admired León’s talent and determination during their decades-long friendship, dedicated one of her Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman (a series of short pieces inspired by Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man) to León. She said her friend arrived in the United States with almost nothing, “but has persevered with a lot of hard work. She is definitely an uncommon woman.” 

About the Author
Vivien Schweitzer is a music critic and the author of A Mad Love: an Introduction to Opera, which was published in September 2018. It was named one of the Ten Best Books of September that year by the Christian Science Monitor and one of the “Best Books We Read in 2021” by The New Yorker. She is also a pianist who loves playing chamber music.