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Love, Death, Murder, and a String Quartet

Stacy Garrop's music is full of drama. She doesn't have to look far for new material.



In May 2001 composer Stacy Garrop was at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, working on an orchestral piece she called Shadow. Garrop, who teaches composition at Roosevelt University, was only 31, but she'd already won numerous prizes for her compositions, and they were being played more often around the country. She calls it a watershed year. Toward the end of her month at Yaddo she left for two days to attend a performance of one of her chamber pieces in New York City, and while she was there she ran into someone who reminded her of the first person she'd ever fallen in love with.

When she got back to Yaddo she searched for his name on the Internet and discovered that ten months earlier he, along with his younger brother and a friend, had been charged with the brutal murder of five people in California. "I was devastated," she says. "I couldn't compose the next day. I didn't want to talk to any of the colonists about it 'cause I didn't want to hurt their chances of getting work done. I spent the next day reading every article I could. I couldn't sleep. I have a hard time sleeping in the woods by myself as it is. Then I hear that they did this with a chain saw, and I'm wondering who's lurking around my cabin. I was in huge amounts of pain. I looked like a complete mess--crying a lot, not sleeping. Not only did I find out that the first person I fell in love with had done something so horrendous--one of the worst things that you could ever imagine--not only did he take away those people's lives, but the person I thought I knew was gone. The person I thought I knew would never have done that."

It wasn't the first wrenching loss Garrop had endured. She was born in Columbus, Ohio, on December 5, 1969, and grew up in the Bay Area. The family took its first big trip together when she was 12. "We were on the east coast," she says. "We did the whole historical thing." A couple of days after they got back her father had a major heart attack, and a month later he had surgery. "He didn't survive it. It was unthinkable that he wouldn't survive. None of us was prepared. He looked so healthy--how could you imagine him any different?"

Two years later her mother remarried. "My childhood was pretty rough for a couple of years," says Garrop. "At 12 you're not prepared to have a parent pass away and then deal with a stepparent." She didn't get along with her stepfather or her stepbrother, and she and her sister spent a lot of time holed up in their room. One day two more of her stepfather's children--whom Garrop's mother had never heard about--appeared on their doorstep.

Garrop had started taking piano lessons when she was six, but her stepfather refused to let her play piano at home. She kept taking lessons but rarely practiced. Her high school had an unusually good music department, and in her freshman year she played bells in the orchestra and sang in the choir. As a sophomore she played in the marching and concert bands, sang in the choir, and began playing saxophone. There were rehearsals, performances, and competitions, all of which kept her out of the house.

In her junior year she took an AP music class. "It was taught by a jazz trumpeter, who told us all to go home and write some pieces," she says. "I started composing and discovered that I really liked it." A family friend knew Bay Area composer H. David Hogan, and he took her on as a student. He started by teaching her about 12-tone and serial music. "He wanted to open up my boundaries as fast as he could. He gave me tons of CDs to listen to and threw all kinds of different musical styles at me to try to compose in. It really gave me a way to put something down on paper about my emotions and everything that was going on with the remarriage that I couldn't say to anybody out loud." She says that when she listens to those early pieces now she can hear what she was trying to get at. "I didn't know really how to express anguish that well, but it's the best I could express what I was feeling inside." That same year her mother divorced her stepfather.

Garrop decided she wanted to study composition in college, and Hogan, who would die eight years later in a plane crash, recommended a few schools. She chose the University of Michigan, partly because she could afford it, and started there in the fall of 1988.

The summer after her first year Garrop went home to California, where she met Glenn Taylor Helzer. He was a devout Mormon, and though she knew the relationship wouldn't last, she fell in love anyway.

She returned to Michigan that fall, but came down with mono and hepatitis. She went home to recover, and she and Helzer spent time together. That winter he went to Brazil to do two years of missionary work, and she went back to school. They wrote letters once or twice a week.

Garrop's composition and theory teachers at Michigan were all men. She remembers asking one of her professors--"a very wonderful composer, a very, very kind man"--if he had any professional advice for her as she went on with her career as a composer. "He said, 'This is a fabulous career for a woman to have, because when you get married and have kids you can still do this on the side.' It was so disheartening. I just looked at him and thought, he doesn't understand at all. This is what I want to do. This is my career. He just saw me as a woman--who was composing. It was one of the worst things that happened to me."

Sometime after this she realized that her reasons for wanting to compose were shifting. "It just hit me out of the blue that I was no longer angry about my teenage years," she says. "My music changed. Instead of anguish all the time, I started writing some happier music. I wrote a lot of pieces about guys." She smiles. "Maybe that's it. Maybe some of these love pieces took over."

During her last year at Michigan she wrote her first string quartet, a poetic work that was performed this September at the opening concert of Music in the Loft, a near-west-side venue for young chamber musicians. Its three short, tonal movements show a strong Bartok influence but have her characteristic intensity and pure melodic line. The delicate first movement, "Rose Thorn," begins with a remarkable stillness and has a sad and searching quality, as if it wants to be beautiful but can't quite manage it. The second movement, "Struggle," has thrusting rhythms and dissonant chords, and the third, "Perilous Water," is both lyrical and agitated.

