Tonight, about a quarter-century years later than it should have, the full New York Philharmonic plays a piece by Tania León. I profiled León for the Times last weekend, in advance of the Philharmonic premiere, part of their Project 19. Sometimes when I do a Times piece I’ll have an accompanying Twitter thread of extra bits I found during research, but now that I have this newsletter, this seems like a good place to talk a little bit about that, and about what my process is when I approach a profile like this.
I should have known León’s music for longer than I have—I first got to know it well from teaching A La Par in music appreciation, as it’s part of Mark Evan Bonds’s Listen to This textbook. A few years back, I spoke with her over the phone about her opera Scourge of Hyacinths, for a piece on operas by women; it was a fascinating interview but also a frustrating one for me in some ways, because I couldn’t quite figure out what she was after when she talked about “the human race.” I hadn’t done the reading, honestly. Now I have, and it’s clear that she approaches the issues of race and gender through consistent invocations of a global concept of humanity, and global citizenship, one that is steeped in her personal experiences. (Marc Gidal has a really interesting article on how she navigates multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and universalism that shaped how I see this now.)
In summer 2017, when I was in New York doing book research, I knew I wanted to talk to León, to get her perspective on new music in the ‘80s and ‘90s. By that point, I had read a transcript of her extraordinary 1998 interview with the Yale Oral History of American Music project, in which she discusses her position with the New York Philharmonic, not long after it concluded. I was very interested to hear what she made of John Duffy, a figure who seemed to me to be an advocate for underrepresented composers in his work with Meet the Composer; she confirmed that he was a champion of her music and that of other women composers and composers of color. It was a rich and fascinating conversation, and helped me began to piece together the story of her relationship with the NY Phil, which directly followed a period I was intensely interested in, that of the Horizons festivals and Meet the Composer’s orchestral residencies of the 1980s and early ‘90s. You can read my take on Horizons ‘83 and the residencies here. The part that’s absent from that article, but is present in this NewMusicBox one, is that David Lang served as a Revson Fellow assisting the NY Phil/Meet the Composer composer-in-residence Jacob Druckman in 1985–86 (Scott Lindroth preceded Lang). As Lang recounts it, it was an interesting but also demoralizing experience, grappling with the infrastructure of the Phil and a lot of apathy towards contemporary music. Lindroth, Lang, and later León spent a lot of time sorting through dozens of scores that had been mailed to the Phil, cataloguing them and writing letters to their composers; some of the scores had languished for years without a response. It was a lot of grunt work that seemed to make clear to Lang in particular that the orchestral world was not a viable path.
As the Meet the Composer national residencies came to an end in 1992, the money put forth by the Revson foundation for the assistantship still existed, and Duffy encouraged the Phil to keep up the program: that was how León came aboard. Duffy’s goal was that the residencies would lead to permanent resident composers endowed at major orchestras, but it didn’t really pan out; orchestras weren’t willing to pay for them, especially in the wake of the early 1990s recession. (See K. Robert Schwarz.) What that meant is that she was an assistant, so to speak, without anyone to assist to, as the major residencies were no longer happening (David Del Tredici served as the final NYP resident until 1990). She was then upgraded to the vague position of “new-music adviser,” and led some significant institutional efforts and outreach/educational programs, including the American Eccentrics festival. But it was a fraught time: the orchestra didn’t play her music despite some promises and the fact that her picture seemed to keep showing up on programs and brochures—offering some kind of cosmetic diversity for the orchestra without them actually committing to it. African-American composers put León on the spot for not championing the community, without realizing that she didn’t have a lot of power behind-the-scenes; the Phil had already gotten a lot of flack from the black community for the all-white-and-mostly-male Horizons ‘83 festival. Schwarz’s article gets at some of the tensions:
So when the Phil announced that they would, belatedly, commission León for Project 19, I thought a persuasive angle for a piece had emerged: what would it mean for León to return to the orchestra, especially since one of the people she worked closely with there, Deborah Borda, had returned as well? And how relevant was the exclusionary past of orchestras that try to be inclusive today?
With that as a potential angle and a successful pitch to my editor, I did what I’ve now been doing for a long time for profiles: read a lot and listened a lot. I typically get all the scores by the composer that my university library has, and listen to all of the available recordings I can: even if I don’t end up talking about a lot of individual pieces in any given profile, I want to have as full a sense of the composer’s work as I can. (This was, as I mentioned in the article, slightly difficult as many of León’s recent works have not been commercially recorded; fortunately, her publisher provided me with recent scores and live recordings.) I read everything scholarly and non-scholarly about the composer that I can, every major news story, interview, journal article, etc. In the case of León, there are a few academic articles and interviews in books — she lists some of those on her website — and some very intriguing older interviews, like this one. A lot of the composers I write about have done amazing, longform interviews for NewMusicBox with the great Frank J. Oteri, including León. I try to get as many older interviews as I can, to track how the composer talks about themselves over time. I found this interesting statement in a 1989 EAR Magazine, for example:
My approach — and this is an idiosyncratic one, I didn’t train as a journalist! — is to go into the interview knowing everything I can about the composer, to help guide what kinds of questions I want to ask and what I want to learn. We spoke for a couple hours at the NY Phil archives’ office about the whole arc of León’s life, and what became clear to me quickly that the past tensions with the orchestra were much less interesting than actually telling the story of that life and what it’s meant. There haven’t been any articles in the last decade or two that I’ve found that really examine who León is as a person and musician and how she developed her identity, and her story’s so engaging that it quickly overshadowed my original plan (which is still there, a little bit, but really isn’t the main thrust of the article). Afterwards, I also spoke with the great Alejandro Madrid, who’s writing an awesome biography of León right now, who helped put some of her ideas into perspective.
I’m very happy with how the piece turned out, and it seemed to have gotten pretty good reception online, too; plus, the photographs by Caroline Tompkins are fantastic, and the archival shots are excellent too.
In other news, the semester is off to a great start! My revamped approach for MUSC 130 seems to be working well; at least, I’m enjoying teaching it a lot more. We’ve got the Spektral Quartet & Nathalie Joachim visiting next week (they’re playing at ArtHouse, you should go!), which is pretty exciting. And the public musicology seminar is great — all of the students have now started their blogs, which have been pretty interesting, and everyone wrote program notes for our large ensemble concerts too. Next up we’ll be talking preconcert lectures and podcasts. More on both classes in the newsletter soon!
Speaking of blogging, my call-to-blogging-arms seems to have propelled a few folks to the world of blogs/newsletters, as Steve Smith summarizes here. Keep it up, friends!
Also, I just got the “developmental” peer review back on my full manuscript, and it was very positive, which means full speed ahead! I’ll be tackling revisions in the coming weeks, and preparing the final manuscript, so I’m sure I’ll be writing about that here.
Finally, tell your students, tell your friends, tell your students’ friends and your friends’ students: the Bang on a Can media workshop is back!!! This summer, four fellows will work with the great John Schaefer as part of Bang on a Can’s summer festival at Mass MoCA. Our previous fellows have found it to be a life-changing experience — literally, one of them, who just wrote her debut review for *Pitchfork*, just said this!
Alas, I won’t be able to join John this summer, though I’ll be back 2021.