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In 2016 Evanston’s Stacy Garrop took the bold step of quitting her job as a tenured music professor at Roosevelt University. She wanted to dedicate herself to composing classical music. Since then, she’s been on a roll, winning commissions to compose and positions as a composer-in-residency. She’s also come to grips with the fact that to be a successful freelance composer, she must also be an intrepid businesswoman.
A lyrical story teller is how Ms. Garrop sees herself, taking her audiences “on sonic journeys – some simple and beautiful” and others “complicated and dark.” Her subjects are wide-ranging, from Medusa to Mahalia Jackson to Eleanor Roosevelt, from The Trumpets of Jericho, drawn from the Bible, to The Flight of Icaraus, drawn from Greek myths.
Her music is performed at music halls and churches across the country, from Carnegie Hall to San Francisco’s First Unitarian Church. Or, like early this month at Chicago’s 4th Presbyterian Church where the Apollo Chorus of Chicago’s spring concert featured two Garrop works: “I Shall Forget You Presently,” a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay set to music, and an arrangement of Hava Nagila.
“It has been my privilege to perform Stacy Garrop’s music for many years,” says Stephen Alltop, the long-time music director and conductor of the Apollo Chorus. She is one of the most “imaginative composers in our country today” and has “a marvelous sensitivity to text and vocal color. She has been commissioned by ensembles such as Chanticleer, Chicago a cappella and the Kronos Quartet.”
In 2019 Mr. Alltop will conduct the Midwest premiere of Ms. Garrop’s Terra Nostra, an oratorio that he calls “a major work about our planet.”
In addition to choral works, Ms. Garrop writes for orchestras, string quartets, piano trios, saxophone quartets, the whole gamut. Her work wins praise from music critics as “innovative,” “scintillating” and just plain “good stuff.”
Music has always been part of Stacy Garrop’s life. She grew up in northern California’s East Bay area, starting piano lessons at age five, singing in choirs from third grade through graduate school and playing saxophone in the high school marching band.
A pivotal change came during her junior year in high school. In an AP music theory class, the teacher told everyone to go home and write something. “If he hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t be a composer today. Simple as that,” she says.
At age 16, she wrote her first piece – a trumpet solo, or maybe it was a duet. She can’t remember which. However, she sure remembers the writing, she says, because “After that, I couldn’t stop.”
In an interview with New Music USA, she said, ”It was like this door opened that had always been shut. Suddenly there it is and you’re looking at a whole new room, and all these colors are there. I just didn’t want to leave it.”
She began studying with a family friend who was a composer. “He taught me the basics,” she said, “how to assimilate what I was hearing.” Every week he sent her home with a stack of CDs, immersing her in all kinds of music. The two summers before college, she attended a five-week program in New Hampshire, the Walden School for Young Composers.
At the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition in 1992, Ms. Garrop learned to play the cello and French horn. “I had no idea how string or brass instruments worked,” she said, “and this lack of understanding was hampering my ability to write effectively for these instrumental families.”
Ms. Garrop went on to earn a master of arts in music composition at the University of Chicago in 1995 and then a doctor of music (DM) in music composition at Indiana University in 2000. Throughout her graduate work, she composed many pieces and was awarded residencies at several artist colonies, including Yaddo, MacDowell and, closer to home, Ragdale. At these art communities afar from everyday cares, she sank into her writing until evenings when she shared a dinner table with artists of all kinds, novelists, poets, painters, sculptors – a real plus, she remembers, because those dinner conversations made her better understand the creative process and how all artists, no matter the medium, work to move from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’
Doctorate in hand, Ms Garrop returned to Chicago to join the music faculty at Roosevelt University. She taught there for 16 years, 2000-2016. Then she quit. She loved teaching, she said, but needed more time to compose.
She learned quickly that composing wasn’t enough. She needed to sell her work, get her name out there, be her own marketer. She accomplished that in a variety of ways.
Early on, she girded herself up to cold-call scores of choir directors and follow up by sending a CD and score. It was lots of work, “frankly, lots of getting nowhere, but it paid off,” she said. She figured it took only one director to choose that piece, allowing others to hear it, leading to more choir directors asking for her music and sometimes for commissioned work.