In December 1991 Helzer came home to California. Garrop saw him over winter break, and though they didn't speak directly of marriage, it was implicit in their talk. She decided it was impossible. "My having to convert was not an option," she says. "He really believed strongly in his religion, and I didn't want to convert to a religion I didn't believe in. I was in love with him. It took a long time to get over." For a few years afterward he would call her about once a year around her birthday, and then the calls stopped.

Garrop graduated in 1992 with a degree in composition. "By the time I was leaving Michigan I kinda thought, well, I don't know if I'm meant to go on in this or not, but I'll find out," she says. "If I apply to master's programs and don't get in anywhere, maybe that's a sign." She applied and got into several schools, then chose the University of Chicago because she'd be able to study with Shulamit Ran, who was then at the height of her popularity. "She had won the Pulitzer, was still the composer in residence for the CSO, and had received the Lyric Opera composer in residence at the same time," says Garrop. "She was really hot at that moment, and it was wonderful to study with her."

Ran had all the first-year graduate students go through a series of serialist exercises that longtime professor Ralph Shapey had taught. Garrop decided after one year that she'd had enough. "Once I told her I needed to do something other than the Ralph Shapey track, she was fine with it," she says.

In 1994 Garrop won the university's Olga and Paul Menn Foundation prize for composing, but she'd already decided she wanted to go somewhere else for her PhD. "I wanted to be around performers again," she says. "I was used to just walking around and asking performers to demonstrate something. At Michigan I took lessons on the French horn, the cello, and percussion, and at that time there were very few performers at the U. of C., although things have changed a lot since then. If I'd stuck around another year I would have had a completely different experience. A huge group of students came in the next year who were very adamant about more performance opportunities."

She doesn't regret her time at U. of C. "Academically it was a fantastic school," she says. "I never performed better. I was challenged. I learned about ethnomusicology--I never learned about that before. I never learned anything about other musical systems, such as Indian and Middle Eastern." And, she adds, "I think it made a difference having a female role model--just to know it can be done and that I wasn't crazy."

Garrop decided on Indiana University at Bloomington, where she knew she could continue studying ethnomusicology and get teaching experience. "It's such a large performance school, and they offered me a teaching assistantship," she says. "By the time I left I had four years of teaching under my belt--I taught two years of theory, two years of composition."

During her final year at Indiana she traveled from one artists' colony to another as she worked on her dissertation--Aspen, Banff, MacDowell, and finally Millay, where in December 1999 she finished Thunderwalker, an aggressive, dramatic work for orchestra in three movements that was premiered by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and has won several prizes. Its primitivism and rhythmic drive are reminiscent of Stravinsky, though it also contains more relaxed sections with conventional harmony.

While she was at Millay she began reading the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the next spring she began setting several sonnets, all a cappella. "I think her poetry is not as well-known as it can be," she says. "From the very first pieces that I set, the responses that I got from the audience--not just to my music but to her words--I realized this is something that could be valuable to her memory and to her work. That gives me more of a sense that I'm doing something good for someone else."

Garrop grouped 23 sonnets into nine sets. She got a commission from the Dale Warland Singers to do the set she calls Sonnets of Love and Chaos. In the song "I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines" she uses a technique she calls organized chaos. "I'm tonal based," she says, "but I like to have moments of drastic chaos--organized chaos." Here the female voices begin with a dissonant fluttering and wind up singing as fast as possible, none of them together, in a bumblebee frenzy. Another song, "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed," is richly orchestral, with a subtle dissonance.

In the fall of 2000 Garrop became an assistant professor at Roosevelt. "This was my first job and my only interview," she says. "I felt that Indiana had really prepared me for it." But her teaching load left little time for composing during the school year. "I'd love to be composing full-time," she says. "As much as I love teaching, I'd love to be living in the music constantly. I envy the time my students have to compose--they'd probably laugh if they heard me say that."

Summers were still hers, and the following May she arrived at Yaddo. She was drawn to the fountains there and began throwing stones into the water and taking pictures of the ripples. She put the photos on her wall where she could see them while she was composing Shadow, which Roosevelt had asked her to write for its chamber orchestra's upcoming tour. "Shadow was my first attempt at calm in a very long time," she says. "And look what happened."

When she saw what Helzer had been accused of she called her mother. "They'd been hiding the information from me," she says. "I was driving my car across the country on my way to Chicago to begin teaching at Roosevelt when it happened. If I'd stayed in California a few more days I would have read about it in the paper."

Helzer, along with his brother and a friend, Dawn Godman, had been charged with extorting $100,000 from an elderly couple in August 2000, then bludgeoning them to death, dismembering them with chain saws, and dumping them in the river delta east of San Francisco. Two days later they shot and killed three more people.

The San Francisco Chronicle later described Helzer, who was married and had been a stockbroker, as "handsome, eloquent, and affectionate," with "a knack for manipulating the vulnerable." It said he "believed he was a prophet and was charismatic enough to make Godman and his younger brother, Justin Helzer, believe it too." The $100,000 had been intended to fund Helzer's plan to overthrow the leaders of the Mormon church and put himself at its head.

