An Interview with Chicago-based Composer Stacy Garrop

Stacy Garrop smiling toward the camera

In just a few weeks, Symphony Orchestra will be performing Stacy Garrop’s Pandora Undone at Orchestra Hall for their spring concert. Stacy Garrop is a composer based in Chicago, and one of our featured women composers you should know in March. She describes her music as “centered on dramatic and lyrical storytelling”, with Pandora Undone, Movement 5 from her Mythological Symphony, depicting the story of a young, naive Pandora releasing the evils—and hope—into the world. CYSO Social Media Team member Zhihanna Liu had the opportunity to interview Stacy Garrop on her inspirations, musical journey, and creative process.


To start us off, what inspired you to begin composing?

When I was probably about 7 or 8, my parents took me to see a local production of West Side Story. The minute that Tony opened up his mouth and sang Something’s Coming, I just fell in love. It just showed me in that one afternoon that there is such power in music; you can fall in love, you can get your heart broken, all within 2 hours.

I was in choir since the third grade, I played piano, I played saxophone in the marching band, and then I began composing when I was 15. There was a music theory class in my high school, and the teacher said, “Go home and write a piece of music.” If he hadn’t done that, we would not be on this call today. It’s that clear to me that I wouldn’t have discovered how to compose in any other way, shape, or form.

What were your youth music experiences like? You mentioned playing saxophone and some other instruments, but were there any ensembles you were in that shaped who you are today?

Playing piano music for so long, singing in choirs, and then playing the saxophone in band really helped round out the experience for me in terms of what it takes to be an ensemble player, what it takes to be a chamber player, or a soloist. All of that has come into play since I’ve been composing for all of these years.

The one thing I didn’t know when I got to college was how string instruments function, how brass instruments function, etc. I took french horn lessons and cello lessons each for a semester and that really helped me understand what I’m putting people through, how they are producing those sounds, and the effects that I’m asking them to create.

I’m coming from a non-classical background, and I had to play catch-up for a very long time in order to amass the amount of information that other people who have been through youth orchestras. Score study has been really something that has been important to me, over and over again. Composers will solve problems for you on the page, and scores don’t lie. They’ll tell you what is on the page, and you’ll hear in a hall or on a recording if it actually works or not.

With all of that knowledge, what does your typical composition process look like?

Stacy Garrop sitting on the floor surrounded by sheet music. Her arms are up mid-throw as music floats in the air around her

Well, it starts with the commissioners. I find out from them what is important to them. For instance, I recently finished a piece for the United States Navy Band. I got the Captain of the band and one of the performers on the phone, and asked, “What is important to you and your organization?” The first thing they mentioned is that the Navy goes to places where humans really aren’t supposed to be. They go to the depths of the oceans in submarines, up into the air, and some of them might even be exploring space. I thought, “What if I have a piece of music that starts at the lowest of the low in a submarine, looking for enemy submarines and slinking around the bottom of the ocean? Then, halfway through the piece, we’re at sea level? And then, you’re on an aircraft carrier and you zoom up into the air, going higher and higher?”

Once they gave me this spark and I had a story, I drew an outline. I always draw an outline because if I can’t understand the form of the piece, I don’t know what the tension or the relaxation is doing over the course of the piece. After that, I can figure out what the language is, what the surface details are, what kind of instrumentation, and what kind of sounds I want to happen.

Are there any overarching principles, values, or themes that guide your artistic choices and decisions as a composer?

One of the things I saw a lot when I was teaching at Roosevelt University were students who did not have a form in place for their piece, along with understanding how the piece is rising in tension or relaxing. Those pieces tended to sound like they were wandering on the surface. Because I was so interested in seeing things like West Side Story as a kid, I always knew that form was important on some level.

That said, pitch and rhythm are great, but to me, there’s so much more that can be done with those moments of tension and relaxation and also exploring the sonic worlds—the sounds and the colors of the instruments themselves. So, if you look at something like Voice of the Whale by George Crumb [note: Concert Orchestra will perform Crumb’s piece at this spring 2024 concert!], that piece is tremendous for flute, cello, and piano. Very otherworldly. So much of that is not about pitch and rhythm, although those are important to him, too.

Stacy Garrop (center) poses with fellow composers Lita Grier (left) and Augusta Read Thomas (right) at Roosevelt University in 2019.

How are you able to stay creatively inspired and overcome challenges when you’re composing?

What I found for myself is that if I do hit a roadblock, I can always look at the graph of my formal structure and say, “Where am I getting in trouble? Let me back up to a spot before that on my graph.” Then, I can find another route through it. As a freelancer, it really helps to have blocks of time where I can just write the whole concept out. Once I get that initial idea, it’s about seeing it musically through, building the graph of my formal structure and also about putting the musical ideas down.

