Composer / Conductor  Tania  León

A conversation with Bruce Duffie


Tania León (b. May 14, 1943 in Havana, Cuba), a vital personality on today’s music scene, is highly regarded as a composer and conductor and for her accomplishments as an educator and advisor to arts organizations. She has been the subject of profiles on ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, BB3, Telemundo, independent films, and Univision, including their noted series “Orgullo Hispano,” which celebrates living American Latinos whose contributions in society have been invaluable.

León’s orchestral work Stride, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Recent commissions include Anima for Jennifer Koh’s Alone Together in response to the Coronavirus pandemic; Ritmicas for The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition's Grossman Ensemble; Ser for the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Pa’lante for the International Contemporary Ensemble and YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles); and Ethos for pianist Ursula Oppens and Cassatt String Quartet.

Upcoming premieres feature commissions by Arkansas Symphony for the New Music USA Amplifying Voices Program; The Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia to celebrate their 200th anniversary; The Crossing chamber choir with Claire Chase, flutist; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; and Brooklyn Youth Chorus, featuring text by New York Youth Poet Laureate Aaliyah C. Daniels.

León's opera Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a play by Wole Soyinka with staging and design by Robert Wilson, received over 20 performances throughout Europe and Mexico. Commissioned by Hans Werner Henze and the city of Munich for the Fourth Munich Biennale, it took home the coveted BMW Prize, and the aria “Oh Yemanja” (“Mother's Prayer”) was recorded by Dawn Upshaw on her Nonesuch CD, The World So Wide.


See my interviews with David Zinman, John Adams, and Carlisle Floyd

Past commissions include works for The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Library of Congress, National Endowment for the Arts, NDR Symphony Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, New World Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, Fest der Kontinente (Hamburg, Germany), The Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation, Los Angeles Master Chorale, DanceBrazil, and Dance Theatre of Harlem.

León’s compositions have been performed by such orchestras as the Gewandhausorchester, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Switzerland), China National Symphony, NDR Symphony Orchestra (Germany), Symphonic and Lyric Orchestra of Nancy (France), and Orquesta de la Opera, Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico). As a composer, she has also collaborated with poets, writers and directors, including John Ashbury, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Wendy Kesselman, Jamaica Kincaid, Mark Lamos, Fae Myenne Ng, Julie Taymor, Derek Walcott, and Robert Wilson.

Past highlights include a Composer Portrait at Columbia University's Miller Theatre in New York City, and the hour-long, multimedia work Drummin', featuring percussionists of diverse cultures and performed by New World Symphony in Miami and members of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, Germany. León was one of the first artists to be featured by Harlem Stage in Aaron Davis Hall’s initiative WaterWorks, and her work was featured in the celebration of some of the most prestigious composers of our time, including Pierre Boulez’s 80th birthday, “Gyorgy Ligeti’s 80th Birthday, and the Copland Centennial. 

As a guest conductor, Tania León has appeared with the Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of Marseille and Colonne Orchestra (France), Gewandhausorchester and Beethovenhalle Orchestra (Germany), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Geneva Chamber Orchestra (Switzerland), Orquesta Sinfonica de Asturias and Orquesta y Coro de la Communidad de Madrid (Spain), Santa Cecilia Orchestra (Italy), Sadler's Wells Orchestra (England), Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra (Mexico), Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá (Colombia), Orquesta Sinfónica de El Salvador (El Salvador), Orquesta Sinfónica de Cuba, Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (South Africa), and the New York Philharmonic, among others. 

In 1969, Tania León became a founding member and first Music Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, establishing the Dance Theatre’s Music Department, Music School and Orchestra. She instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978, and founded the Sampler Concerts series presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art at Atria. In 1994, in her capacity of Latin American Music Advisor, she co-founded the American Composers Orchestra’s Sonidos de las Américas festivals. From 1993 to 1997, she was New Music Advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. 

Tania León is the founder and Artistic Director of the nonprofit organization and festival Composers Now, created in New York City in 2010. Composers Now is dedicated to the empowerment of living composers by celebrating the diversity of their voices and honoring the significance of their artistic contributions to the cultural fabric of society. In 2017, a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Bill de Blasio was presented to Composers Now in recognition of their contributions to living composers.