Garrop remembered things he'd said years before. She says he once told her, "'I'm really into long hair, but I can't do it 'cause I'm in the Mormon church.' As soon as he left the church he grew his hair long. And he had samurai swords in his room, and he thought, 'How wonderful to be a swordsman someday.' All these little bits were in his mind, and once his mind snapped--once he'd freed himself from moral right and wrong--all the fantasies he'd had in life somehow combined, and he could do whatever he wanted."

Garrop didn't finish the single-movement Shadow until she was back in Chicago that September. "The main criticism that I've gotten from composers is that it sounds like two pieces," she says. "Honestly it is--and what can I do? There's the piece before I found out, and the piece after I found out. I was just really shaken to the core when I heard the news."

Yet Shadow represents a big leap for her--it's more imaginative, more mature, more her own voice. It begins serenely, with a Copland-like simplicity and shimmering flutes, chimes, and woodwinds that suggest light reflected on water. A single violin emerges playing a romantic, melancholic melody, and the strings join in, building the radiance. The lower instruments create a dark undercurrent, and the entire orchestra sounds increasingly agitated. Then suddenly the music gets crazed, with jarring bursts from the percussion section. The earlier, ethereal sounds return, only to be interrupted by more percussion and some ugly repeated chords. A cello plays a single low note, and the fluttering flutes come back. The cello begins again, the flutes go higher, the cello goes even higher, and eventually they're followed by the rest of the orchestra, until all that's left is a solo violin playing one sustained note.

Garrop went back to teaching and writing short pieces, including Blurrr and Teeny Tango. She also set more of Millay's poems. Sonnets of Vanity, Loss, and Rapture was finished in 2002, and Sonnets of War and Mankind in 2003, shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq. "[Millay] was alive in World War II, and she saw what happened in Japan," she says. "Every poem speaks about how the human race extinguishes itself because of the knowledge that we have. Hopefully these pieces will make you think. What's the purpose of war? Are we really set on a destructive path? Is Millay's vision of the future unavoidable, or can we do something about it? I hope we can. I don't know how composers can be helpful in this respect. At least bring it to the attention of the audience."

Emotion continued to drive her pieces. "I believe my writing is emotional first and intellectual second," she says. "For me, it's more interesting to let the emotional side take control when I'm composing. And then I let my intellect go to work. 'OK, what kinds of ideas can I turn out of this? What kind of form does this want?' I guess everything I do or say or think somehow ends up in a piece of music." She pauses. "It's hard to know that people's lives are being cut short, and you don't know when your own life is going to end."

In March 2004, shortly before his trial was to begin, Helzer pleaded guilty. This past summer his brother went on trial, and Godman testified against him. He was convicted in June, and in August a jury recommended that he be sentenced to death. Helzer's sentencing hearing began this month. He too faces the death penalty.

The details of Helzer's plans became public during the trial. Until then, Garrop hadn't been absolutely certain he'd done what he was accused of. Music in the Loft had offered her her first composer in residency and given her a commission to write a short piece for string quartet, which she began composing in July. "It has everything to do with the trial and wondering about the essence of good and evil," she says. "At the beginning there are five chords, but no one will know why that number unless they know about the case. The number five comes back repeatedly throughout many of the sections. But I'm also thinking, what kind of melodies do I want to write? How can I show the anxiety that I'm feeling, and how can that be resolved in a movement? I'm not trying to dramatize the murders. I'm trying to express how I'm feeling about the trial. Somewhere around this time the guilty verdict came out. I was struggling with that."

The 11-minute piece, which she titled Demons and Angels and which will be premiered by the Biava Quartet at Music in the Loft this Saturday and Sunday, has an "angular military theme" and a second theme that keeps changing tempo and time signature and then "spins out of control," pushing the instruments into their highest ranges. "It's very violent in moments, and very lyrical," she says. "The violent part is thinking about the crimes that happened and what the trial had been about. But then the last two and a half minutes get very peaceful. I hope people hear a piece that makes you realize how intense something can be loud, how intense it can be soft, and how it builds up and finally reaches this point where it almost feels like it's heaven. That was first in tribute to the person I remembered from many years ago versus who he turned into, and it's also a little dedication to Sharon"--a reference to a colleague at Roosevelt, pianist Sharon Rogers, who'd died of cancer.

As she was writing the final section of the work, Garrop realized that two of the secondary themes she'd used in the dark sections were "strangely related. As I was writing that final section, they all clicked together, so that the chords I'm using for the heavenly section are actually created from the two other themes from the earlier section. So it's like taking the same ideas and saying, 'Look, it can be awful--but you can also find a way to make it beautiful.'"

By then Garrop knew that the work had to be larger. "I plan to write several more movements this year for it," she says. "I have to think of the rest. There has to be a movement that's completely still. And I'm not sure what context."

She thinks the last movement will be a farewell to Helzer. "Now that I know what his fate is, that's the closure I feel I've needed," she says. "I don't want to write about him ever again. It'll never explain his actions. I'll never understand."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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