Artist Spotlight: Tania León

Tania León Concert
Tania León, a Grammy-nominated talent, co-curated the Voces de America Latina concert series and composed "Toque," which was performed at both concerts on Friday and Saturday night.

Brimming with vitality both in her personality and in her music, composer, conductor, and arts educator Tania León draws on influences from all around the world in crafting her distinctive sound. Born in Cuba and now based in New York, León came to Cambridge to speak about her career and artistic outlook in a conversation presented by the Harvard University Department of Music on Thursday. The Crimson caught up with León on Saturday before the second of two concerts in Paine Hall featuring her 2006 piece “Toque.”

The Harvard Crimson: How would you describe your style of composition?

Tania León: I don’t know how to define myself. When I was starting I was rooted in trying the different techniques of the time—mainly the twelve-tone technique and serialism—so I tried everything and did works in all of those things. Later on, in the 1980s, I went to Cuba after not being able to go there for a while…. My father…was very intrigued about my sounds, and he didn’t feel that they had anything to do with who he thought I was…. He died after that…so he left with that question…. So I went into a quest trying to figure out what I was saying with my sounds…and that’s why I started bringing plenty of influences, musical influences into my life.… In other words I have been, in a sense, composing myself. That’s why I can’t define myself as generically in one style, because it doesn’t conform with my inner curiosity.

THC: How did you get started in composition?

TL: I was not thinking about becoming a composer at all…. I had big plans of being a pianist traveling all over the world, and I was a concert pianist…. The whole thing changed for me out of necessity perhaps because I met Arthur Mitchell, [the first African-American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem]…. I went to play to replace a friend of mine who was playing for [his] dance…. One day Arthur said to me, “Why don’t you write a piece?” And that’s how the whole thing started. So I went to NYU and I said I wanted to shift to composition because I had to compose to understand…putting a piece together. It’s like writing poetry with sounds.

THC: Do you have a favorite part of the composition process?

TL: Not really, because when you are going to compose a piece, in my case, you get a little bit hysterical because you have to create that world that you might envision in your mind, and you get a lot of ideas, and you have music in your head, and the thing is—how do you begin? And then once you’re in, how do you end?  There’s also the world of sketching; it’s a puzzle, but once you get inside and you start creating the structure that is going to give the piece a form or is going to pull the piece together, then it becomes multi-structured. You have the arc and then you have the infrastructure, which means, rhythm, pitch, content, a sense of space, and the sense of timing and contrast.  There’s a lot going on, and you have to think about creating what we call a piece.

THC: How do you get your original ideas?  Do you have any favorite sources of inspiration?

TL: Anything. I love museums. Visuals do something to me, specifically art.  And it can be anything, anything that processes. I look at my iPad, and one of my dreams is to see what’s inside. I like to see how things are constructed. In painting, I look and I can see the mind of the person who put this all together, the strokes they used. If you go to the Louvre, there are all of these paintings from way back, and it’s still the same paint that makes the colors; there’s the element of not being able to destroy the artwork. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a lot of things, but I think it was all driven by the same curiosity.

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