Meet the Composer
“...Don't hold any one [note] too precious. Just make sure that you are constantly learning and constantly growing.”
Connection. If I could boil down my conversations with Chicago based composer, Stacy Garrop, into a single word, this would be it. Now, it is true that many composers and artists speak of connection and the subsequent importance of drawing such a connection between their music and the audience. However, I was intrigued by Ms. Garrop’s clear depiction of the value in connecting with not only the piece’s narrative and the listener’s perception, but also with genuine individuality of oneself. As I spoke to Ms. Garrop, I found myself captivated by her discussions surrounding the balance between “blending in” and establishing one’s raw and undisguised personality. From my time diving into her music, I do believe that this unapologetic connection to herself and her ability to extend this connection through her music is the element most enthralling within Ms. Garrop’s music.
In late April, I was fortunate to attend the Nebraska premiere of Quicksilver as performed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Wind Ensemble, with Dr. Paul Haar appearing as soloist. At an approximate twenty-five minutes in length, one might wonder if the piece could become stagnant, resulting in fidgeting limbs and people shuffling in their seats. I, however, was delighted to discover a piece that was inviting and invigorating from start to finish. Aside from a top notch performance, I was easily transported into the stories of the Roman God, Mercury. Further, I felt myself experiencing Stacy Garrop’s interpretation of the story. Despite having already spent several hours in interview with the composer prior to the performance, afterward, I felt like my connection with her had grown deeper that it had previously. She is truly a composer that puts her whole self into her compositions.
During our interview, Ms. Garrop recalled her first piece for saxophone quartet being entitled “Soaring Eagle.” I find this interesting because I find “soaring” to be a common thread throughout her compositions, primarily in her soaring, lyrical melodies which compliment and contrast intricately composed technical passages. For me, two compositions stood out in particular, 1998’s “Fragmented Spirit” and “Tantrum,” written in 2000. Most impressive to me is Garrop’s ability to maintain a natural progression of the story while likewise upholding a technical, modern approach. In “Phoenix Rising,” a work for solo soprano saxophone (or alternatively solo flute or solo clarinet), Garrop explores the vast palette of colors the saxophone has to offer. By manipulating the saxophone’s unique capabilities, Garrop is able to morph her juxtaposed lyrical and technical episodes into independent voices ranging from pleading to haunting to jubilant to majestic.
Regarding works for larger ensembles, Garrop’s octet “Jarba, Mare Jarba” features a gorgeous chorale that nearly brought me to tears the first time I heard it. A great illustration of her knack for storytelling, this piece expresses “the longing to return to one’s homeland.” The interspersed up-tempo sections are celebratory and reflective of happier times and memories. The story continues, however, as Garrop abruptly cuts them off with a return to the heartbreaking chorale, with a soloist weeping and crying out above the texture, reflecting the reality of the protagonist’s homeland. “Stubborn as Hell” for soprano saxophone duet is reminiscent of the writing style heard in “Phoenix Rising,” as Garrop’s primary tool seems to be color and its impact on character. “Stubborn as Hell” requires immense concentration from both performers, as the difficulty in the parts asks for the performers to both use “blinders” as to maintain their relative “stubbornness” to their own part and individuality, while also allowing themselves to effectively communicate with their partner.
This brings me to my two personal favorite Garrop compositions, “Flight of Icarus” for SATB saxophone quartet and “Pieces of Sanity” for alto saxophone and piano. The former speaks to me, primarily because my greatest tools as a composer are lyricism and counterpoint. I find these two concepts highly at work throughout this composition. Each of the saxophones is in conversation with the others and no element of capability is left unexplored. Garrop has utilized the saxophone’s incredible ability to blend, creating a string or even organ-like quality. Likewise, she has utilized extended techniques unique to the saxophone, beautiful and captivating harmonies, and wonderful, aforementioned soaring harmonies. This quartet was commissioned by the Capitol Quartet, who likewise commissioned another new quartet by Ms. Garrop, “Hell Hath No Fury,” for which they have exclusive performance rights until July 13, 2019.
