Courtesy of Darrell Hoemann Photography
Award-winning composer and Evanston resident Stacy Garrop premiered her orchestral piece virtually at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California on Aug. 9.
Inspired by the fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S., “The Battle for the Ballot” commemorated the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. COVID-19 forced musicians to find alternative modes of performance, such as this virtual video concert, which featured the festival orchestra and a narrator who recited quotes from black and white suffragists.
Garrop, whose music has been commissioned by orchestras and ensembles around the country, said the narration in the piece came as a special request from the festival.
“(The narration) changed the ballgame,” Garrop said. “You can speak text a lot more than you can sing it.”
Until late June, she had set the narration to be from an 1872 speech by Susan B. Anthony, delivered before she went to trial for voting, an illegal act for a woman at the time. Garrop acknowledged she had at the time been unaware of Anthony’s association with white supremacists and the extent to which she resisted suffrage for black women.
As she learned more about Antony’s controversial history in light of the protests following George Floyd’s death, Garrop set the original narrative aside. With only a few days until her deadline to rewrite the narration, she returned to her research — but this time looked for quotes from multiple black and white suffragists.
Garrop replaced most of Anthony’s texts with words from five black and two white suffragists to create a more representative narrative of the suffragists’ legacy and the challenges women of color faced.
“I feel like what makes this version so strong is that by (weaving the black and white suffragists’ words together) they are saying from all their different points of view, ‘We are all different, but we all have to have this vote,’” Garrop said.
She said she wants her composition to be reflective of “what’s important to us right now” as a society.
Garrop’s interest in composing music goes back to her teenage years. As a 15-year-old, she said she thought all the classical music had already been written until she took a music theory class at her high school in Danville, California. The instructor, her school’s jazz and marching band director, assigned her class to go home and write a piece of music.
“If (our teacher) hadn’t given us that homework assignment, I would not be a composer,” Garrop said. “It’s really quite that simple, which sounds insane because this is such a huge part of my life. For one reason or another I had not discovered it on my own.”
After writing her first compositions, a waltz for a boy she thought was cute and a piece for trumpet and piano, Garrop said she could not stop writing.
In February, a Bienen School of Music ensemble performed “Terra Nostra,” a piece for orchestra, choir and solo vocalists written by Garrop. The piece weaves through stories of the creation of the world, the rise of humanity and eventually calls for harmonious balance between humans and nature.
The conductor of the performance, Stephen Alltop, said Garrop showed real genius in constructing “Terra Nostra.” He said he particularly appreciated the way in which she began the work with Walt Whitman’s “A Blade of Grass” and returned to it in the last movement.
“I think good composers know the value of giving listeners something and returning to it before the piece is over,” Alltop said.
Garrop participated in rehearsals, which Alltop said is important for music students when they play pieces by living composers.
“(When) you get someone like Stacy, you have both a very experienced composer and somehow who is always (willing to listen to musicians’ suggestions),” Alltop said.
Although Garrop was able to physically join the Bienen students in February for their rehearsals at the Alice Millar chapel for “Terra Nostra,” the June 11 rehearsal for “The Battle for the Ballot” had to be held online through video conferencing. Garrop recognized the unusual circumstance of rehearsing online, thanking the musicians for being part of “this crazy process.”
The sixty musicians rehearsed from their homes, and rather than playing the piece together in a concert hall, they recorded their parts individually to a click track and sent two complete takes of their audio and video to the sound engineer and videographer. The engineer and videographer then synthesized all of the parts together.
Garrop said recording the takes was difficult because airplanes flying overhead or pets knocking household items around would occasionally disrupt a recording.
Three time Grammy-winning flutist and Chicago resident Timothy Munro, who participated in the concert, said recording for “The Battle for the Ballot” was a unique experience. As an orchestral player, he said he was used to listening and responding to other players in the moment and experiencing the music as he was playing live.
Considering classical music is largely historically composed by white men, Munro said the relevance of playing a piece by and about women was really powerful, adding it is essential that music tells the stories of our time, sounding, looking and being like the society that is right now.
“It’s a great moment for these conversations (about diversity) — and that they’re not just conversations, but they become action,” Munro said.
Garrop said musicians are trying to make change but there is no one way to do it, adding she wants her music to communicate what society has achieved and hopes yet to accomplish.
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Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of concerts performed by Garrop at a certain time. The Daily regrets the error.
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