León has lectured at the prestigious Mosse-Lectures at Humboldt-University in Berlin and at Harvard University and University of Chicago. In 2012 she was the Andrew Mellon Foundation's Distinguished Scholar at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has been Visiting Professor at Yale University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Kansas, Purchase College, and the Musikschule in Hamburg, Germany, among others, and she served as Composer’s Mentor at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. She was also a Guest Composer/Conductor at the Musikschule in Hamburg, and at Central Conservatory of music in Beijing, China. In 2020, she was the Robert M. Trotter Lecturer at College Music Society.

León has received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Colgate University, Oberlin, and SUNY Purchase College, and served as U.S. Artistic Ambassador of American Culture in Madrid, Spain. A Professor at Brooklyn College and at The Graduate Center, CUNY since 1985, she was named the Claire and Leonard Tow Professor in Music in 2000, Distinguished Professor of the City University of New York in 2006, and Professor Emerita in September 2019.

Honors include the New York Governor's Lifetime Achievement Award; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music; fellowships and awards from The Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, NYSCA, Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, ASCAP and Meet the Composer; Symphony Space's Access to the Arts; and artist residencies at Bellagio, Citivella Ranieri, MacDowell, and the American Academy in Rome in Italy, among others. In 2010 León was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She received a 2008 Pulitzer Prize nomination for Ácana, and both a Grammy nomination for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” and a Latin Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Contemporary Composition” in 2012 for Inura. She is also the recipient of the 2013 ASCAP Victor Herbert Award, the 2017 MadWoman Festival Award in Music in Madrid, Spain, and, most recently, she was awarded a 2018 United States Artists Fellowship.

León serves as an honorary chair for the Recording Academy’s Songwriters & Composers Wing.

==  Text of this biography is from the artist's official website.  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD  


See my interviews with Shulamit Ran

In August of 1991, Tania León was in Chicago, and she graciously took time from her schedule for a conversation.  Her career was well under way, and she was glad to speak about how it all came about.

Portions of the chat were aired on WNIB, and now the entire interview has been transcribed and presented on this webpage . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are both a composer and conductor.  Do you do any teaching at all?

Tania León:   Yes, I’m a professor at Brooklyn College.

BD:   How do you divide your time amongst these varied and taxing activities?

León:   One interacts with the other.  That’s the only thing that I can say, because as a conductor, it gives me the opportunity to get into so many different works with different styles and different minds in composition.

BD:   Do you conduct old music as well as new music?

León:   Both, yes.  I cover the entire spectrum of music.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Paul Moravec, Chen Yi, and Ned Rorem.]

BD:   When you’re conducting, how do you decide from this vast literature what pieces you want to bring to the audiences?

León:   It depends on the type of program that you want to put together.  Sometimes, for the criteria of what has been programmed for a specific series of concerts, you have to stick to the norm, meaning standard material all across the board.  You may go from century to century, using what was avant-garde in one century which was not in another one.  But you wouldn’t pass, let’s say, after 1940 or 1950, because then you start getting into closer sound.  Then otherwise, you might have a series of concerts where you have the opportunity to mix both standard material and new music, or more contemporary works.

BD:   Which do you like better, or are they really both equal?

León:   I really like both because they offer very distinctive material.  The material is different from century to century, and you see the evolution of the mind of the musician.  There’s no comparison to actually realize the fact that tradition has trained us to listen to certain sounds in a certain way, and sometimes the sounds that we reject nowadays perhaps will be very familiar in a hundred years from now.

BD:   Are you saying that maybe composers are just a little bit ahead of the public, and the public is always just a little bit behind?

León:   It’s like everything!  Philosophers come out with thinking that perhaps is a little bit way ahead of what is happening in society, but they have the privilege of having vision towards the future, and they come out with other alternatives and solutions to the questions of lives and society.  It is the same thing with painters, and writers, and musicians.  They always are looking for that extra edge to cross the boundaries of the reality of the moment into something that could be perceived as the future.  They’re always working with the unknown, and what it could be.

BD:   So, they’re looking for the reality of the next minute?

León:   Yes!  It’s their philosophical concept of something that may or may not be that way.

BD:   You’re dealing with all these composers.  Do you feel that you yourself are part of a lineage of composers?

León:   Assume that I’m conducting a piece.  I get inside the piece, not as conductor or as a musician per se, looking for connections.  Then I feel transformed, and I become a medium for that composer.  I don’t know why, but there’s many, many ways of finding a composer in his or her piece of work.  It’s fascinating to actually realize what is going on in a score.  That has to do with personal taste, and personal creativity, because I might look into some things that other conductors might not look into, and vice-versa.

