Aaron Tanner, Emerging Composer, Dies in Milwaukee

Aaron Tanner and Jennifer Meier
Aaron Tanner and Jennifer Meier
Photo courtesy of the family

On February 25, 2001, the young Milwaukee composer Aaron Tanner was fatally shot, halting in mid-stride a career that was just starting to blossom. While walking from his apartment to the nearby home of a friend on the city’s northeast side, Aaron was robbed and assaulted by a group of three teenagers, one of whom was armed with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

Aaron studied theory and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but dropped out in May of 2000, just a year short of graduation, feeling that he needed to “apply his skills in the real world,” according to his father John. He began composing professionally. He wrote the title song and played guitar for It’s Alright, a documentary about moped-riding Legionnaires, and composed the soundtrack for fellow Milwaukeean Becky Banks‘s feature-length film, Still Life.


Excerpt from Still Life

“He was always more musical than I ever was,” stated his father, who is also a composer. “A year ago, I asked him: ‘what are you going to do with all this ability?’” Last September, Aaron called his father and told him that he wanted to write music for video games. His father advised him to research trade publications, to develop a list of contacts, and to find games with “lousy music” and offer the game-makers a better score. Since November, Aaron had been working at the family recording studio, Tanner Music, on a demo tape he planned to take to the Game Developers Conference in San Jose in March.


Excerpt from Tanner’s Demo

As a young child, Aaron excelled as an actor, participating in productions at First Stage Milwaukee, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and Melody Top, among others. After elementary school, Aaron attended the Milwaukee High School of the Arts with the intention of studying acting. During his sophomore year, however, he discovered jazz. He studied guitar at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and played in his high school’s Jazz Combo. During his senior year, this group was named “Best High School Jazz Combo in the United States” by Downbeat magazine.

Aaron had recently discovered another love: teaching. Since September, he had been working regularly with students at the Burdick School through the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Arts in Community Education (ACE) program. For the first part of the school year, Aaron had been making weekly visits with his father, who has been an ACE partner for the past four years. “Aaron was starting to take it over,” explained Mary Wayne Fritzsche, the Symphony’s Director of Education.

Aaron had been working with the students in Fred Polansky’s eighth-grade class. Polansky’s students have been creating original compositions using computers and MIDI keyboards, learning techniques of digital sequencing and multi-track recording. At the end of the year, the students will design their own laser light show to accompany the performance of their compositions. Aaron had been working with his father on teaching the students different musical styles. “Aaron would write an example each week and show it to them,” John Tanner explained. Students, in small groups of two or three, would then compose their own examples. Shortly before he died, Aaron taught his own class, on rap music.

Aaron had also been helping Polansky upgrade the equipment in the school’s music studio. “We have great technology to work with,” Polansky stated. “Aaron was going to work with me and the students for the next two months. This is a very sad situation. The little time that I worked with him was wonderful. He was a very talented musician and composer, he had a good knowledge of the technology, and he had a knack for working with young kids.”

The Milwaukee Symphony dedicated their subscription concerts of April 12-14, 2001 to Aaron Tanner’s memory. Audience members were invited to contribute to the Aaron Tanner Memorial Fund for the Furtherance of Music Education, which was established by his family.

“He had that spark that set the tone wherever he went,” Tanner commented. “He was vibrant, dynamic, and funny. He was always in a hurry, and I couldn’t wait to see where he was going to go next. We have yet to come to terms with his death.”

Donations can be made to the Aaron Tanner Memorial Fund at North Shore Bank, 5101 S. 76th St., Greendale, Wis., 53129.