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
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."
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