An Artist's Journey

The following was adapted from an interview with composer and CUNY distinguished professor emeritus Tania León in Are The Arts Essential?, a new anthology featuring some of the most powerful voices in the U.S. cultural landscape.

I was born and raised on an island. I’ve always been looking at the world. I was not a citizen or inhabitant of only one piece of Earth. I always was very interested in extraterrestrials. I thought about being an astronaut. I was very interested in the universe and the idea that we are on a planet. My mind has been always expansive.

My family was very poor, yes, but very diverse. There were three different cultures in my family: the Spanish, the African, and the Chinese. We were poor, but they had their ways to do things and enjoy life. And I was enjoying what I was learning from this one and then from this one after this one, and they were enjoying everything—and that was really incredible. We ask ourselves, Where do we come from? Who are our ancestors? Was somebody in music? Because I’m a musician. And my brother is a musician whose daughter is an opera singer in Barcelona. My youngest nephew is a sound engineer. Where is this music coming from? We don’t know. My arrival in the States is part of that.

I think art is one of the main forces of being human. Through an artistic perception, we are giving the narrative not only of that moment in time but of that community, that culture, that way of life. There’s no difference for me between the American culture, the African culture, the Cuban culture, and the Spanish culture. That’s something that hit me when I came back to Cuba, because my nephew told my family that I spoke funny. Why? Because by the time I came back, my Spanish was not the Spanish they were speaking. I was speaking with an accent I did not notice.

They noticed.

That means I have absorbed something here that has made me different. My gestures are different, my language is different—and I did not notice. This is what I’m trying to say as well of the human species, how we are porous to each other and how corrupt it is to think that I’m not going to absorb anything from you because you’re Black or not absorbing anything from you because you’re Latino. The more we interact with each other, the more syncretic we’re going to become.

I don’t know if it has to do with the digital world we’re inhabiting, the computer, this Zoom that we’re doing, but in the terms of the world of composition, there’s an explosion of identities that was masqueraded before.

People are writing what they want. They are using whichever influence, trying to understand other cultures. It’s just unbelievable. And you’re hearing it in the sound. I believe it is happening in all forms of artistic expression.

Composers Now is addressing everything from social justice to sonic justice. What I mean is that it’s a panoramic view of the composer. It doesn’t matter how he looks—whether a woman, a man, any color, any cultural background, all kinds of physical manifestations. These are people who are creating the sounds of our century. There are many, many points of view, sonically speaking, as there are many, many points of view in humanity.

That is what Composers Now is. We’re going to open a series called Impact, a composer talking to an audience, no intermediary, talking about what you’re asking me— aspiration, why do I write what I write, who have been my influences, what have been my experiences in life up to now—to see if we can bridge the gap. Because sound is usually the last art form to be understood. It’s more complex. People understand film, people understand poetry, people understand writers. But not sound. We put into a sound what it is that makes us live. And in my experience, yes, I can play Shostakovich, I can conduct Tchaikovsky. But I dance salsa. What is the discrepancy? Is there a problem? That is one of the things I am trying with many, many composers, to create a voice for us to speak to society and talk about how we can contribute, what we’re contributing. The fact is, we are contributing to the conversation.


book cover for "Art the Arts Essential," edited Alberta Arthurs and Michael F. DiNiscia, New York university Press, New York

Edited by Alberta Arthurs and Michael F. DiNiscia in affiliation with the NYU Brademas Center, Are the Arts Essential? was made possible, in part, with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. On March 21, join a free online discussion with contributors on the importance of art in society, and buy the book from New York University Press using promo code NYUARTS30 for 30% off.