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  • Tania León's Stride: A Polyrhythmic Life by Alejandro L. Madrid
  • Jade Kastel
Tania León's Stride: A Polyrhythmic Life. By Alejandro L. Madrid. (Music in American Life.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. [xvi, 249 p. ISBN 9780252043949 (hardcover), $110; ISBN 9780252086014 (paperback), $24.95; ISBN 9780252052873 (e-book), price varies.] Music examples, photographs, bibliography, appendixes, index.

The first comprehensive biography of composer, conductor, and educator Tania León (b. 1943) is arriving at a peak moment, an accented stride if you will, in León's career. She has been selected as an honoree in the 45th Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in December 2022—a celebration set to occur several months following the writing of this review. As attendees and viewers watch her don the familiar rainbow ribbon, it will likely ignite a desire for the back-story of this creative genius. Alejandro L. Madrid's biography is waiting to satiate this intrigue, chronicling León's journey from a poor neighborhood in Cuba, to accompanying the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to her conducting lessons with Leonard Bernstein, to collaborations with the American Composers Orchestra's series Sonidos de las Américas at Carnegie Hall, and to the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her orchestral work Stride.

Tania León's Stride: A Polyrhythmic Life is one of more than 250 books in the longstanding series Music in American Life published by the University of Illinois Press. Madrid uses the introduction to explain how he chose the metaphor of counterpoint as a bibliographical form for this book, to place events in León's life in conversation with and show their relationship to significant historical and musical moments (p. 3). Just as rules and parameters undergird counterpoint exercises and compositions, Madrid and León likewise negotiated the project's scope and compositional parameters for how cultural, political, and personal events would work together in the biography. They arrived at some concrete rules, like leaving candid statements from friends or family still living in Cuba out of the book to avoid putting individuals at risk (p. 5).

Madrid titled the chapters after musical motives to symbolize aspects of León's experiences (p. 7). Chapters are not arranged chronologically, allowing Madrid's counterpoint to position events side by side to show how a motif was present at various stages in León's life. The first chapter, "Tonic," as one might guess, includes home, family, and León's musical upbringing in the midst of the Cuban revolution in the 1960s. Photos of her grandparents (p. 16), eight-year-old León at the piano (p. 21), and a postcard from her piano teacher visiting Paris (p. 24) help illustrate the milieu of León's childhood in Cuba.

"Modulation and Displacement" leans into the tensions between cubanos de adentro (Cubans residing on the island) and cubanos de afuera (Cubans living abroad). León's life modulated when she left Cuba as an exile, signaling an era when neither the US nor Cuba felt like a home key. The sadness and struggle of displacement is a theme throughout the book. Her passport was canceled as a result of leaving on one of the Vuelos de la Libertad (Freedom Flights; p. 35), which in turn led to León's missing the funeral of one of her foundational family figures, [End Page 407] her grandmother Mamota (p. 37). A section titled "1979: Seven Days That Shook Tania León" tells of her emotional return to Cuba to see her family for the first time in twelve years (p. 39). It was during this trip that León discovered how the Castro government silenced the accomplishments of creative exiles.

León was determined to avoid taking sides in Cuban politics. Despite her apolitical stance, "her name and artist activities were still rendered invisible" in Cuba (p. 41). The 1970s feminist adage that "the personal is political" is a reality that León experienced all too frequently. Despite León's dislike of identity labels and her desire to remain neutral on the polarizing topic of the Cuban revolution—an effort to protect her family in Cuba...