“Pieces of Sanity” brings us full circle, back to the idea of connection. If ever there were a piece to draw the listener into Stacy Garrop’s inner thought circle, this would be the piece. Split into five movements: Rage, Despair, Euphoria, Possessed, and Stoic, each with their own individual story and character. To me, this piece is inspiring and most indicative of Garrop’s personality of a composer. I won’t spoil the piece too much; I believe it is one worth listening to without much prior influence. However, I will leave with this final thought. This piece, and Garrop’s music in general, is compelling not because it conveys emotion or conveys a story. There is a great deal of music in the world that accomplishes these two things. Stacy Garrop’s music draws us in because it conveys her depiction of specific emotions and her retelling of a familiar story; every time we hear a Stacy Garrop piece, we are meeting another piece of her personality, her beliefs, and her character.
The Saxophonist: If you could start by talking a bit about your compositional background, studies, early career, teachers...
Stacy Garrop: Well I started on piano when I was five and then I sang in choirs a couple years later, but it wasn’t until high school that I got interested in marching band and concert band and that’s because, well, I wanted to be in band. And my friend said try the saxophone so I picked up the saxophone and it was really glorious. Then in my junior year of high school, there was a music theory class. So because I was in choirs and concert band and marching band, I took it. And the teacher, for a homework assignment, said go write a piece of music and I had never thought about composing until that moment. So after or during that assignment, it’s like a door opened up in my mind in a room that had never been opened before and I couldn’t close it ever again. Once I finished that piece I wrote another and then another and within a short amount of time, my family and I realized that I should get to an actual teacher. So, there was a Bay area composer named H. David Hogan; he’s since passed away, but he was my first composition teacher. And he basically helped me in the space of a little less than a year to get ready to apply to colleges. So by my senior year, I was applying to composition programs around the country.
I decided to go to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor because it had a nice big faculty and a lot of opportunities. From there, I studied with a man named George Balch Wilson; he was a phenomenal teacher. I also studied with Leslie Bassett and Michael Daugherty during my time there. After that, I wanted to see if it made a difference studying with a female composer. There weren’t that many back in that day. So, I went to the University of Chicago to study with Shulamit Ran for my masters. As it turns out, it really doesn’t matter, I think in terms of compositional technique – technique is just technique. That’s all it is. But she was a great role model. Because there were so few women in my field. She was in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago at the same time. And she was pregnant and had huge hair and she was wearing a red and hot pink dress. I thought, “Wow, she is not afraid to be exactly who she is.” I had an interview a week or two before with another woman on a different faculty who was wearing a grey suit and looked like she's trying to blend into the walls and just was only situations where I realized if I had the choice between role models I'm going to choose the one that looks like she's going all in on being who she is. And it could be the other woman just liked grey suits, I don’t know.
But I went to the University of Chicago and after two years though I realized, actually about one year, that is great as it is to have a female mentor, the school was not right for me. I needed to be back in a performance element. University of Chicago is a research school so that there weren't really any performers walking around and the performance opportunities were very limited. So, I went to Indiana University in Bloomington in order to have a lot of performers around. I also taught composition for two years and then music theory for two years while I was there because I realized the University of Chicago. They had us all get up and teach for about 20 minutes one day and I realized I couldn't do it. If I wanted to be a teacher, I was gonna have to figure out how to do it. So I chose the school that actually gave me the teaching experience when I walked in the door. And I didn't have any female role models after that, but I did study with Claude Baker who was a wonderful teacher. Eugene O'Brien who is really a dean. He became a dean when I was a student and he writes well too but I don't know if he's really turned out that many works. Oh, and Frederick Fox who wrote a lot for saxophone was my teacher did he. And then from there. I graduated in 2000 and I had auditioned for Roosevelt University's composition job and I got it. So I went right from graduation into the job at Roosevelt and there I was for sixteen years before I quit.
TS: The next question kind of ties into what you were talking about...about being a female composer and just being a female in this sect of the world. You know there's a lot more now, but there weren’t as many women in this field for a long time. I’m especially I'm interested as a female composer to know what you feel are the challenges and what are the positives of that and what do you feel you can bring because of that background? What do you feel are the limitations or are there any?
