Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

8. Gender

FRANK J. OTERI: As a woman composer, and as a woman conductor, what do you feel the perceptions are in the community?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I could say that the world is changing. But hopefully things that might be a little bit tricky now might be part of the routine years from now. Certainly by the time we finish the century, there are more women composers that did not have to go through what Antonia Brico had to go through. You see? And that there’s some recognition, you know, and there’s some more, many more opportunities.

FRANK J. OTERI: Who is Antonia Brico?

TANIA LEÓN: Don’t you know Antonia Brico?

FRANK J. OTERI: No.

TANIA LEÓN: In the Î60âs or in the beginning of the Î70âs there was a big concert with the New York Philharmonic, which they actually gave her to conduct. She was pretty old. I cannot recall how old she was, but she was up there. And in the ’20′s and ’30′s she actually wanted to be a conductor, and in fact, you know, she cut her hair short, and you know, she worked with Pablo Casals and she actually procured some opportunities but actually the doors were slammed on her, not because of her talent, but because she was a woman, and that was not part of what a woman was supposed to be at that time. And it was in light with the fact that women could not register at that point in a university per se, they could not actually be lawyers or doctors just because they were women. And, now by the end of the century, you know, we have women pilots, we have women astronauts, you know, the fact that we have women conductors, you know, that’s part of the whole movement.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what I found so interesting is this year a woman won a Pulitzer Prize in Music, Melinda Wagner and it’s the third time that it’s happened. And the first time it happened, when Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won, everyone said “wow, a woman won the Pulitzer Prize,” and then when Shulamit Ran won the Pulitzer Prize, everyone said “wow, another woman won the Pulitzer Prize,” this past time, it really wasn’t news.

TANIA LEÓN: Oh, no. Of course. Because…

FRANK J. OTERI: …it’s just a composer winning the award. It wasn’t…

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly, exactly. It’s part of, you know, our everyday acceptance now. It’s part of what we term reality.

FRANK J. OTERI: And this is a great thing.

TANIA LEÓN: It’s a great thing.

A work inspired by the traditional drums of Cuba.
RealPlayer  [39 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Batá
performed by the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Leighton Smith
(Louisville Orchestra First Edition Recordings LCD 10)

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FRANK J. OTERI: Getting now back to Cuba. I have a friend who plays the traditional bata drums and he taught women how to play them, and the elders got very angry. In 1999, he was told “These drums are sacred. Only men can play them.” This is still the feeling in that community. When you say: “I’m a composer, I’m a conductor” do older people in Cuba have a problem with that?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, let me tell you something. I have not had the chance to do that in Cuba. I have never performed in Cuba. Ever. You know, so I have no idea how this would be taken. One thing I can say, of course, I mean I live here, so therefore I have had many conducting opportunities in the United States, you know, big orchestras, smaller orchestras, smaller ensembles, I mean, you know, but my surprise has been conducting elsewhere, specifically in Europe. And it’s a blessing in my life at the point that I can conduct these renowned ensembles and I’m taken very seriously. For example, you know that we just did with my opera with the Orchestra of the Suisse Romande; that was just sensational. And I had the possibility to work not only there, but in France and in Austria, and with the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg. It’s something that I am liking more and more, because the value is not that I am a woman, or that I am of a certain ethnicity, or that I was born in Cuba, or because I look like this or this like that. The point is, I think that it’s beyond that already, you know. It’s about the music, it’s about what I am able to do as a conductor, and if I happen to be conducting my own music, it’s about what I am able to say also about my own music for them to be able to grasp and to come up with an interpretation. So, I mean, I can tell you that this time in my life it’s a very fortunate time at the moment, you know, because of all these experiences.

FRANK J. OTERI: You say that you’ve never performed in Cuba. Has your music been performed in Cuba?

TANIA LEÓN: I have no idea. I cannot tell you. I don’t know.