Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

10. Sonidos de las Americas

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about Sonidos de las Americas because I think that was such a great example of how you can bring composers together. I remember going the very first year, the orchestral concert, the Mexican concert, and all the composers came out on stage. All the composers who were involved, and this was a very big part of the event every year, bringing in these composers from another country and having them all stand together, from one end of the hall to the other, and it was this amazing thing that rarely happens with composers, and I think it made audiences aware of composers being part of the community, and I think we need to do more of that.

Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Brasil Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Argentina Sonidos de las Americas program cover: Mexico

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I, you know that we just finished with that project. I have my reservations about the entire effort. The effort was a very courageous one, and a very much-needed one, because in spite of the understanding of why it was done, there was the history of the reasons that made this possible, and it had to do with the fact that prior to 1960’s, there was a incredible communication, back and forth, between the composers of Latin America and the United States. And that’s the reason why we knew so much about Villa-Lobos, for example. It’s something that hadn’t happened for a long time.


TANIA LEÓN: When Villa-Lobos was alive, he would be back and forth here, and he would have these relationships with Bernstein and Copland and you know, these were old-boy relationships. So the reason why Bernstein write those songs in West Side Story, or why Copland wrote Danzón Cubano. They had a relationship with the activities and the composers and the musical entities of Cuba. None of that seemed to be that strong when we began this project and this is one of the things that the festival tried to correct. The fact that these entities, which are from the same hemisphere, need to talk to each other, whether they agree or disagree with the music that they are writing. You see. And one thing that I could say as far as the effort, yes, it was very incredible, and, you know, working with the American Composers Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies and Paul Lustig Dunkel, we actually thought that it would be fantastic to have also a delegation of American composers that would relate to these composers on a one-to-one. For me it was encouraging and very discouraging. Discouraging, because outside of these composers that were part of the delegation, when there was time to be actually at the concert halls, I didn’t see that many composers that would come in out of curiosity.

FRANK J. OTERI: You mean composers who were not part of the delegation?

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. You know. As a community, to meet these people that came from elsewhere, and to start some kind of intellectual dialogue, or even merely friendship.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things that clearly needs to happen and one of the things that we’re trying to do here at the American Music Center is to build a community for composers, to build a community for people interested in the music of this country, in the composers, the performers, all the various parts of the ecology that make it work, and it’s something that I think has been lacking for a long time and I think that’s been the problem.

TANIA LEÓN: If you do a concert in France, you know, like, for example, Nancy, I was in Nancy, and all of a sudden, after the concert, you find out that there are some people that traveled from Italy, some people came, you know, driving from Geneva, some people came, you know, I mean, it’s a mob, my God! All these people took this effort to come to this place, because it was happening and they were curious.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, you see, here we have a real splintering between various styles and various attitudes. I know when I talked with the directors of Bang On A Can for the first issue of NewMusicBox, they described how the first festival they played Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich on the same concert, and Babbitt walked out before the Reich piece was played, and Reich did not walk in until the Babbitt piece was over. They did not talk to each other. And Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who write in a similar style to each other, don’t talk to each other. There’s no dialogue. So you have all of these pockets of isolation in this country. And they were saying one of the reasons they formed Bang on a Can, as three composers, was to have this dialogue with each other, this ongoing dialogue with themselves, with other composers they brought in, with the 6 performers in the All-Stars, so there was this attempt at community where there was none before. And I think we need to do this on a much larger level.

One of the highlights of Sonidos de las Americas: Brazil was the unusual guitar music of Arthur Kampela.
RealPlayer  [63 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – ARTHUR KAMPELA: from from Percussion Study No. 1 for guitar

(Exclusive to NewMusicBox, courtesy Arthur Kampela)

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I think that we need to do this, and at a level where we actually don’t talk so much about what we are doing as a special number into the politicization of what we call music. Right? But as a human expression, you know, an extension of a human expression which might have a certain degree of sophistication. Let me put it this way. And I think that if we are actually concerned that we have had that kind of division at that level where people don’t talk to each other because one may assume or think that what the other one is doing is not up to what the standard should be, you know, and that is a very personal idea, you know, what the standard is, is like describing reality. Reality is very different for everybody, right? So therefore, I think that it’s a much bigger problem that we have, because, for example, how can you then talk about problems that we have with the races, for example, when composers are classified or codified by the color of their skin, you know, as opposed to the value of what they’re doing. Then we’re having a problem. So if that is something that we do at that point, when composers are classified because of their gender, then we have a problem. So therefore, it is not unusual that you might have a composer that might not talk to another composer because they have different styles. You see? So in other words, to me, it’s much more a human phenomenon that we may have to address and work with as opposed to what kind of music are you listening or writing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the Sonidos Festival lasted 6 years. And within each of those festivals you had composers who were so far apart from each other. Such a diversity. There are certain things that I remember that come to mind. I’ll never forget this piece on the Brazil Festival by Tim Rescala which was sort of a Contemporary Music 101, and made fun of all the different styles of contemporary music: it was marvelous!

TANIA LEÓN: Ah, yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: Each year you had this wide range of people, older composers, younger composers, male composers, female composers, and they all seemed to be perfectly amicable with each other.

TANIA LEÓN: Well, let me say the following: There are a lot of things that we found that are similar to the situation here. What’s dissimilar was that these composers were brought in from different parts of the region of their home countries, and so by being here as a delegation, whatever friction, or whatever was going on among them was totally ironed out, because in this case they were representing not only their different aesthetic concerns, but they were coming from this region, and the region could have been called Venezuela, for example. So therefore, they became a unified force.

FRANK J. OTERI: However in the very last festival, the Cuba Festival, and this is my perception as an audience member and as an outsider, I think the friction was probably greater than ever, because here you didn’t have just composers from this region but you had composers who were living here in exile, so the question of national identity and region was even more potentially…

TANIA LEÓN: …more potentially explosive. Besides that, you know, I mean, there was a lot going on that we had to deal with and that had to do with political overtones, you know, because, I mean, the people that were not really happy that this was happening among the U.N. community tried in a way to prevent this from happening, you know…

FRANK J. OTERI: Whereas with the other festivals you really had the support of the people here.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So therefore, fortunately, by the time the whole thing finished, the entire community recognized that this was a very specifically historical event because this hadn’t happened for 40 years and there were people that didn’t see each other in 40 years and hadn’t talked to each other for 40 years and for the first time they were in front of each other composer to composer, two Cuban composers, one that remained and another one that left, who used to be very close, and they didn’t see each other again until this moment. So, I mean, there was a lot of drama being played behind the scenes that people didn’t know was happening at the same time.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, why did it stop? There are so many other countries whose music could be explored? I’m thinking of Chile, has a lot of interesting contemporary music. I know when I was down in Peru in the early 90s, I got recordings of fabulous piano music by contemporary Peruvian composers. Did the budget run out? I thought initially that this was supposed to be a decade-long project.

TANIA LEÓN: I don’t know. That’s part of the project that I don’t have anything to do with. I usually work on the artistic endeavors but not on the budget.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that New York is going to be an emptier place this next season without the Sonidos Festival.

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.