SG: Well I was at Michigan in 1988 through ‘92. So back then, it still wasn't all that accepted for women to be in that field. When I was there, I was the only undergraduate female. In the classes that came after me, there were more that started entering. There were graduate female composers, and those took me aside and said, “Watch out for that teacher and that teacher and that teacher.” And what they meant is those are the teachers that are going to hit on you. And it was very true. So you had to just be very careful. Once or twice I walked into a situation where I didn't realize a teacher was about to hit on me and it actually kept me from going into conducting as a result. So there was that. The other side of that, too, was simply that I don't think they mentored women the same way they mentored men. (At least back in that era). And I didn't really know that. You don't know what you're missing because they don't tell you what you’re missing. But it became clear along the way that a lot of the other male composers are being invited out– over to the house of a mentor for dinner and conversation or going to a pub after a concert to talk about the concert. So that's when you begin to realize, “Okay, I am missing something.” And at that point I learned how to drink beer and talk about football, so I could take on more male attributes. And that allowed me to then blend in better. That way, they didn't see me really as a woman, but just as someone or one of the guys that could go out and talk about these things. I don't know if that's true for this generation now, but back in the 80s and 90s, that's what I did to really blend in. So I know that is one of the problems that is still happening.
I wrote very aggressive music as well too; I made sure to show that I can write just as well as anybody. I've been teaching at Fresh Ink festival, or I had been for about six years total. And one of the last years I taught– it must have been around 2017– some of the women composers there were talking about how they're still being told their music sounded too feminine or too much like a girl. I can't believe that here we are in 2019, and we're still dealing with those kinds of issues. But maybe it's just human nature that people are going to find a way to put someone else in a box or deal with someone who's different from yourself. I don't know ,but I'm just fortunate that I feel like my career is far enough along I don't really have to deal with that part anymore. I just wish that people younger than I am wouldn't have to deal with it either. So that said, I have to admit it's kind of fun when all the men have to wear suits onstage– gray suits, black suits, whatever– and we can walk out in a dress of any color we want.
TS: That kind of goes back to what you're talking about with the first kind of female role model you had in composition...
SG: Yeah, having the huge hair...because her hair was always just ginormous...with the really bright dress and the fact that she was about seven or eight months pregnant at the time, it was like “Yes, she really can't have it all.” And you don't have to feel like you have to blend in. I mean, yeah, I did my bit of blending in with the beer and the football, but I figured out that this was out of necessity in order to be involved in the conversation. What I was reacting to with the other female teacher that I had gone to interview with, is that she was at a point where I would assume she didn't have to be that way anymore and to see someone still doing that kind of blending in again made me realize that's not what I want permanently from my life.
TS: Which composers do you feel are your biggest influences? And then also non-composer musicians that have influenced you? Then finally non-composers or musicians, just people?
SG: For, the first category, George Crumb has probably been one of the biggest influences, mostly because he really evokes the whole time period or another place than where we are in reality. He finds a way to make each experience very unique, and I think he was one of the first people that got on my radar that was like, “Yeah, that's what I want.” I'm going to tell stories, but I also want to create a world that isn't necessarily the one we're in right now.
Someone like Dimitri Shostakovich, I find very helpful as a composer because for me the strongest music parameters are form and tension/relaxation We also talk about pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and all these other things, but I think unless you have good control over form and tension and relaxation, almost nothing else matters in the piece– unless you’re someone like Steve Reich. And even if you’re Steve Reich, there’s a certain amount of tension when you’re moving in and out of these cycles. So, Dimitri Shostakovich really understood how to handle those specific things. And so that's why, for me, I tend to look at a lot of this chamber music and his symphonies in order to understand how he put that together. Even someone like Beethoven had it figured out. If you look at something like Beethoven against Mozart, Mozart was thinking pretty close to the formula and Beethoven kept taking the formula and pushing it as far as it would go. So even his very first symphony opens up in a V7 chord. Instead of on the tonic, it’s on the dominant and even more, the dominant that wants to resolve. And who would have the guts to do that back in that time frame? So I think that's critical.
I think in the second category [non-composer musicians], it really has to do with watching different musicians play. Not that this makes a difference, but I remember seeing so many saxophonists in school playing David Maslanka. And just hearing the qualities that they could get out of Maslanka’s works really influenced the way I began to think about saxophone. And the same could be said with piano or guitar or anything else. Who are the people that I'm working with that are able to coax these particular sounds out of an instrument that I might not have thought about?
TS: So it's almost like when you write it's for, not necessarily specific people, but just specific sounds that you heard?
