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By Roxanne Moore Saucier, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail Roxanne
Last updated: Friday, August 30, 2002

Groundbreaking Bangor musician dies
Composer Kay Gardner guest-conducted orchestra, led women’s groups

BANGOR — Two weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, composer Kay Gardner walked into the offices of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra with a prelude titled “Lament for Thousands.”

After hearing of Gardner’s sudden death this week, symphony officials decided to schedule Gardner’s work for the orchestra’s season-opening concert Oct. 13 at the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono.

Gardner, believed to be in her early 60s, died of a heart attack Wednesday in Bangor.

She was a multifaceted musician, a pianist, flutist and conductor who performed in 46 states and various countries.

More than 20 years ago, she sued the Bangor Symphony, unsuccessfully, for sex discrimination after she had applied for a conducting position and learned that a questionnaire was circulated among orchestra members, asking how they felt about working with a female conductor.

But in 2000, she was the guest conductor for a 40-member orchestra of women from the Bangor Symphony — playing a repertoire written by women.

Gardner also was known for her belief in the healing power of music. She was ordained a priestess in the Fellowship of Isis and founded the Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor.

But she may well be best remembered in Maine for the voice she gave to musicians, both trained and untrained.

Gardner was the heartbeat of Women with Wings, a singing circle open to all comers that has met Thursday evenings for the past nine years at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Park Street.

She was also a force for celebrating the spirit — and the accomplishments — of women.

“Working with Kay was one of the highlights of my experience with the BSO,” said Executive Director Susan Jonason. When she told Gardner about the plan to do a concert written by women, played by women, “she was so excited.”

“All of a sudden, she’s sort of educating me about women and music,” Jonason recalled. “I felt like I was levitating.” Last year, she added, Gardner had come into the office with no expectations about the new piece she had written, knowing the BSO was in the middle of a conductor search. Now the orchestra will play her work, in tribute to the composer as well as to the subjects of the music.

Kay Louise Gardner was born on Long Island, N.Y., and studied music at the University of Michigan and at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She performed in coffeehouses in California in the early 1960s and, in 1972, helped found a feminist and openly lesbian women’s band, Lavender Jane.

By the 1980s, she was living and composing on Deer Isle, and by the 1990s was serving as music director at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bangor.

Members of the group Women with Wings were especially saddened Thursday.

“None of us are professional musicians,” said Maryann Ingalls, who has belonged to Wings for six years. “What Kay brought to us was a confidence that we could sing. Her belief in the power of voice, anyone’s, was so affirming.”

Despite extensive experience touring and recording with professionals, Gardner said she actually preferred working with diverse people who didn’t have training.

“They have no hang-ups or preconceptions,” she said during a 1980 interview with the Bangor Daily News. “They are open. No one has told them how they must react to what they hear. … We made music together.”

Wings members learn songs principally by listening to one another — no books or sheet music. The only guidance came from Gardner, occasionally raising and lowering one hand in small steps to give an idea of the direction of the music.

“We had to learn by ear, so we heard better,” Ingalls explained. “It was a wonderful space to experiment — trying out harmony.”

In fact, despite Gardner’s own talents as a composer — from the brief “Brigid, Goddess of Healing,” to the yuletide pageant “Lucina’s Light” — she encouraged the singers to write their own songs and bring them to the circle to share.

Women with Wings has just recorded its first professionally produced CD for Ladyslipper, “Hand to Hand & Heart to Heart,” comprising 26 songs written by the members. A booklet also is being published.

The group has given performances from the Michigan Women’s Music Festival to the “Beautiful Project” at the University of Maine.

Gardner herself had performed her own works from Carnegie Hall to Mexico to Thailand. Her books include “Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music as Medicine,” work that also served as the basis of a six-cassette set. Among her honors were an honorary doctorate and the Maryann Hartman Award from the University of Maine.

An ordained priestess in the Fellowship of Isis, Gardner was a member of Bangor Area Clergy Fellowship. She led tours to goddess sites in Great Britain, and many of the Women with Wings songs reflected her reverence for earth, fire, air and water. But she never imposed her own identity on the group, which includes women of many denominations and beliefs.

“Kay was immensely generous of spirit,” Ingalls said.

Ingalls recalled wondering whether she’d be allowed to take part in a concert scheduled just four weeks after she’d joined Wings. “You’re a member,” Gardner told her emphatically.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do without her,” Ingalls said Thursday. Yet, she recalled clearly what Gardner always said, spiritedly, to the excited singers just moments before a performance: “What do we want to remember? Have fun!”

Women with Wings planned to meet for its usual singing circle Thursday evening. The group has been named the honorary chairwoman for the Sept. 14 Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure in Bangor.

Gardner is survived by two daughters, Juliana Smith of Delaware and Jenifer Wilson Smith of Bangor; her partner, Colleen Fitzgerald of Bangor; her mother, Enez Gardner of California; one brother; and two grandchildren.

Calling hours will be 2-5 p.m. Saturday at Brookings-Smith Funeral Home, 133 Center St. Services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 120 Park St., with a potluck meal afterward.

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