Even with those challenges, what would you consider the most rewarding aspect of being a composer?

It’s about learning new worlds. With the Navy Band piece, I never would have thought about writing a piece about submarines or fighter jets, and yet, I’ve learned so much about what the Navy does! I had a piece about the suffragist movement and the 19th amendment, and another that set Martin Ginsburg’s final love letter to his spouse, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to music. I never would have done any of that without these commissions. I love being open to other people’s ideas because I’ll learn so much that I never would have come across in any other way.

Stacy Garrop notates a score while musicians play in the background
Stacy Garrop working with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra

CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra will be performing your piece, Blurrr, at their upcoming concert. What was your inspiration when you were composing Blurrr?

Blurrr was written about 20 years ago. It was a commission by the Minnesota Orchestra for their youth series. From what I recall, they wanted it to be on the topic of melody, so I decided to present a fun little melody. What happens if it disappears or gets elongated? What kind of tricks can I do to a melody that young listeners students are going to pick up with their ear in a performance? That was a challenge. It could only be four and a half minutes, so I tried to pack in as much fun as I could.

Do you approach writing pieces for youth audiences any differently than other pieces?

The piece I’m doing right now for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is called There’s a Village in My Sneakers. They sent me to Whitney Young High School to work with their students. The conductor wanted me to ask the high school students, “Who’s your village? Who supports you?” Several people in the room drew artwork about sneakers or about running track. So I thought, great, I’m going to write about sneakers and the track team! The challenge was, how am I going to do this in two minutes and create something meaningful that also appeals to young ears.

Looking back, what personal or artistic growth do you consider most significant, and how has it influenced your recent compositions?

Learning to be open to other people’s ideas is not necessarily something you learn in college, with all the training you get, but you should be able to adapt to that and learn it along the way. In college, I was collaborating with saxophonists and string players throughout my degrees, but actually listening to what’s important to the commissioner was a skill different from anything I’d thought about in school.

I look back at the pieces I was first turning out, and you can see the way I was learning to use form, or the way I thought about instrumental color. But, the relationship I have with commissioners has really changed. once I began to understand. For me, to see commissioners get excited by the pieces I turn out tells me I did a good job.

My Dearest Ruth album cover
Stacy Garrop’s My Dearest Ruth is available on the album Notorious RBG in Song released by Cedille Records. The album features soprano Patrice Michaels and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang (also a CYSO board member).

As you continue to embark on this musical journey, are there any specific moments that you’re really proud of?

When My Dearest Ruth was premiered for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 80th birthday party, two of the three composers made it to the Supreme Court with some local Chicago performers. There were mostly law clerks there—we were really the fish out of water on that one. We clearly didn’t talk the same language, but we were all brought together by that moment of music.

I also had a big premiere at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the League of American Orchestras Conference this past June for a piece called Forging Steel. It was about the steel industry of Pittsburgh, so I wanted to do something that would show off their city. There were about 1,100 orchestra people in the room who all heard my piece at the same time. That was such an incredible moment that I will always be proud of. I felt that I delivered the right piece at the right moment for people to realize a composer can deliver different messages, not just what they personally want to deliver.

Finally, do you have any advice for CYSO students, whether they be composers or instrumentalists?

Always be open to learning throughout your years, even when you’re not a student anymore. I think that’s one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. The beauty of life is that we keep learning and experiencing, and then reacting and bringing what we’re accumulating through our lifetimes out in our musical performances.

Always be open to learning and try to handle criticism as well as you can. I look at reviews and think, “That’s that person’s personal opinion, and it doesn’t reflect me or my music.” Try to develop that thick skin to get through what can be a very difficult career.

If you are really going for that long term career, make sure to get a website up as soon as you can so people can find you, especially if you’re thinking about being a composer. As you start to get more serious and go through school, if you don’t have a website, people won’t know you exist. As a performer too, it’s great to get up examples of your playing so people can hire you for gigs.

Remember, it’s great to be practicing and composing as much as we do, but we can also get a lot more inspiration if we take a little time off and take a walk outside.. Go find inspiration all around you, go have wonderful conversations with friends and colleagues. If some fabulous composer or performer comes into town, take them out to coffee! Just get to know them, and you never know if those relationships will ever turn into collaborations later in life.

ABOUT

Zhihanna LiuZhihanna Liu is a junior at York Community High School and a violinist. This is her third season participating in CYSO’s Social Media Team. Aside from playing the violin, Zhihanna loves reading, spending time with family and friends, and being outdoors.

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