SG: Yeah there's parts of Maslanka’s opening of his alto sax sonata that have always hung with me. I heard Steven Stusek play it at Indiana University– that's the first time I heard it. And that really innocent quality is written in the score, but Steven was able to portray it, and I thought, “Wow, I didn't know the saxophone could sound that way and how can I replicate that eventually into a piece? So that was very very striking. And I think the same is true with Winston Choi, who is a pianist. And the way he plays is very different from the way that Kuang-Hao Huang plays, who is another pianist in Chicago. He's a collaborative pianist, so he tends to play with singers a lot. But the way that he treats that piano is different from most other collaborative pianists. So, I guess it really tends to be musician specific and watching, especially when I'm writing for them if I'm commissioned to write a piece for them, I want to try to bring out certain qualities that I’m seeing in what they do.
The last category [non composers or musicians] is a hard one… I think that one has to do with the way I work when I'm writing as I usually base on a story or something that I want to get across. So I wrote a piece about Eleanor Roosevelt, and that piece was really delving into Eleanor's beliefs. And that might, I don't think that's quite the question you're asking, like that for me that's piece specific. I like to see who's really inspirational for me at whatever moment that is. Over all though, it might be someone more like Barack Obama because regardless of whether or not he did everything he should have done as a president, he's still striving to try to make a difference. So in Chicago, on the south side, he's begun the Obama Foundation. The Obama Foundation is to help train the next series of leaders and they're from all over the world. And he has a conference every year and these leaders get together– these future leaders– and some of them are on scholarship to be there and they're learning from each other and the sessions. And so I think for me, just saying that even after doing what is considered the top job in the US, he is constantly redefining who he is, what he can do, and how it can still help. So, I think I find that very inspiring.
TS: So what do you feel your strengths and weaknesses are as a composer?
SG: It's funny, whenever I ask that question of students, they always start with their weaknesses. I'm not sure why, maybe to get them out of my way.
TS: I think maybe those are easier to admit, because you think about them more.
SG: Perhaps, maybe that's a good way of looking at it. Or maybe you don't want to seem like you're egotistical to start off with the strengths. Perhaps, maybe. But I don't know, maybe you're right, maybe it’s because these students know what they need to work on.
For me, my strengths are that I really have identified what I do well. I think what I mean by that is I know I'm really good at this sort of storytelling. So if you just let me do my thing, I tend to do really well. That usually holds up for most pieces. Every now and then, someone might want a piece that's on a different idea and it might just take me awhile to get my head wrapped around it and then I’m fine. I'm also extremely type A, so what that means is that the business half being a composer really is part of what I've been doing all my life. I think that is one of the hardest things about being a composer. It isn't actually the composing part; It's how do you manage to be your own businessman too? Even with a publisher and having things put out on CDs, none of that alone is really what's going to make you succeed. So I think having those two things in place really helps.
Weaknesses...I wish I were a conductor. Quite frankly, I wish I could have ignored what happened in school and just said, “you know what, I'm going to put up with that crap and just go out and learn how to be a conductor.” I also wish I was a performer. I can sing in choirs fine, but I never got any particular instrument up to the level that you'd want to pay to hear me play. So in some ways, I do see those as weaknesses as I move through my career, because I have a good set of skills and I can organize things like crazy, but I can't get on a stage and help do something if a pianist falls through or something, I'm not able to help that situation.
TS: So this kind of dovetails off of that, but throughout your whole compositional career what's the thing that you feel that you're most proud of that you've accomplished?
SG: Well there's two thoughts that are happening with that. One is figuring out how we as composers want to help change the world and hopefully make people think about how we might leave the world in a better place than where we found it. And to that end, I wrote an oratorio called Terra Nostra, and it's recently gotten a second performance. And that performance went out online, so I can actually start to aim people towards that and say, “Okay, here, take a listen, let's see if we get the message out.” And it's really about how can we save the planet. It can be hard to be political as a composer because you don't want to turn people off from what you’re doing. But at the same time I think it's important to realize where you should take a stand. What's so important to you that you want to take a stand? So, for me I think that piece will always take a special place in my heart and in my career because it really was me planting my feet and taking a stand.
Now the other thing is I wanted to go into opera for a very long time and for a while, somewhere in the middle of my career, I completely forgot about that when I was so entrenched with teaching lessons and faculty meetings and everything else. And I felt I had a wake up call where I realized, “Oh yeah ,I remember now this is what my aim has been all along.” And so in 2016, I finally quit my job so I could change careers. And that really has made a difference in my life. I'm not an opera composer completely yet; I'm a piece premiering in a week– a little piece– but I'm on that path for the first time in a long time and it feels really good.