BD:   Because you are a composer, do you conduct differently than someone who is just a conductor?

León:   [Sighs]  I don’t think so.  As a composer, I feel that I have an added dimension to get inside a piece in many, many different ways, because I feel as a composer as well.  So it’s not the conductor only.  It’s just really investigating the piece, second by second.

BD:   Do you ever conduct your own music?

León:   Yes, I do.

BD:   Is that more difficult or less difficult?

León:   That is very hard.  It’s so challenging.  It’s incredible, because of most of the time, you don’t listen to what you wrote.  You’re so involved in what you wrote, and you’re trying to conduct this piece that has so much of you, and sometimes it’s escapes you.  I don’t quite enjoy too much conducting my own music, because I don’t have the chance to listen to it.  I’m just too involved with the musicians, the notes on the page, trying to get it all right.

BD:   You don’t get a moment to step back and enjoy it?

León:   Exactly!  I don’t have the chance to do that.  A painter can actually step away from it, and look at it from another point of view.

BD:   Are there times when you, the conductor, are angry with you the composer for what you’ve put on that page?

León:   I do not rewrite my own music.  I don’t have the tendency to go back and rewrite something.  In April, I was doing a Kennedy Center season with The Dance Theater of Harlem, and Arthur Mitchell, its founder, decided to bring back the very first ballet I ever wrote in my life, my very first piece called Tones.


See my interviews with Olly Wilson, T.J. Anderson, and Anthony Davis

BD:   Your Opus One?

León:   Yes!  [Much laughter]  It was tremendous for me to go back to that first stage.  It was fascinating because I was actually in front of me as a baby, or the baby of many ideas that have evolved, or many tendencies that have actually evolved, or others that I have shed off, and it was really fascinating, and I found that the whole thing incredibly complex.

BD:   Was it satisfying to know that the piece had stood the test of time?

León:   [She sighs]  Many people never had heard the piece, but it was fascinating and for me because I had no idea how I wrote that.  I really don’t know how I did it!  It was just sheer instinct, because I had no background in composition.  I had taken only two or three lessons with Ursula Mamlok, who was my first and only teacher.  I’m a self-made person!  When I studied composition with her, I never thought that I would become a composer.

BD:   Then why did you study composition with her?

León:   Because it was part of the curriculum there when I was doing for my Master’s Degree at NYU.

BD:   So you just had to do it?

León:   Exactly!  I did these lessons, and it never occurred to me that it would be part of my life in the future.

leon BD:   When did it take over?

León:   I wrote different works for The Dance Theater of Harlem.  This work had to be choreographed, and when it went on stage the audience really was very receptive of the material.  Then the orchestra for the performances started encouraging me to write some chamber music, or works for them, and that’s how the whole thing developed.

BD:   When did the conducting come into this?

León:   In the mid-seventies, it started in Spoleto at the Due Monde Festival [Festival of Two Worlds] with Gian Carlo Menotti.  It was my first trip to Europe with The Dance Theater of Harlem, and once we were there, they had access to the Juilliard Orchestra, and they invited me to conduct the season for the company.  This was something I had never done in my life, so it was quite a challenge for me to go in front of an orchestra and waive my hands.  [Laughs]

BD:   You started out as a pianist?

León:   As a pianist, yes.  The conducting in Italy didn’t register in a way.  I came back to the States and forgot all about it.  But I started to go to Carnegie Hall, and to the Lincoln Center, and actually started looking at the conductor, I liked that.  [Much laughter]  That is when I actually studied with Laszlo Halasz.  He was my only teacher, and from then on I started being active as a conductor.

BD:   Now you’re with The Dance Theater of Harlem?

León:   I’m no longer the music director, but I am still associated with them.  I go and I guest perform with them, and they have my repertoire.  The pieces that I’ve written for them are still in their repertoire.  It’s a wonderful relationship because that was my first family in the United States upon my arrival.  They let me grow with them, and I developed into a fully-fleshed musician.

BD:   When you write a piece, knowing that there will be an added dimension of the dance with it, do you think about that as the notes are going down, or do you write a completed piece and then let the choreography be imposed on top of a finished product?

