For regular attendees of classical recitals in Nashville, Lee Gannon’s performance last November was a bit unusual. Perhaps it was the size of the crowd in Scarritt-Bennett’s Wightman Chapel. Perhaps it was the relative informality of the presentation. Or perhaps it was the moment the composer stepped down from the stage into the audienceand proceeded to draw names for door prizes.
The combination of high art and whimsical flippancy might have seemed unforgivably brash coming from a less established composer. But Gannon, a local composer who has achieved significant recognition at a young age, is notorious for his impish humor and disdain of pomposity. He prizes accessibility in musicso much so that he is said to have chewed out a fellow composer who complained of having to write for audiences.
“I think if you go about anything with a positive enough attitude, and if you find the right slant, you can get an audience,” Gannon said during an interview last May at the Radio Cafe, an East Nashville coffeehouse frequented by musicians. At the time, he was preparing for a June 25 program of his works at the Greenwich House Music School in New York. He was planning to perform with Bradley Mansell, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra cellist who has been one of his closest collaborators.
From all accounts, the concert went beautifully. “The audience and the musicians who participated were very enthusiastic about Lee’s work,” says Mansell, with whom Gannon was to perform his acclaimed “Sonata for Cello and Piano.” Two pieces by Gannon received their New York premiere, including a series of five songs consisting of poems set to music. “The songs were very, very well-received,” Mansell notes.
Unfortunately, Gannon was unable to attend. The composer, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1984, was stricken with pneumonia; he is currently recuperating at a Nashville hospital. This simultaneous rush of success and setback typifies Gannon’s life over the past two years.
Born in Nashville in 1960, Lee Gannon was raised in Middle Tennessee. His parents live in La Vergne, and he spent his high-school years transferring from one school to another in the Rutherford County school system. It was not a great place or time to be a gay teenager. “Four years of hell,” Gannon says grimly.
He briefly attended a string of collegesMiddle Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech, the University of Louisville, even the Cleveland Institute of Music. It wasn’t until he arrived at Belmont, Gannon says, that he found the discipline he needed to compose. “Belmont made me produce,” he explains, “and at that point in my life that was what I needed, to produce work. And I did.”
After two years at Belmont, Gannon was accepted into the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He has high praise for the intensity and focus of the school, lower marks for the weather. “You put about 4 feet of snow on the ground [and] about 2,000 diva music majors in a building for four months, it gets just a little thick,” he observes dryly. “It was insane. But I learned a lot.”
It was right before his first year at Eastman that Gannon went into the hospital for a collapsed lung. Gannon, who intended to study flute, had suffered from lung trouble for many years. During his stay in the hospital, he was given an early test for the HIV virus. It came back positive. “At that time, nobody really knew what it meant,” Gannon says.
After Gannon completed his bachelor’s degree at Eastman in 1988, a visiting professor and successful composer, Dan Welcher, convinced him to get his master’s degree in composition at the University of Texas. In 1990, Gannon completed his degree. All in all, he spent four years in Austin teaching freshman and sophomore composition, composing all the while. “It was a great combination, writing lots of music and having fun with it,” Gannon reminisces. “If I had my pick of places to live, it would be Austin.”
In the years since, Gannon has received commissions from the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, New York’s Downtown Music Productions, and Belmont University, where a full concert of Gannon’s work is expected in the spring of 1997. So what accounts for the unexpected popularity of Gannon’s work at a time when classical composition is vastly overshadowed by popular music?
“The thing that I really find strong about Lee as a composer,” observes Bradley Mansell, “is that his music is so accessible. Modern music tends to be so cacophonous. Lee’s music is so melodic. It’s nice to listen to, and modern music often isn’t.” This melodic strain was evident at Gannon’s Scarritt concert last November, especially during a piece inspired by the bustle of Lower Broadway. In describing urban life, many modern composers would have used the atonal, angular minimalism Gannon describes as “bleep-blop” or “squeak-fart” music. Gannon’s piece was unmistakably contemporary, and yet it still had traces of the unfashionable romantic sweep composers like George Gershwin found in the Manhattan cityscape. It is not surprising that Gannon declares himself a fan of pop music. “You wouldn’t want to eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day,” he argues, “and yet I know people who listen to only one kind of music.”
“What a composer tries to do is take dictation from within,” Gannon says of his composing technique. “So if I sit down at a piano and I hear something in my head...my challenge is to get down as much of it as I can. What I miss, hopefully I have enough instruction from tinkering around with music that I can turn what I have gotten into some kind of coherent whole. Sometimes if I’m lucky, I’ll hear a repeat, and I can get down even more the second time. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Gannon’s tinkering abilities must be finely tuned. In 1994, his “Triad-O-Rama” was recorded by the Aspen Wind Quintet for Memento Bittersweet, a landmark album of classical pieces by composers with AIDS. That was followed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of Gannon’s “Peste Noire,” which brought the composer a lengthy standing ovation. Then the former Newsday classical critic Tim Page commissioned a solo cello piece, “Aurora,” from Gannon for his wife’s birthday.
Sadly, Gannon’s recent successes were overshadowed by the death last January of his partner of 13-and-a-half years, Tommy Powell, who helped found Nashville CARES. It was Powell who prodded Gannon to continue his studies and become a composer; it was Powell who suggested, when they both fell ill, that they each needed some focus in life besides one another, whether it were music or community service. “He was a sweetheart,” Gannon says matter-of-factly. “He was a true Tennesseanhe believed in volunteerism.” Even as demand for Gannon’s compositions increased, the loss left him unable to write for a brief period.
“Right after Tommy passed away and things settled down, I tried to do some writing, and it was just impossible,” Gannon said in May. “It dawned on me that I needed to let my writing grieve. So I picked out a poem by Robert Frost called ‘Reluctance’ and set it to music. And it really helped. It was hard, but it was the only way I could create, and I knew that I had to keep creating.”
And so he has. He has set up a Casio keyboard in his hospital room that will allow him to compose, and in October, a chamber group at the University of Texas will perform a new composition entitled “Strength of Will.” He also plans another concert this fall in Nashville, which he hopes will expand into a regular forum for local classical composers.
“There are a lot of really fine composers who live here in Nashville...who deserve to be heard,” Gannon says. “I’d love to have a venue for us all to be heard and played. My main objective is to have the concert be fun and inviting, and even to an extent somewhat educational.” His ultimate goal is to unite Nashville’s classical cognoscenti for a Nashville CARES benefit that would link music groups around the city the way Artrageous has galleries.
“If we could get together Steven Vann, executive director of the Symphony, Steven Greil down at TPAC, Cynthia Curtis, the dean of the music school at Belmont, the dean of the music school at Blair, the dean of the music school at David Lipscomb, and get those key people all in a room together,” Gannon says, with great enthusiasm, “[we could] just decide we’re gonna do something, decide what it is we’re gonna do, and do it. That’s the kind of rallying Nashville needs.”
This degree of ambition is surprising only if you’ve never called Gannon’s answering machine. For a long time, whenever the machine picked up, callers would receive this message: “You have just reached the number of the most important composer of the 20th century.” Ask Lee Gannon about the message, and the flicker of a smile upon his lips is downright mischievous.
“Well,” Gannon says, cutting his eyes, “one must think positively.” Positive thinker Lee Gannon
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