Q&A: A Conversation with Composer Stacy Garrop

By Eric Dundon

Composer Stacy Garrop is drawn to storytelling in her music. From an early age, she knew that music is a powerful vessel for telling stories.

Composer Stacy Garrop (Joe Francavilla Photography)

On March 12-13, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will give the world premiere performances of Garrop’s Goddess Triptych, a commission by the League of American Orchestras with the generous support of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The piece evokes stories of three Hindu goddesses.


Garrop spoke with the SLSO about her inspirations, the stories she tells, and about working with the SLSO for the first time.

This interview with Stacy Garrop was condensed and edited for clarity and length.


St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Talk about your musical history.

Stacy Garrop: I grew up in California where the music situation in elementary schools was such that we didn't get any instruments to try out. But we DID have choir. So I began singing in choirs in third grade and that went all the way up through my Master’s degree. Along the way, I picked up alto saxophone in high school because I tried marching with the orchestral bells, and they were so heavy and unwieldy. I was determined to stay in marching band, so I picked up the alto saxophone and played that for years.


SLSO: A composer needs to know about how all the instruments in an orchestra operate. How did you get that experience?

Garrop: At the University of Michigan, it was very apparent that I didn't understand how a lot of these instruments functioned and that as a composer, if I had any hope of writing well for them, I needed to do so. I took one-on-one lessons with a teacher for French horn and with cello. I also took a group class for music education majors in percussion. Along the way I picked up lessons on harp and some other things as well. By the end of my studies, I understood how each instrument functions and hopefully that's improved how I write for the instruments.


SLSO: On March 12-13, the SLSO gives the world premiere of your piece, Goddess Triptych. Can you talk about the genesis of that piece?

Garrop: This began with a previous piece of mine called Shiva Dances. It was commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival. It occurred to me that Carlos Kalmar, who is the director of that orchestra, likes to dance on the podium. Everybody notices it during the concerts. I thought it would be really nice to capitalize on that sense of dancing. It also occurred to me that there is a beautiful bronze statue of Shiva with one leg midair and he's dancing the cosmic dance. This particular dance breaks apart one universe and begins the next. I thought it might be nice to have a companion piece for Shiva Dances, so this is what I proposed to the SLSO.


SLSO: That is such an interesting idea for a piece.

Garrop: I've been really interested in storytelling for a very, very long time in my music. With that in mind, I wanted to have a female goddess be paired with Shiva in my piece for the SLSO.


SLSO: The piece is titled Goddess Triptych, obviously implying three goddesses represented in the piece instead of one. How did you land on these goddesses?

Garrop: The duration of the piece for the SLSO is a little bit longer than Shiva Dances. In looking over a lot of the Hindu goddesses and their stories, there was something about the level of intricacy to a lot of these that I thought would be a little bit harder to tell in 10 to 15 minutes either because they were so intricate or I would only be able to tell a snippet, that I ended up deciding to tell brief snapshots of moments from three goddesses' stories.


SLSO: What are some of the stories you tell in this piece?

Garrop: In Durga battles a Buffalo Demon—hopefully that title alone gives you the idea that we're going to be hearing a fight—she's issuing a battle cry and it ends when she's slicing off the head of the buffalo demon. And then I came across these beautiful images of Lakshmi, this goddess who is the goddess of beauty and fertility and fortune, both spiritual and material. After all the chaos of the first movement, Lakshmi Sits on a Lotus Blossom opens with a solo piccolo. It's the quietest and highest little sound that we hear. The third moment is a bit of fun after what we've heard so far. That one is called Ganga Cascades from the Heavens. In this story, the God Vishnu kicks a hole in the wall of heaven and suddenly Ganga finds herself plummeting down to earth through this hole.


SLSO: There are a few themes that you return to in your work: faith, religion, icons, and even mysticism. What draws you these themes?

Garrop: I think it's really about the storytelling. I was six or seven years old when my parents took me to see West Side Story in a local production. At that age, from the moment I heard Tony sing, "Something's Coming," I was really hooked the power of storytelling. I tinkered with this idea of storytelling over and over again in different ways. But as I left school, this is when I finally asked myself, “what is it that I really want to say as a composer?” Part of my output is about different stories or mythologies, somewhat about religion but another part is political. I think we have these different buckets that we can be putting our resources and our time in. I feel if I'm achieving some balance between these then that's good.


SLSO: This will be your first time working with the SLSO and Music Director Stéphane Denève.

Garrop: Yes! St. Louis has a wonderful reputation. I can't wait to get a chance to work with the orchestra. Stéphane called me recently. He had already nitpicked through the entire score and identified all the tiny, tiny musical nuances. I'm just so impressed.


 

Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.