León:   I have actually created works utilizing both techniques.  It depends on the choreographer.  Sometimes a choreographer would tell you to write something, and then you give them the piece.

BD:   That’s all the instruction you get?

León:   Yes.  You do the piece and they actually get inspired.  They would tell you to write something for them because they have heard enough of your sounds already, and they see a tendency where there’s a link between the movement that they want to create, and the sounds that you produce.  They want to create on your sound.  However, sometimes there are all the techniques I have explored where the choreographer tells me or shows me the movements, and then I am inspired by that movement.  I go home and go through the process of unveiling ideas and creating.

BD:   Being able to do it either way makes you very versatile.

León:   Yes.  It’s a matter of collaboration.  There’s never a way of predicting how you’re going to work with another colleague, whether it’s words, or a play, or choreography.  It’s another element that actually ignites your creativity.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You were born in Cuba in 1943.  When did you leave?

:   May 29th, 1967.  I left there just before my graduation at the conservatory.

BD:   Why did you leave?

:   Well, why not?  [Laughs]  The world is fascinating, and I’m one of those people that would like to see the entire world.  I think that people are incredible.  I am really happy that I have an opportunity to meet so many human-beings in so many walks of life.  I have been able, in a way, to live in different languages, in different expressions of culture and society.  I like versatility.  I like diverse opinions, and diverse ways of doing things, and diverse religions and cultures, and food...  You name it!

BD:   You weren’t getting enough of that in Cuba?

:   While in Cuba for the first years of my life, I always was very interested in the rest of world.  I was interested in France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Poland, China, Egypt, Greece, everything!  Everything to me was incredible, not only Europe or the Eastern part of the world, but South America.  Brazil is one of the things which captivates my imagination, and if I’m talking about Brazil, then I would also say Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, everywhere!  Even the Eskimos in Alaska!

BD:   Is there any part of the world you don’t have an interest in?

:   Not really.  I think of the planet at large as a meraviglia [amazement or wonder].  This is wonderful!  It’s incredible!

BD:   Now that you’ve experienced many things that can happen here in States, did you get a good musical training in Cuba?

:   I never knew how good my training was until I arrived here.  I was able to get a scholarship right away based on my playing, and because I speak the language, and my sight-reading and my solfège.  In fact, solfège was one the things that was a wonderful situation.  I didn’t know that this training provided me with a tool that is not normally taught universally.  One of the things I used to laugh about is that musicians here are astonished to see the speed I will do solfège, and that I will solfège anything right on the spot.  To me, it was surprising to find out that I had such strong training.

BD:   It’s good to know, because here in America we don’t have very much knowledge of what goes on in Cuba.  The island has been cut off, so we’re not aware of what’s happening there.  It’s good to know that there are some good things, including the musical training.

:   One thing I can say is that we’re all cut off from each other.  In Cuba, I didn’t know much about the United States, either.  Everything is rumors, and we don’t really learn from this.  Here we go around, and we actually converse with the people, and mingle, and exchange ideas and technique.

BD:   Are you trying to make contacts with the people who are still in Cuba, and to maintain those contacts to either bring out their ideas, or enlighten the rest of the world to what’s there?

:   My family lives in Cuba, and I go and visit them.  I have been there eight times since 1979.  There was a period where no one was allowed to return, and then in 1979 there was a family reunion program.  Since then, I have been there for eight occasions, including three weeks ago, which was the last time I was there to visit my mother.  My experiences are that I go home and spend the week I’m given to stay there.  We play family at home in my mother’s kitchen!  That’s the only thing I can say at this point, because we
the Cubans who have left and those that are still inside Cubahaven’t initiated any kind of mutual collaboration.  It’s a pity that situation exists, but we humans go through processes where we have to shed the bad surface and come up with something better.

BD:   [Being optimistic]  With all the shake-ups that are going on, maybe things will ease a little bit.

:   Who knows what’s going to happen?  We’re walking through the process of developing a new something towards a new century, and everything is shifting and changing.  It’s just like a new way of creating something.  It’s like a new creation.  It’s taking form, and we don’t understand it yet, but I’m a very optimistic person.  I’m pretty sure that something will develop that will be a better solution for what we have built up to this point.

BD:   Related to that, is music, in and of itself, political?