TS: It's exciting to think about. This kind of might get into the fact that you were a saxophonist getting into it, but which piece was your very first work for a saxophone and what was the inspiration for that? Was it an assignment? Or was it inspired by someone or just because you liked the instrument? I guess, what kind of got you started on the train of writing for the saxophone, which is a big adventure in itself to become a saxophone composer...
SG: Well because I was playing saxophone in marching band and then in concert band, during the off season, there were a number of saxophonists that were there. And I think we had at least five or six saxophonists and I wanted to write a saxophone quartet, because it doesn't take you long to figure out if you write for your friends, they can play it and you can hear what it sounds like. So sometime in my senior year, I wrote a piece called “Soaring Eagle” and I don't know where I came up with that title, but it was a saxophone quartet and I got my friends to read it and I don't remember much about it. I don't remember the score. But I could still hear about two or three measures of it in my head and that was such a glorious sound to hear what they were doing. But the reason I ended up writing so much for saxophone is because I ended up at two major saxophone schools without meaning to.
I chose Michigan because of the faculty and Donald Sinta was there, so you had a whole bunch of people coming through– including Christopher Creviston, who's been one of my longest time collaborators even up to the present. He and I are constantly talking about potential new works or things that I can arrange for...he had me arrange a choir piece of mine this year than and it was it's really it's awesome I love that we have that connection. Indiana University was the other big one with Eugene Rousseau, who left around the same time that I graduated. So once again I was meeting all of these fabulous saxophone players. And remember in music schools, at least back in that time, and I'm assuming it's somewhat true even now, It was always hard to find string players liked to play new works. They were always busy with orchestra and chamber ensembles. Saxophone, on the other hand, had not as many assignments for groups as well as the fact that they had such a little repertoire compared to 400 years of string quartet music. So I think a lot of us back in those schools were writing a lot for saxophones because they were eager for music.
TS: And kind of going into that...what is your favorite– or this might not be the same thing– favorite or most successful piece you feel that you've written for a saxophone? And they might not be the same piece...
SG: Yeah it's a good question. Again, “Tantrum” is done well but that one has been around for a very long time. So I think “Phoenix Rising,” which is very recent might be one that's really taken off because it's just one player. It's, yeah it's challenging, because it was written for Christopher; he commissioned it, and his upper range, his altissimo range, is quite developed at this point that we've got some challenges there. Well, what I ended up doing with that piece was making arrangements for solo flute as well solo clarinet. So all three versions are getting out at once and that seems to be helping and to get out more. So I know “Pieces of Sanity” is also getting a number of performances. I don't know that I wrote up a slew of them recently– “Archangels” and “Suenos de Flamenco,” which are both under exclusivity, but I think they both have the potential to take off once they're out. And “Jarba, Mare Jarba,” the octet piece.
Some of the earlier stuff wasn't... I wasn't thinking as commercially, not commercially as in what sounds like it's maybe a pop market or something, just what would be fun for someone to play. What was a good challenge, but was still within the capability. So I'd be very curious to see what happens with “Suenos de Flamenco” when it's released out of exclusivity. That's the one for alto sax and guitar and it barely touches the altissimo range, it goes into one note above it and that's it. So that alone may just make it work... It's still it's a fun little piece. It's five minutes, so it might make for a very good concert opener or a closer.
TS: What about your favorite? Do you have a favorite or is that like how parents aren’t supposed to pick their favorite child? I mean, can you really pick a favorite composition?
SG: Yeah it's not really what's a favorite. I mean, I have in my mind what is the most perfect composition I’ve written. And it's not actually for saxophone, it’s for voice and piano and it's called “My Dearest Ruth.” And it's about, it's the final letter that Martin Ginsburg wrote to his wife who is Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There's something about the piano/voice version of it where every note feels exactly right and it's kind of hard to explain but it's every now and then I write a piece where, most of it's like “wow, I know this is on the right spot. Everything is working out.” But there might be a note or two, I just never feel like...I might never find that right note.
