Emory Report

February 9, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 20


Composer Lennon and Emory
pen a musical partnership

John Anthony Lennon is a renowned composer, much in demand by publishing houses, recording companies and performing groups around the world. But when it comes to bringing his music to life on the piano or guitar, Lennon would prefer to leave the performing to more skilled musicians.

When asked how many instruments he plays, Lennon chuckled, "Oh, I don't play any longer. I'm an unpolished pianist in the classroom and a lapsed guitarist. There aren't enough hours in the day to pursue all of your loves, so I don't have hours at a time to practice playing." In fact, he added that the tendency of talented composers to be less than virtuosos on their instruments "is so common that it speaks for itself."

"The piano is a tool," Lennon said. "One might be working on something and go over to the piano to check it out, then go back over to the desk to copy or consider a musical idea. So you have to have that facility-you have to know how to play the piano-but you're using it for other reasons."

Lennon has used it to help compose his way to critical acclaim. He's been commissioned to write pieces for John F. Kennedy Theater Chamber Players, the Library of Congress and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players-not to mention a choral piece celebrating President Bill Chace's 1995 inauguration-and he has won the Prix de Rome, Guggenheim, Friedheim and Charles Ives awards. Recently the Groves Dictionary of Music informed Lennon of its plans to include him in the next edition.

Lennon came to Emory after a number of years on the faculty of the University of Tennessee. Well, he was officially on Tennessee's faculty but over the years spent much of his time overseas in Italy, France and Germany, working under fellowships and grants. One would think such grandiose settings would greatly influence his compositions, but while Lennon acknowledged that was true to an extent, he said it is but one of several factors.

"You're influenced by where you are and all kinds of variables," he said. "The time in your life, who you're with. All those variables change, and so that way the music, one would hope, over a period of time has growth and variety. One piece can be regal and another very tragic, and another can be very humorous. There is a whole emotional spectrum."

Of course, there's also the medium for which he is writing. Lennon said orchestra is probably his favorite, but he also composes for chamber groups and for solo instruments. "And then there's the undergirding of all the technique-how do you approach the orchestra? How do you approach the string quartet? You have to know those instruments, know the psyche of those players, the atmosphere of the audience, the ritual involved."

Lennon's rituals when he's working involve a hot mug of coffee or tea to get things going, and he sometimes plays Bach to clear his mind. Strewn about his keyboard are erasers, rulers, colored pencils-and fingernail clippers if he's really stuck. "If I'm walking around with unclipped nails, I'm writing a lot of music," Lennon quipped. "If my nails are trimmed, I'm not getting much done."

He's gotten a lot done recently; Lennon's about to have published a compendium of guitar works, some 120 so far. And E.C. Schirmer will publish a series of Lennon's orchestral pieces. Three CDs featuring his work, performances of which premiered at the Bath International Guitar Festival in England, at the Classic Guitar Festival of Great Britain and by the Houston Composers Alliance, will be recorded and released within the next year or so.

When he's not working, Lennon enjoys reading-he was a literature major as an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco-and is a self-described "crossword addict." He doesn't time himself; crossword puzzles are his way to relax in the evening while listening to the news and sipping a glass of wine.

This spring, Lennon will head to Chicago to serve as a visiting professor at Northwestern, and he anticipates spending more time overseas. But he and his wife, Camille Goebel, have grown fond of their new home in Atlanta since moving here in 1994. She works with Medicine's Robert DeHaan as assistant director of Elementary Science Education Partners.

Though Lennon and Goebel married only recently, the two have known each other since their high school days in California. They plan to return to the West Coast someday, but for now life at Emory suits Lennon just fine.

"I get so much from the students, from the intellectual level of the students, and from my colleagues-I have very good colleagues," Lennon said. "That fulfills a real need I have to replenish that need over time. I like being in the academy."

-Michael Terrazas

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