Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

6. Improvisation and Musical Analysis

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, we were talking about you hearing Art Tatum for the first time and hearing these amazing improvisations. Before you had come to America, did you improvise at the piano?

TANIA LEÓN: Oh we all do, I mean, this is part of a tradition in Cuban musicians. When we were down there, Michael Geller told me that he didn’t understand that much how this worked, and I think that perhaps it has to do with the fact that whatever you learn at the conservatory is strictly classical, but yet you made your livelihood by making music outside of the conservatory, so therefore, we actually had an opportunity to have dinner in a restaurant where we heard this incredible improviser on the violin, and then, you know, we were so really amazed with this man, that we actually talked to him and he told us he was a member of the symphony orchestra. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.

TANIA LEÓN: And we said, oh, you’re kidding, you know? The thing is that, that’s what you do. You live by making music all the time so therefore you don’t only read, but you also do improvisation.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that’s happening here more and more as well with people who play new music. There’s much more of a chance nowadays than there was say 20 or 30 years ago of a musician playing in a symphony orchestra, playing in a jazz group or even playing in a rock band and being familiar with all of these different languages, as we say.

TANIA LEÓN: Oh yes, exactly, exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: To the point that now we’re having, you know, music that’s being written by composers associated with the Bang On A Can Festival — it’s mixing all of this music up. Is it rock, is it jazz, is it classical, what is it? It’s this amazing hybrid that I think is a chance to bring in so many different audiences, in a way that…

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know that you don’t like labels, but you mentioned Arnold Schoenberg and we talked about claves. What is your system? Is there a system from one piece to another?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I really don’t know, because I am still growing up, you know, and I try not to actually be complacent. I’m always looking for something else.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is your music dodecaphonic? Does it use serial techniques at all?

“I don’t think that when we are writing we are applying formulas in a way that is of scientific type of method.”
RealPlayer  [49 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Parajota Delaté
Perfomed by Continuum, conducted by Tania León
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)

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TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea how it was to be codified or classified. When I read reviewers or when I read the different opinions from different parts of the globe about what I write, I am also surprised and amazed to hear what different people have to say. And nowadays, you know, I have actually a whole book, you know, that is being put together in Spain by this woman who has made this entire analysis of some of my pieces. And she sent me actually the first proof and I was amazed by my own work. [laughs] To hear what she was discussing and how this linked with this and this here. Joseph Kerman, the author of the book Listen, analyzed one of my pieces. And he even actually printed some of the measures and made a comparison and I was just stunned to see this whole thing. So in other words, I donât think that when we are writing we are applying formulas in a way that is of scientific type of method.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you’d say it’s more intuitive.

TANIA LEÓN: I think that we composers absorb a lot of material, then study, you know, of course, a lot of material. Because, I mean, one thing I can tell you, I’ve studied a lot of music by as many composers possible in this planet. Let me tell you, if I go to Timbuktu, you’ll see me in the store there, finding out who the composers are there, I mean, can I see some of the scores, I mean, can I see, can I have some of the CD’s, you see, so therefore I’m constantly acknowledging all these different trends of what’s going on elsewhere. And there are some things that I probably might be drawn to and some things that I probably would reject completely, but, you know, how I compose myself is a process that is constantly moving and evolving.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you compose at the piano?

TANIA LEÓN: Not necessarily. You know, I can compose from my head to the paper, because, you know, being a pianist at first, and, you know, when I was attempting to be a pianist, I used to practice even 8 hours a day, so, I mean, the piano is in my head. You know, I can pick and play a note and I can tell you what it is.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you still play piano at all?

TANIA LEÓN: Yes. Absolutely, yes. I still play. So therefore, I mean, if I don’t have a piano, no big deal.

FRANK J. OTERI: And do you play other people’s music as well as your own?

TANIA LEÓN: Absolutely, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you conduct as well.