A Sound of Her Own: How Latina Composer Angélica Negrón Creates Her Music

Angélica Negrón at the Kennedy Center. (Credit: José Olivares)

Angélica Negrón’s music is everywhere. The composer and D.M.A. candidate in the Music program at the Graduate Center just finished a piece for the Louisville Orchestra and is working on another for the Seattle Symphony, to be followed by one for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Just this week, she received the Hermitage Greenfield Prize, which includes a $30,000 commission to create a new work for the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida. 

Negrón creates a unique sound in her orchestral compositions and in works composed for non-traditional instruments, including vegetables, robots, and, recently, video conferencing software. In the article “21 for ’21: Composers and performers who sound like tomorrow,” The Washington Post noted, “There’s not a limit Negrón can’t limn into music.”

Her work has addressed big issues such as climate change for a piece commissioned by the New York Botanical Garden and life during the pandemic for a piece performed last year by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Negrón said that with overwhelming issues like these, she uses her sound to “bring it to a place in which I have a clear and intimate personal connection. And that feels like a right approach for me.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Negrón came to New York City for her master’s at New York University and then chose the Graduate Center so that she could study with Distinguished Professor Emerita Tania León (GC/Brooklyn, Music), winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Negrón is joining her mentor as one of the group of women composers commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for Project 19 to celebrate women’s suffrage. Her piece for performers from the Philharmonic and the choral group Roomful of Teeth is expected to premiere in 2022. Also scheduled for next year is the 2022 Mizzou International Composers Festival where she will be a distinguished guest composer as part of the new music initiative at the University of Missouri.

She spoke to us about where she finds inspiration for her music, how studying with Tania León at the Graduate Center helped her establish her distinctive voice, and what she wants to teach to young composers.

The Graduate Center: What was it like to work with Tania León? How did she influence your career? 

Negrón: She's been instrumental in the way I think as an artist and as a person. We talked so much about music, but also about so many other things. Especially this, as someone from Puerto Rico studying in New York, I was very naive about my place as a Latina composer here and all the intersections of identity and how those play into my career. It was great to have a space for conversations about what it means to be who we are in this field. That kind of hyperawareness has really shaped not only my career and the collaborations I decided to pursue, but it has changed my style and a lot of creative choices. 

Studying with her has also shaped the way I think of rhythm and movement in music. What a great teacher does is not like you do it like I do it, but she encouraged and guided me to find my own way of what rhythm means in my music. Tania is very rigorous, but she's also very nurturing in a way that encourages you to find your own path.

GC: How did your composing evolve from a more traditional background to so many ways of hearing?

Negrón: There was a huge gap in the connection to the music I was playing and my lived experience. I never got to play around with sounds. It was always learning technique. When you're a kid in an art class you explore with paint and colors, but with sound it's not often the case. Through my music I try to access and fill in that space I didn’t have while growing up. I've always been really curious about the sounds around me. Before I was composing on paper I was recording sounds on a cassette player and playing with them on the computer. That was like a secret life I had. 

Everything made sense when I discovered composition, but at the same time I was not necessarily composing so much for myself. It's always been there, but my process to embrace that has been a journey. 

GC: You've worked a lot with younger artists. What do you see as your role as a teacher?

Negrón: I hope to encourage them to be their own most authentic self and bring that into their work and not really think, that’s what I hear in the concert hall and that's what I have to do to be legit as a capital “C” composer. One of my main goals is to dismantle those notions and empower them to just be curious and excited and, by doing those things intuitively in a way they like, learn that it is more than enough to be a composer.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: JAN 11, 2022

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