But something about “My Dearest Ruth” feels like every note is in the right place. In terms of saxophone writing, I don't know, I think the problem is as you get older, the further you get away from writing any piece of music, you start to see what I call holes in the music. So things that are good when you write it– I don't know how you feel but when you're writing music– that you're like, “Wow, this is it. I can tell this makes sense, it works.” But then like maybe two years later, five years later we start thinking, I guess I could've done better here.
I haven't hit that with “Phoenix Rising” or really with “Flight of Icarus” yet. I know “Flight of Icarus” is challenging and even “Pieces of Sanity.” But for me it really is “My Dearest Ruth.” It feels even now and it's almost complete. Yeah, we're six years out now from when I wrote it. And every note still feels exactly right.
In fact it was just done on the saxophone. Last week. So there's a version now for clarinet, violin, cello and piano which the singer who commissioned it, one of the commissioners is taking it on tour and doing it as part of a whole new “Notorious RBG in SONG.” She's now touring with her own song cycle about RBG, plus my piece, and one by Vivian Fung, in which the text was written where RBG apparently is a very bad cook. And, while this is very well documented, actually that there is a silly text that was written by Richie's daughter Jane about just how much she burns a pot roast. So all that's part of something nice and light to compliment everything because most the songs like the one that Patrice Michaels wrote the major part of the concert tour is really about how difficult it has been to get women to be accepted into not only the law field but then to be on the Supreme Court. And so that the texts trace from before RBG is born all the way up through her current thoughts. So it's a pretty powerful piece, but they've included my little piece in it, which is wonderful but then they said okay we want everyone to orchestrate it for the set of instruments.
Last week, instead of using a clarinet they used a soprano saxophone, which was interesting. Clarinet just has a little bit lower range. So it's interesting to hear when you get the soprano saxophone that low. Actually it's going to be really hard to keep that soft and if you try to lighten up, the pitch can be an issue, so everything is a challenge and a balance.
TS: Is that weird for you to hear your piece in a different way than you originally imagined it or is that just part of it?
SG: I think there are composers that have trouble with that. I have some friends that say they only hear something one way and that's that. And because I've said “Well if you orchestrated this for this instrument instead of that, that you might tap into a whole new audience” kind of like what I've done with “Phoenix Rising” and the composer has said, “No, I just hear it this way. And that's just the way it is.” I think that's realizing one's limitations if you have them. For me, I’m like “If I can give more people the experience of playing this piece and make them happy doing it and I can perhaps earns more income doing that too, I think that it works out.” I don't seem to be all that picky about the vehicle.
TS: I got kind of a tough one next, but how would you personally define success? Because we've talked about pieces that you find successful or things you're proud of or have found successful, but something that I think young composers struggle with a lot is how to define success and if they're being successful. So how would you, in your own words, define that word?
SG: Well I think from all the years of teaching that I did the answer is exactly what you're saying. How do you define success for yourself?
Because to plenty of academic composers, meaning that they teach in academia, success is having a studio of students and writing a piece or two occasionally. And that's absolutely fine. There's no real right or wrong answer. I think what it comes down to is do you equate success with income? If you do and which, in the case of a freelancer you have to, are you writing in a style that's commercially viable that people are going to want to purchase and have listened to and play. So I think for me, success is: am I writing enough music that will be commercially viable? And that also will make me happy? If I had been writing in a far more academic style, I probably would have never been able to take the leap out of academia. But my music is in the style that audiences seem to enjoy and that is made it all easier to make that transfer. So I think that for me is what success is, is can I commercially stay afloat or financially stay afloat? Is it meeting enough success that people are wanting to program it and let me still stay out of academia?
I should mention, I think that the success of the piece ultimately is independent from all that. Do you feel like you've been successful in saying you need to say?
TS: Not necessarily if that piece has made an income but just if you feel like you've told the story like you went out to tell?
SG: Yes I think there's a couple of different types of success and one is just simply have you done the best job you can possibly do in saying what you want to say in each piece, but with that in mind are you writing enough that will bring in an income?
I didn't realize, you know, when you're an academia and you have that salary coming in each month, it can be hard to picture how do you make a living off of just being a composer? And it's not till you kick yourself out of academia to say “Okay here you go. What do you have to do to stay afloat? It becomes apparent, Everything I was doing before; It's not like I'm changing much of anything that's why I'm saying I feel like I was lucky that my style is the type that is commercially successful. But it's still, there's other things you can do besides that, besides composing...