She has found positions as a composer-in-residence invaluable for her writing and for establishing connections with performers, conductors and choir directors. Ms. Garrop is currently a composer-in-residence for the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, 2016-19, and the Chicago Opera Theater, 2018-20.
Ms. Garrop is relentless when it comes to entering contests as a way to earn a cash prize, a commissioned piece and a performance. Since leaving Roosevelt, she has won the 2016 Meier Achievement Award for “Chicago-based artists in mid-career who push the artistic envelope” and the 2016 and 2018 Barlow Endowment commission prize.
She has also won commissions from foundations and orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award in 2007. It was the first memorial prize given by the DSO, for which she wrote Becoming Medusa. In 2009 the Albany Symphony commissioned The Lovely Sirens and The Fates of Man. The Chicago College of Performing Arts then commissioned Penelope Waits and Pandora Undone.
Through this succession of commissions, she completed her Mythology Symphony, five tonal poems moving from the beautiful Medusa turning into a hideous gorgon to Pandora opening that tempting box.
Ms. Garrop is spending more time composing now, but she has also had to become a disciplined businesswoman, promoting her career and, as she puts it, “chasing down every opportunity.”
She recognizes the importance of this aspect of her career so much that she conducts workshops on the business of freelance composing and stresses it on her blog, Composer Inklings. Still a teacher eager to pay forward what she knows, Ms. Garrop uses the blog to demystify composing and the business of music composition with posts titled: In the Trenches of Running a Freelance Career, Newby in the Studio about recording, What Do Baseball and Beethoven Have in Common?
Tension! and The Composing Process: From the First Note to the Final Score.
Day by day, week by week, Stacy Garrop is fulfilling her own blog guidelines, including the one to “remember to dream big and revisit your dreams on a regular basis.” Her dream is to write an opera. A composer in residence right now with the Chicago Opera Theater, she has plans on the drawing board for a 60-minute and a 10-minute opera.“And when I finish them,” she says, “I hope they’ll be a launching pad for more.”
Ms. Garrop writes at home. She has lived in north Evanston since the mid-2000s with her husband, Joseph Francavilla, who is the music director at Countryside Montessori School in Northbrook. She writes in a studio equipped with a synthesizer connected to her computer. The studio is painted purple, one wall bedecked with nature photographs and artists’ postcards of their sculpture, thread work, brass objects and paintings.
For Ms. Garrop, research precedes any actual writing – research into the kind of musical pieces she’s writing, the instruments she’s writing for, the group she’s writing for. She takes notes on everything that will help her later when she’s brainstorming about what her composition will be about, what story she might tell, what mood it might suggest, what’s important to her to include.
Writing comes next, and Ms. Garrop readily acknowledges that starting to write is the hardest part of composing. She always starts with a pencil and a blank sheet of staff paper, the simple tools of her youth. Back then, she had to imagine how her composition would sound from how the notes looked on paper. She figures her generation is probably the last one to rely on pencil and paper because, by the time she was in graduate school, computer notation programs were introduced, allowing composers to write directly into the computer and then listen to what they wrote.
With pencil and paper in hand, Ms. Garrop’s thoughts sometimes turn to cleaning the condo or anything but sitting there with that daunting, empty page. To get her pencil moving, she relies on a personal daily challenge to write a minute of music a day for seven days.
The minute-a-day challenge forces her to write down her ideas, no matter how short, or bad or quirky. Each minute doesn’t have to be great or even good, she says, but it does have to be a full minute. “Even though it’s only a minute of music, it adds up,” she says. At the end of seven days, she has seven minutes of music to sort through. She says, “It gives me some choice about where I want to go and reminds me I don’t have to stick with my first impulse.”
She selects the music parts she finds strong and intriguing and begins embellishing them, seeing where they lead. She chooses different pitches and rhythms, which instruments to highlight, which melodies to stretch. Then, as her musical material becomes more substantial, she creates the formal structure, what she calls a roadmap for the entire piece.
Once she’s got the roadmap, she’s on her way because she knows where she’s going. The final touches to a composition include putting all the notes into the computer and adding all the nuanced details. After proofreading the score, she creates scores for each instrument followed by more proofreading.
And that’s how Stacy Garrop’s music winds up written, refined, published and performed. As successful as she is now, she says she will never forget “The first time singers performed something I wrote. It was astonishing.” That’s what concert goers say, too.