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Stacy Garrop: A Musical Storyteller

Graphic Credit: David Lee Csicsko

Stacy Garrop is a dramatic, lyrical musical storyteller. According to her website, “The sharing of stories is a defining element of our humanity; we strive to share with others the experiences and concepts that we find compelling.” She has received numerous grants and commissions from arts organizations across the United States, for which she has written a wide-ranging catalog of works for soloists, chamber ensembles, orchestras, choirs, and opera companies. Based in Illinois, she recently completed a three-year residency with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra and served as the first Emerging Opera Composer of Chicago Opera Theatre’s new Vanguard Initiative.

At this time, we are pleased to present the following Q&A with Stacy, and we continue to look forward to welcoming her to Madison.

When and how did you begin making and learning music? And when did you know that music would become your profession?

I started lessons on the piano at the age of five and took part in choirs starting in grade school.

By the time I got to high school, I began playing the alto saxophone as well. All of these were fun activities, but it wasn’t until I took a music theory class in my junior year of high school that I discovered composing. Early in the fall of that year, the theory teacher assigned us homework in which we were to write a piece of music. I had never tried composing before, and it was quite literally like a light switch was turned on in my mind, illuminating a room I never knew existed. I was entranced by the experience and wrote piece after piece from that point on. Within a few months, I found a local composer to study with on a weekly basis; I applied to music composition programs in colleges the following year. By the time I enrolled at the University of Michigan as a composition major, my mind was made up to become a professional composer.

Composer Stacy Garrop

Working in a variety of settings as a composer –– freelance, universities, arts organizations, orchestras, etc. –– what are the differences between each? What would you tell freelance composers now who may wish to one day teach at a university? What about composers in universities who wonder what life is like outside of the academy?

I spent sixteen years of my career teaching full time at Roosevelt University (2000-2016) before deciding to leave academia in order to embrace a freelance career. There are several differences between composing while college teaching and when being freelance. When I was in academia, my focus was on the teaching and functions of the university. This often meant that I could only get composing done during the summers in addition to occasional weekends. Now, as a freelance composer, I structure my schedule so that I’m engaged in the composing process nearly every day. This bodes well for freelance composing, since the majority of my income is derived from commissions and royalties on performances and score sales/rentals. Another difference is the amount of time it takes to write a piece. In academia, if a composer is not working on pieces with impending deadlines, a composer can take her time while composing, resulting in a writing process that can last months or more, depending on the size and scope of the piece. Not so with freelance composing! A composer needs to move the composing process along to write pieces in a shorter amount of time, in order to earn a steady stream of income. It greatly helps that I can now stay “in the zone” for days or weeks at a time when composing, which means I can complete a composition in less time than I could while teaching and still delve as deeply into the thought process as I previously did.

Stacy's Tension Chart from the piece Give Me Hunger

Finally, I am particularly aware of the types of pieces I write – what kind of piece is the commissioner looking for? Does she/he have a particular musical language in mind? Is the event where it will premiere celebratory, serious, etc.? What topic will make the commissioners happy with the piece I compose that I will also find personally inspiring? In academia, composers tend to write works that pique their own interest. I believe this comes down to money: full-time academic composers are typically making enough money from their university job that they don’t need to rely in commissions to pay the bills, and can therefore focus on whatever musical language or topic they wish, whereas freelance composers need to be more adept at a range of musical styles, genres, and topics to keep the income flowing.

How do you usually start your day?

I basically have one simple rule when I’m composing: I can’t do anything else in my day until I’ve gotten some composing done (besides eating meals). This reminds me to keep my focus on composing, and to not make any excuses about why I couldn’t get something written each day. This rule has worked well for me. Sometimes this means I can’t run an errand until 4 p.m. On particularly warm and sunny days, I’m inspired to work faster so I can get out into the sun sooner!

What is your favorite cocktail/dessert?


What is your motto?

I believe that we can learn something from anyone and any situation, if we are open to it. For instance, if I’m at a concert and find I’m not focusing well on a piece, I try to figure out what is it about the piece that isn’t capturing my attention, and how I might go about solving this if it were my own composition. Or if I’m talking to a group of young students, I am intrigued to hear what is important to them right now – what they are learning about in school, what cultural interests they have, and so on. This motto helps me to constantly grow my internal “database” of knowledge as well as my list of potential ideas for future projects and collaborations.

How did you first hear about LunART, and what was it about the festival that excited you most?

I am very enthusiastic about helping young female composers to not only discover what they want to say musically, but also to work on their business chops. In order to build a successful music career, composers need to take matters into their own hands by getting the training they need to run the various aspects of a music career, seeking out opportunities to get their music performed, building relationships with performers and artists in a variety of disciplines, and raising their visibility with a professional website and social media presence. The LunART Festival (which I first heard about via Facebook) is a fantastic way to make strides in all of these areas.

What advice would you give to younger musicians or composers who may attend the LunART concerts this year? What is the current arts landscape like, and what can they expect as they mature as artists?

As I write this, we are eight weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown here in Illinois. On March 12, the global music landscape literally changed overnight from a vibrant culture to a completely shuttered and quiet world. As devastating as the past few months have been for the worldwide population, I have been greatly heartened by the immense amount of creativity we are seeing rise up within our digital worlds. We don’t really know what concerts are going to look like for anyone for the near future, until at least a vaccine has been disseminated worldwide. But what is apparent is that if there’s a will, creativity will find a way. This is a moment for young musicians and composers to consider the technology currently available to us, and to brainstorm a list of projects that they’d want to try. This is also an opportune time to do some activities that musicians and composers need to do anyway, such as building and maintaining a professional website, reaching out for virtual coffee meetings with musicians or composers they’d like to potentially collaborate with, and to research the projects that they dream up, to learn how to bring these to fruition.

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