TS: I feel like that's a challenge for a lot of composers that do write in the academic style to take that leap because they feel like they have to compromise part of their artistic voice to make that leap.
SG: And what you can do this if that's true, if your style is more academically inclined and you're not going to be as commercially successful, maybe you find a compromise. So one of my friends who's a choir conductor/composer, he will do a computer job for six to eight months and make a lot of income that way. And then when that temporary job is over, then he'll compose for a chunk of time like six or eight months whatever and then keeps cycling back and forth between the two worlds. So the point is, there's no one way to craft a career. We can do whatever we want. If your brain works best in these spurts where you go off and do one thing and make the money and then you've bought yourself that time to be a composer.
TS: Oh, that's really cool. My brain works very in the all or nothing way. So I never even thought of that as a possibility or someone. It's a neat thought.
SG: Yeah he's developed his computer skills to a point where he can go in and command a salary for that, but I think what it means is that maybe in school we've been kind of all primed to be going right back into academia ourselves or to be thinking about this, “We have to be composing all the time.” Well what if your brain doesn't work best that way? So, I think the whole trick to going to school is to figure out how our brains work best and if we can understand that by the time we graduate, then we know what we can do that's going to make us most optimal as a composer.
TS: Kind of tying into that, what is just the biggest snippet of advice you'd have for young composers, especially undergrads that are just starting out? They want to be composers and it's kind of taps into what you were just talking about because, you know, they're terrified because they want to do this thing but maybe they're getting outside pressures. You know “you're not going to make money; you're not going to make it.” And they’re trying to you know find their own voices, so what's what's your biggest advice that you'd give really young composers?
SG: This is a blog that I wrote. It's the one from February 9. That's called “Ten Fundamental Characteristics to Help Cultivate Your Career.” But this is a list that I came up with for a talk that I’ve really been thinking about. I talked with music majors in general that were undergraduate and graduate and looking at this list and just knowing, if you can understand...Number one is “know what your goals are.” And that's one year from now, five years from now,10 to 20 years from now… If you understand what you want, even if you're a freshman or sophomore, if you understand in some vague sense what you're going for, then you can start to figure out the pieces how to get there.
TS: You're not just aimlessly writing.
SG: Yeah. If you're an automatic pilot throughout your whole degree, what is going to change when you graduate? That's really the point of this whole blog is if you can set up all these 10 things while you're in school, you can understand how to be forward thinking enough to, you know...number seven: be prompt in your emails phone calls and gigs. That's a huge one. If you are slow to respond to people, if you take a week to get back. How are they going to trust you to hire you for a gig?
So you can instill that quality while you're in school. Just remember to be responsive, answer anything within 24 to 48 hours, then people will learn, oh they're dependable. And the other thing to remember is while you're in school, look around to see who you can talk to. You know you're all in this together.
Some of my closest collaborators, like Christopher Creviston, we met in 1991 or ‘92 and it's been decades now and we're still working together on a regular basis because we really have enjoyed the experience of shaping music together. So who are the people that you're in school with right now that might be just as excited as you are to you to collaborate and try something? And the other thing to do that is a big piece of advice, maybe the biggest, is if you have any sort of procrastination/ perfectionism traits or characteristics right now in your personality that affect how you compose, you need to get rid of it because that is a career killer. Without a doubt. (I have a blog column with that too) but it really I think procrastination and perfectionism can be linked together. We don't tend to see it that way, but it really is a two headed dragon where you want something so perfect you end up putting it off putting it down on paper until you think it's absolutely perfect and hence you never get anything written and you start to doubt whether or not you're even good enough to do it, etc. So I would just say who cares? Just put all that aside just write music and write a lot of it. I took pottery for a long time when I was in my thirties and a potter would say you like that piece? Great. Put it aside and throw another. His point was don't hold any one too precious. Just make sure that you are constantly learning and constantly growing.
TS: I recreationally play tennis and my tennis coach always says to think the word “next.” I think that’s a good way to kind of explain what you're saying; it means if you miss the shot, he says “okay, next.” And you just forget about it because there's always another one.
