Leilehua Lanzilotti is Reconnecting with her Kanaka Maoli Heritage and Celebrating Hawaiian Stories

Leilehua Lanzilotti often references visual artworks in her compositions, but it’s more than a source of inspiration — it’s infused into her earliest memories and inextricably linked to her childhood growing up in Hawaiʻi. Her mother, Louise King Lanzilotti, was the first curator of education at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, which young Leilehua would visit every day after school. From day one, contemporary art felt accessible and rooted in curiosity and play. It was normal to just hang out in David Hockey’s L’enfant et les sortilèges exhibit with Ravel’s 1925 opera of the same name playing in the background, or to spend time outside in the sculpture gardens admiring one of the giant glazed “Moons” by ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu.

Leilehua’s forthcoming album is part of a large-scale touring retrospective and monograph on Takaezu, who passed away in 2011. The album will be released next year on innova Recordings — the in-house label of American Composers Forum — and was selected from one of innova’s national calls, which welcome projects representing a diversity of musical approaches and at various stages of the recording process.

Born in Hawaiʻi of Okinawan heritage, Takaezu was one of the most important sculptors and art educators in the United States during her lifetime, and sound played an unexpected role in her practice. “At some point, Takaezu accidentally dropped a piece of clay into one of these large vessels that she made,” Leilehua explained in a video call. “When it came out of the kiln, it made this gorgeous resonance, so she started [adding pieces of clay] on purpose. When she talks about her work, she talks about how that dark space inside the sculpture is just as important. She was so incredible and innovative with her knowledge of glazes… so she had already created this beautiful 360 landscape around the outside of the sculpture. But the aspect that was really important to her was the part inside that you can only see in your mind’s eye through the physicality of trying to hear how the little clay pieces rattle and move around.”

For the retrospective, Leilehua is contributing an essay to the monograph and co-curating an exhibit demonstrating the development of Takaezu’s conceptual practice and large-scale installations. Additionally, the Noguchi Museum has commissioned her to write several new compositions that interact with or respond to Takaezu’s works, which is what listeners can expect to hear on her innova album. The piano trio Longleash has already recorded her piece based on the resonance of Takaezu’s bronze bells, and a composition written for Sō Percussion’s Flexible Commissions program will explore the resonances and rhythms of Takaezu’s ceramic sculptures.

Leilehua’s innova album is a new touchpoint with ACF, following her 2021 McKnight Visiting Composer Residency, a program that invites artists who live outside of Minnesota to spend time connecting with the communities in ACF’s home state. The creation of new artistic work can be part of the residency, but it’s not required.

Leilehua was intrigued by the community aspect of the fellowship. The opportunity came at a time when she was refocusing her practice on Indigenous language revitalization, beginning with reclaiming her Hawaiian name and connecting to her Kanaka Maoli heritage. Until recently, Leilehua went by her full legal name: Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti. The practice of giving children a Hawaiian middle name stemmed from increased Western influence on the islands in the 19th century and an 1863 law on naming, which required that all children be given a Christian first name. The law was repealed in 1967, but naming practices that began as a government mandate have since been misconstrued as tradition.

Leilehua Lanzilotti -- Photo by Laura Banchi, courtesy of the Bogliasco Foundation

Leilehua Lanzilotti — Photo by Laura Banchi, courtesy of the Bogliasco Foundation

During the pandemic, Leilehua found connection to the Indigenous diaspora through the Western Arts Alliance’s Native Launchpad program. Hearing people use their Indigenous names and introduce themselves in their own languages helped her realize that “it’s OK to take up space and claim [my name]… it just feels like my name, and it shows we still exist — Hawaiians still exist.”

For her McKnight residency, Leilehua proposed connecting with local Indigenous organizations to learn how languages unite and empower communities. During her month in Minnesota, she immersed herself in Indigenous Roots, an arts activism organization dedicated to cultivating opportunities for Native, Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples. She hit the ground running at their outdoor festival, bringing water to artists, going on runs for ice, and helping with the simple, basic acts that go a long way in showing up for your community.

From this entry point, Leilehua worked with Mary Anne Quiroz, the co-founder and executive director of Indigenous Roots, to identify how her unique skill set intersected with the organization’s needs. The residency turned into a series of workshops and conversations about grant writing, resources for Indigenous artists, and balancing creative work with the business side of the industry. “The focus was ‘How do I support this Indigenous organization and how they’re empowering people through language to make their art and forward what they’re doing culturally?’’ Leilehua explained. “I ended up doing that in a kind of interesting and different way because that’s what I was hearing from the community — that was what they needed, and that’s so important in all these interactions: how are you showing up, and are you listening?”

During the residency, Leilehua was also conducting research for the libretto of her opera, tentatively scheduled to premiere in fall 2025. The bilingual libretto draws from diaries, letters, and songs written by Liliʻuokalani, the last Queen of Hawaiʻi. The first piece Leilehua wrote entirely in the Hawaiian language was On Stochastic Wave Behavior (2021) for Roomful of Teeth. The work for vocal octet has “a kind of playfulness in looking at language and words,” she said, and it features the unique sounds of two diacritical marks from the Hawaiian language: the ʻokina (glottal stop) and the kahakō, which lengthens and stresses vowels. Sputtering consonants and pulsating glottal stops are peppered over clustered layers of vowel drones before finally converging into a glowing, hummed resonance.

Reclaiming her Hawaiian name and language has allowed Leilehua to take up space as a human being, but compositionally, this started to unfold in with eyes the color of time, a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The string orchestra work, written in 2020, was the first time she gave herself permission to write a longer-form piece with slow, deliberate pacing. Commissioned by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, each movement refers to works of art that she had encountered at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu as a child. Barely audible harmonics and pitchless bowing on the side of the bridge whisper like the wind in “Nahele (the bronze horse / the forest),” a cacophony of scratch tones bring a child’s reckless destruction to life in “les sortilèges (the wound / the torn page),” and swirling metal rattles evoke the hidden clay pieces of Takaezu’s sculptures in “mahina.”

Reflecting on the piece, Leilehua told me that it’s really an attempt to answer questions about how we navigate challenges: “How does art help us deal with the struggles that we find in our world… how does art help us have the creativity and the imagination to work through really difficult things in our lives?” And through her work to revitalize Indigenous languages, Leilehua is continuing this line of inquiry, looking for “the languages of your heart that help you work through the struggle.”

Leilehua’s innova album is made possible thanks to generous support from the Sorel Organization. ACF’s McKnight Visiting Composer Residency is funded by the McKnight Foundation.


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