Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

3. Nationalism in Music vs. Culture in a Pluralistic Society

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about your own music and how your own music is a synthesis of all these different experiences. Your music is certainly informed by clave, but it’s also informed by a lot of other things. It’s informed by European modernism, or should I say European American modernism. How do you put your music together? Basic question.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, you know, I mean, probably the same way that Franz Liszt put his together and he never had so many questions asked about it! [laughs] You know what I mean?

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] That’s the question we always get back to. I always find it interesting that, you study music, and you study the music of the 19th century, and Dvorak is considered a nationalist, and Rimsky-Korsakov is considered a nationalist because they incorporated their own musical traditions. Manuel de Falla is considered a nationalist, and yet Brahms is not a nationalist even though his music is as much informed by German folk music as Rimsky-Korsakov’s is by Russian folk music.

“…every single music is informed by certain tendencies of the composer which I call language, the language of the composer…”
RealPlayer  [51 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from “Oh Yemanja” (Mother’s Prayer)
Sung by Dawn Upshaw (from the CD The World So Wide, Nonesuch 79458)

TANIA LEÓN: Well, these are the very same questions that have been posed every time I have a talk of this case. I think that every single music is informed by certain tendencies of the composer which I call language, the language of the composer. Whether the language comes from the roots of his or her culture, whether the language becomes following Arnold Schoenberg, that’s a language as well. It’s a language that was created by this man. Whether it comes from the school of Vienna or not, who cares, but it was actually a language that we put together, and then there were followers of that language. You see. So therefore language could be anything. A language could be, you know, clave. What is the term of clave? The clave, the Cuban clave is really different than the Nigerian clave, for example. There is only one clave that have actually survived Nigeria, which has been carried out by all of the different diasporas of every time this clave appears, it’s all the same, it’s even been used by Steve Reich, it’s “ta ta, tata, ta tata, ta ta.” That comes from Nigeria. You see what I mean? So therefore you find it in Cuba, you find it in Venezuela, you find it in Brazil, you find it in Haiti, you find it everywhere, and everybody employs it in a different twist.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now there are people I know who are salsa musicians, who are so strict in their belief of the clave that they believe that anything that is not in strict 3-2 clave is not music.

TANIA LEÓN: [Laughs] Well, who says that the perfect English is only the English that is spoken in England? You see? So in other words, it’s a matter of whatever you actually want to determine, that that is the thing by which we should measure everything, and, I think that composers since day one have been working with long memory, a lot of what they know best, and going back to, speaking of Beethoven, for example, I didn’t understand Beethoven so much until I was in Germany, until I was in his region, until I started visiting different cities that he spent time at, you know, until I actually visited his home.

FRANK J. OTERI: But we’re taught in music history that Beethoven was not someone that was coming out of tradition, but somebody who was breaking the rules and creating his own musical language and expanding the symphony and modulating to places that had never been modulated to before, putting a chorus in a symphony, expanding the orchestra with trombones, and all of these other things that he did. But he very much came out of a tradition.

TANIA LEÓN: Of course. Of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: And, you know, we still have this idea which I think is a rather dangerous idea in the late 20th century, this great man idea. That there are a handful of people throughout history who did great things, and everybody else sort of looks at them in awe and say these are the great people. And I think that’s one of the things that’s hurt 20th century music because yes, this music of Europe in the 19th century is fantastic, it’s wonderful, but it’s not the only great music there is. There’s a lot of other great music.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, the thing is, what can happen, and I think that what helped our understanding of the music that came out of Europe had to do with music notation. Music notation is the first document that was able to be sent elsewhere. It was the first kind of idea of a tape recorder. You know? You couldn’t hear it but you could see it and you could replicate it. And specifically, you know, being actually carried out those that understood the system already, and had not only that, it had the sound memory of how the music was, then you would have then Toscanini coming here and saying, “O.K., this is the symphony, and this is Mendelssohn, and this…” You know? He knew, he knew the material, he came with the material, he disseminated the material, he created his own, let’s say, springboard, per se, you know, not only for himself, for all of that community of musicians who knew this material already. You see? So the language was actually brought into, and recognized as something great. By the same token, I think that we are needing now at this point, that there have been other systems now all over the world, you know, with great other music that we don’t know anything about, with other instruments, with other composers, with other types of sounds, you see, for us to admit that there is something other than the opera as we know it, and admit that in China, there was actually parallel to the opera in Europe there was another kind of opera going on, you know, which has tradition, which has great stars, it has, I mean, you know, great body of works.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you see any of The Peony Pavilion at the Lincoln Center Festival?

TANIA LEÓN: Not yet.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was there last week for the first part. It was spectacular. Amazing.

TANIA LEÓN: You see? Now is when we’re finding out all that. So what I think is we are offspring of a civilization and a tradition and a culture that actually raised us. You know, you raise a child, and you tell them, rice and beans. So the child says, “Wait, I mean, come on, rice and beans, it has everything” you see, and you’re very proud of rice and beans. But now we are admitting that there is Thai food, you know, and there’s sushi, and [laughs].

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, along these same lines, I always found it so fascinating, I read an interview a few years ago with Lou Harrison where he said he heard the Peking Opera, the Chinese opera, before he ever heard Verdi, growing up in San Francisco, as a kid. So for him, that was his tradition, his tradition of opera was Chinese opera, not Western opera, he came from that first. And I think it’s so exciting that, being here in America, versus being in Germany, or even being in Cuba, where there’s, and maybe I’m wrong about this, a dominant musical tradition, we don’t have a dominant musical tradition here. All of it is a possibility: we have jazz that we could spend a whole lifetime listening to, we have the blues that we could spend a whole lifetime listening to, and European concert music, we have salsa, we have bluegrass, we have all of these systems, and there’s no one great system, although for years, even here in America, it was the European classical system that the newspapers reviewed. In the 1930’s and ’40’s, The New York Times only reviewed concerts of classical music. There were no reviews of Duke Ellington, there were no reviews of Tito Puente, there were no reviews of Bill Monroe, but now, now all of it gets covered, now all of it’s on equal footing, even heavy metal, hip-hop and…

TANIA LEÓN: To put it on equal footing, which means to have an equal understanding of what we are listening to, makes it a bigger task for those that review. I mean, the reviewers have a whole world for them to immerse into and get knowledge, so they can actually inform the people the best way possible, and I’m saying that, for example, when you talk about salsa, salsa’s just a concept, but it doesn’t mean that you can group all of these and say everything’s the same.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.