5 Questions to Tania León (composer, Composers Now)

Cuban-born composer, conductor, and educator Tania León founded Composers Now in 2010 to celebrate and honor living composers and the rich diversity of their voices and their contributions to our cultural fabric. We spoke with her as they are about to launch their new Dialogues initiative. 

What can we expect from the new Composers Now Dialogues?

Dialogues is a series of inspiring performances, thought provoking town hall conversations, and stimulating exchanges of ideas between composers, performers and audiences.  The motivation behind the initiative is to gather diverse groups of people to reflect on the significance of the arts in our lives, and to comment on the notion that we are living and observing art every day without necessarily realizing it.

The first event in the series will be held on Friday, September 25, at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem. Composers Marcos Balter, Valerie Coleman (also on flute), Eric Chasalow, and Rahzel (also a beatboxer), and performers Ryan Muncy (saxophone); Mariam Adam (clarinet), Monica Ellis (bassoon), and Miranda Cuckson (violin) will engage the audience with music and conversation with discussion catalysts Elizabeth Hoffman, John Kaefer, and Nkeiru Okoye, who are members of our Distinguished Mentors Council and Board of Advisors. It is exciting for me that the first of the Dialogues takes place in Harlem. My early association with the Dance Theater of Harlem helped shape my musical life from that of a pianist to the art of composition. Thirty-five years later, I am returning to Harlem, now a distinctly diverse community, and in a way completing a cycle and starting anew.

What are the overall objectives of Composers Now?

The operative word in our title is “Now.” We are all about living composers, what they are creating now and the roles they play in contemporary society.

Everything is interconnected. All music genres represent musical languages, each language generating a cultural impact in a specific segment of a society. All musical genres are therefore deserving of celebration on an equal basis. Composers Now features a broad spectrum of events in concert halls, jazz-mobiles, opera stages, experimental spaces, conservatories, museums and other musical settings throughout the year.

From jazz to indie, from classical to electronic and beyond, the Composers Now Festival, held each February, is a sonic journey through the landscape of the arts of our time. We combine performances presented by venues, ensembles, orchestras, opera, musical theater and dance companies, and many other innovative events throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Composers are in attendance at all events, which are open to the public.

Tania León conducting the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra in July 2015 (photo by Nantapipat Vutthisak and Natthapong Sirisit)

Tania León conducting the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra in July 2015 (photo by Nantapipat Vutthisak and Natthapong Sirisit)

What can you tell us about Little Rock Nine, your opera now in development?

I am currently working with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on this vey exciting project. We are coming up on the 60th anniversary, in 2017, of this iconic moment in US social and political history. Dr. Gates and I have had a wonderful friendship since we met at the Rockefeller Foundation research center in Bellagio on Lake Como back in 1992. I consulted with him early in the life of the project because he is a historian of the period and, as a child of seven years old, he watched the integration of Central High School unfold on TV as it was happening. It soon became clear to me that he should not just be a consultant, but he should be the librettist. The opera will present recollections of the protagonists, centered on the concept of “rejection.” 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.

How did your new relationship with Civitella Ranieri, the famed artists’ retreat in Umbria, Italy, come about?

This is an amazing story! In February of 2015, Composers Now honored composer Alvin Singleton in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY. The program, which included a performance of his work Mookestueck, took place at King County’s Family Court as part of its celebration of Black History Month. Tina Summerlin, Senior Program Associate of Civitella Ranieri was there and was very impressed that we presented this concert at the Family Court and engaged the local community. Civitella Ranieri Executive Director, Dana Prescott was eager to expand their Affiliated Fellowship program and reached out to us to join with them in this first partnership exclusively dedicated to music and composition. We are very excited about sending composers to the inspiring Umbria region of Italy to work on their craft in the next two years. It will be a wonderful opportunity for the selected composers, who will receive a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship grant consisting of a six-week residency at the center, including travel, room, and board.

Tania León The 11th Thailand International Composition Festival in July 2015 (photo by Nantapipat Vutthisak and Natthapong Sirisit)

Tania León at the 11th Thailand International Composition Festival in July 2015 (photo by Nantapipat Vutthisak and Natthapong Sirisit)

How do you feel the reopening of official relations with Cuba will affect arts and culture in our two countries?

This is a very exciting time for the artistic relationship between the US and Cuba. The ocean and politics have separated the lands but they could never fully separate the people. The influences of our cultures on each other’s music, art, literature and other forms of artistic expression have remained strong despite the restrictions. The recent changes are bringing a new hope and optimism. The artistic communities of both nations are very excited to interact more frequently and more fully. We are starting to renew and nurture our relationships more directly with each other. It’s a very stimulating moment in our lives – like two old friends who have not seen one another in a very long time and now we’re able to embrace once more.


Composers Now: Dialogues No. 1 on Friday, September 25, 7:00 pm, at Dwyer Cultural Center, 258 Saint Nicholas Avenue, New York City.