:   It depends.  Being political is to a detriment in everything in life.  It reflects personal choices, and I normally have chosen to claim that I am a non-political person.  I don’t like to be associated with anything of that nature.  The way I have experienced life up to this point
due to the fact that I have been re-routed in a wayI have to shift and change so much.  You turn into a chameleon.  It's not for survival, it’s for understanding that there is a process of inner evolution in all of us.  I have evolved in areas of my life that I never thought I would evolve in that way.  That doesn’t mean that I am a super-involved person, but I am amazed to see the kind of openness that my mind has reached over all these years.  It’s impossible for me to assign myself to a political position, because I’m constantly evolving.  Therefore, politics for me are a little bit stagnant.  They asphyxiate my own process.

leon BD:   They smother you?

:   Yes!  I just cannot militate into any kind of position, because every time I try to stay in one place mentally, there’s that other information coming that makes me shift a little bit.  So it’s hard for me to stay in one place, politically-speaking.

BD:   I assume your music is always growing?

:   Yes.

BD:   Are you pleased with where your music is now?

:   My music also has evolved tremendously.  In the 1970s, I was writing music that was regarded as qualitative, however there was something lacking there that I didn’t realize.  It was not present in my music until the 1980s, and then in the 1980s I had to validate myself.  In a way, the validation was including my personal roots into my sounds.  The personal roots I found had to do with my place of origin, my primary culture, and my primary language.  All these things were part of me, but were not actually present in my sounds.  Once I included them, I felt a little bit more honest.

BD:   As you discover more about yourself, do you put that into the music?

:   Oh, yes!  Definitely!  I feel very proud of who I was, where I came from, what my upbringing was, and my sound environment.  It started actually permeating all of that primary stage of my life.

BD:   You wanted to share this with people?

:   Oh, definitely so, yes.  A degree of honesty was very important to me.  Some other human-beings don’t find that honesty is so important, but for me it became very important to state that in my music.

BD:   We’re dancing around this, so let me ask the question straight out.  What is the purpose of music?

:   Oh, my God!  [Both laugh]  I don’t know!  Everything that we’ve done up to this point as humans, has been labeled.  I was just reading some philosophical material, and it deals with the spirituality, and the premise is that nothing means anything.  The premise is that we call a glass a glass because we gave it the name.  A glass could be called something else, and once we give it that name, it will always be that name.  It’s so fascinating because music is something that we gave a name to.  It is a certain ordering of sounds that would be enjoyable, or not enjoyable, but it’s a statement in sounds per se, and that’s what we call music.  But it could have been called anything else.

BD:   Is there a purpose for the sounds as we put them down, and then hear them, and for the way we do it?

:   Probably, yes.  I believe there’s a purpose for everything that we do.  We may be involved in music, and other people may be involved in literature, or in visual art.  Some writers are non-fiction, and some writers are fiction.  So, everything has a purpose because there a message behind everything.  After all, human-beings are creatures that go extensively through a thinking process, and all that thinking process has a manifestation.  A manifestation could be through a work of art.  Some writing material could be done through a piece of garment, or a shoe, or anything!  It’s an expression of an internal awareness of things.  It is something that is internal that gets externalized through some kind of object, or some kind of means.  This is my way of interpreting life.

BD:   Do you feel that the music you write is for everyone?

:   I sure hope that it will be for everyone!  I don’t think that I am a pretentious person, and I would like to have a dialogue that would hear my sounds.  Then, if the sounds can reach and get in touch with whoever that may be listening, that would be very fortunate.  It’s not my intention to write sounds that will actually separate me from people, or that will put me in a place where I am unreachable.  I don’t want to be isolated with my own sounds.  They’re mine and I know them.  That is something I’m living with, but I want to share them with other human-beings.  It’s a collective approach to life that I would like to perpetrate, even in sounds.

BD:   Let me ask a balance question.  Where’s the balance between the entertainment and artistic achievement in the music?

:   It depends on the opinion of the world of entertainment in terms of what
entertainment is all about.  When we go to a concert, we’re being entertained.  Now, the concert that we are listening to could be ‘classical music’, or popular music, or a Broadway show, or the music in the background of a circus.

BD:   It doesn’t matter?

:   We’re being entertained all the time.

BD:   But I assume you try to put an artistic level into your music at a different level than just a mere song.