SG: And so that the truth is, most of the pieces that students write while they're in school are not going to be the pieces you're going to want to have circulating later in life. It's not that it means that you're writing bad pieces right now, it just means that you're all learning skills. I'm learning them too. You know I look at the repertoire that I wrote and almost no pieces are pieces I want out there now because they don't really show who I am. But I understand that every single one of those pieces got me by his technique further along. And that's okay. So don't judge yourself too harshly while you're in school. Just keep learning everything.
TS: Maybe it's it's comparable to how we think of performers. I think sometimes we forget that it's the same. You know if we take a performer, they're probably not going to put their junior recital out on C.D. You know, but obviously that performance helped them get somewhere and it wasn't a bad performance, and I think because compositions are so personal, we don't necessarily think about it that way, that it might not stick forever.
SG: Yeah and that could be another issue too; I think we tend to think every note we put down is so personal and we have to remember it's just a note.
If you can, just keep looking at your piece both subjectively and objectively. And that's a big thing I talk about when working with young composers: we tend to only look at every note as being precious. Well what if it's not? What if it is just a note and it's okay to put it down and then write another note and test it against other notes to make sure you get the right notes?
TS: So something that my teacher, Dr. Greg Simon, and I talk about a lot on is the difference in writing drama. And I think of pieces like your “Pieces of Sanity” that are all emotions, essentially, all the movements and just kind of thinking about when you're trying to convey these big emotions, not necessarily just in that piece but in anything. How do you think about drama and juxtaposition of emotion? Often, I think if you're going to do something, you do it all the way. You know, you don't want to go halfway because then no one is going to understand what you're trying to convey. So, I guess I’m asking how do you think about drama in trying to tell these stories and share these emotions– if you could kind of explain what your thought process is there?
SG: That's where the form and tension/relaxation comes in handy. So I always start with a form where I have tension up the y axis and time on the x axis and I plot out the piece. So if it's an ABA form, I'll be able to show how the tension is moving through that and that way you can track what are the highest moments of tension and how long should that tension go on for. More importantly how do you build that tension or do you just start right in the middle of that and how do you get out of it?
TS: Do you find that you tend to stick really closely with that or do you find it changing as you go through the compositional process?
SG: It can change, but as I've gotten older, not as much. I tend to get a clearer idea now but when I was younger, for certain. I always did it in pencil so I could erase it a thousand times and regraph it as I go. And this can be movement by movement as well as combining all movements together, so you can have a little tension graphs for each movement but then understand how they're all functioning together. So I think for many of us we need that sort of back bone of a piece even if we don't stick all that close to it.
We need to understand where that piece is going, otherwise we tend to turn out pieces that just sound like they’re meandering. So, if you do your job tracking tension and relaxation, you'll be able to see where those quiet moments, like in “Pieces of Sanity,” the “Euphoria” movement had to be the quietest. It gets a little bit louder during the middle, but tension-wise, it's extremely low because there's some big moments before and after so it needed some downtime.
TS: Okay, final one here. Since we are saxophone magazine, I have to ask this.
What do you feel are the qualities of the saxophone that make it compelling to write for? Whether being the saxophone as a solo instrument or when you put saxophones together in an ensemble, what are the qualities that you can get out of a saxophone or a group of saxophones that you don't feel you can get out of other instruments? What makes it compelling and interesting to write for?
SG: I think it's a couple of things. One is that it's not a voice per say, it's not a human voice, but a saxophone has so many characteristics like a human voice. You can go from that Maslanka sound I was referencing the opening of the Sonata where it's minimal vibrato and a very light tone and feeling of total innocence to where you're growling and screaming into the instrument and all over the range from the low to the high.
The capabilities are immense. And I think the fact that there's so many different ways you can produce sound and so many different types of sounds, for me makes it a fun challenge every single time. I wrote this piece called “Archangels” that Christopher Creviston and Samuel Detweiler and Justin Rollefson commissioned for three soprano saxophones and I was thinking, “What are we going to do with three soprano saxophones?” But then I realized as I got into it, wow there is so much potential even within the soprano saxophones that I kept, I was kind of bummed when I finished it. And I wrote three movements and it was already at the maximum it could be, but I could totally see adding more movements because within each saxophone there's so much to explore. So I love that the range that you guys have. It’s almost unlike any other instrument– maybe the cello is the only one that really comes to mind that's an interesting comparison– because they tend to have a big range and a lot of things that they can do. But it doesn't have anything on the power of the saxophone.