:   In something that has an extremely high quality, the quality is what counts.  Therefore, a tremendous amount of work may be going into a
classical song because of its quality.  It’s so good that it’s a classical example of something that could be qualified or codified as any kind of style.  It could be a Gospel song, or it could be Rhythm’n’Blues.  It could be anything, but if it is so well done, then it becomes a classic’, and to me, that is equal to the best symphony written by Beethoven.  The question of quality is also something that is a supreme situation in anything we may experience.  If there’s quantity, there’s sometimes quantity.  If there’s no quality, there’s no quantity, and it doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Coming back to your own music, are all the pieces that you write on commission, or are there some that you just have to get out of your system?
León:   Sometimes I’ve written pieces because I want to write them.  I usually have a lot of ideas of my own for pieces, whether they are commissioned or not.  I remember the death of my father in the beginning of the 80s.  I wrote four pieces for cello, dedicated to him, and it was a way of putting on paper my expressions of sorrow and lament.  As far as I’m concerned, my feelings towards him commissioned me to write the piece.  Nobody paid me to write the piece, and I sometimes don’t even mention what the idea was, or the emotion behind this specific piece.  The sounds convey what the piece is all about, and with that specific piece, and specifically the second movement, people always ask me about such a sad piece.  It had to do with my feelings of losing somebody that I actually cared for.

BD:   You don’t even have to put that in the program notes?

:   No, it was there.

BD:   Do you work on one piece at a time, or do you have a couple of pieces going at once?
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Hale Smith, and Jeffrey Mumford.]

:   It depends.  I love doing sketches all the time.  I walk around with a little pad of music paper and a pencil.  I might be in the subway, and when the idea comes in I just write a little bit.  I might be in the grocery store!  [Both laugh]  I keep a lot of sketches, and then out of that I get things going.

BD:   Are these just ideas that you have, or do you know that this idea will work in a specific piece later on?

:   I never know whether it works or not.  They are ideas.  Sometimes I realize that I might be working on the same idea for a tremendous period of time, because when I see the similarities between the sketches, it’s like I’m searching for something.  When you open a drawer that has a lot of things inside, you’re just really looking the one thing that you want to find...

BD:   But you stumble on something else.

:   Yes!

BD:   When you’re working with a piece of music, you’re going along and you’re making corrections and tinkering with it, how do you know when to stop?  How do you know when it’s done?

:   I am very instinctual in my writing.  There’s something that clicks inside of me.  When I’m writing something that clicks, I know that I’m on the right track.  When I have to think too much, and become thesis-oriented as I am writing, that is when I worry.  That’s not for me.  That doesn’t mean that it might not be the best practice of another composer, but I’m talking about what works for me, which is to follow my instincts.

BD:   Is composing fun?

:   I think everything is fun!  First of all, I didn’t know I was going to be called a composer.  I studied piano, not even thinking I was going to become a professional musician.  I was born on an island in a poor neighborhood, into a very poor family.  I’m the first musician of that family.  My grandmother was the one that realized I liked classical music, because I used to go to the radio and listen to the classical music stations.  That was a novelty in the house because nobody did that.  It was like,
“What’s wrong with her?  [Much laughter]

BD:   I’m glad you had the courage of your convictions!

:   I was four years old, so it could have been a phase, but it happened enough times for her to realize that something was going on with me and that sound.  My family took me to the conservatory, and actually persuaded the teacher to start lessons for me.  The teacher said, 
“She’s too young.  She’s just four.  She doesn’t know how to read and write.  She’s not even in kindergarten!  That’s how the whole thing began, so when I see myself doing composition, and conducting, or being surrounded by so many musicians all over the world, I am fascinated just thinking of my past, and my upbringing, and those days at the conservatory where I didn’t know what I was doing.  It’s a whole mystery to me.

BD:   When you were learning the piano, did you envision that you would just play for your children, and your family, and that was it?

:   Yes.  I thought that perhaps I would end up being a teacher in a school, or some place else, but I would never, never have anything that had to do with a big number of audiences, or be talking on a radio station!  [Much laughter]  It’s a fascinating thing!  It’s a surprise box for me!

BD:   I hope there are a lot more good surprises in it.

:   Me too, yes.  [We then briefly discussed her recordings
some of which are shown on this webpage.  I thanked her for the conversation, and she said she was glad to have gotten together for this interview.]


See my interviews with George Crumb, and Harvey Sollberger

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago in August of 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993 and 1998; and on WNUR in 2007 and 2013.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.