The Kansas City Composer, Performer and Recipient of a Charlotte Street Foundation Generative Performing Artist Award, Has Evolved a Compelling Blend of Art and Activism

As a musician and activist, performing artist Stacy Busch knows the life-changing — and saving — power of empathy: listening deeply, sharing honestly and giving generously of oneself to help others.

Busch is a composer and performer, and a Charlotte Street Foundation 2020 Generative Performing Artist Fellow. She is also the founder of No Divide KC, an arts-based nonprofit organization that is focused on the “stories of underserved and misrepresented communities in Kansas City,” she said.

Telling her story and creating safe space for others to share theirs are where her art and activism intersect.

“I want to invite people into my world because I want to have these open discussions about human experience,” she said. “I want everybody to be invited to the party.”

Her unique musical style — which often includes mesmerizing looped tracks from keyboards and percussion, her voice modulated to a sharp edge — is sometimes wry, sometimes puckish, sometimes raw, her lyrics poignant and crammed with her lived truths.

Though she earned a master’s degree in composition from UMKC Conservatory, her path to a career in music was unsteady.

“It kind of found me,” said Busch.

With rudimentary piano lessons as a child, she came late to composition, having spent her youth focused on competitive soccer. She originally attended Boston University as a journalism major but dropped out after being rocked by an identity crisis and severe depression.

Music had always fascinated her, especially film scores, and on a long shot she auditioned for the music school at Western Michigan University. A faculty member saw her potential, even though her piano skills were, as she put it, “abysmal.” But with the stress of that competitive environment, always playing catch-up, she stumbled again with addiction and bipolar disorder. It took a few more bouts of hospitalization and rehabilitation to find her balance.

“Getting sober changed my entire perspective about life and what is truly important. This new perspective made who I am and my artistic voice snap into place. I became focused in a totally different way.”

Busch came to Kansas City in 2014, after she was accepted by the UMKC Conservatory, again on the basis of one professor’s support. For Busch, Kansas City has been a good fit. She’s been sober here, met her partner, bought a house, established herself.

These days she’s active in various Kansas City art scene spheres, and she’s traveled from Nebraska to Iceland and France to present her work.

Along with her own performances, she is the operations manager for the Owen/Cox Dance Group, as well as a collaborator, writing and performing music for “Collective: Our Stories of Cancer” in 2018 and for OCDG’s upcoming performance with New Dance Partners at Johnson County Community College.

“Stacy employs a really sophisticated and wide-ranging palette,” said composer and bandleader Brad Cox, co-founder of OCDG and 2010 CSF Generative Performing Artist Fellow. “One of the things I find myself frequently impressed with in her music is her ability to take a powerful or serious subject and present it with optimism and energy.”

Her work has been performed at the Open Spaces festival, Splice Electroacoustic Festival, the Kansas City Contemporary Music Festival, Outskrts Festival, InterUrban ArtHouse, Art in the Loop, the 2020 ArtsKC Awards Luncheon and in the score for the documentary “The Ordinance Project.”

She also has a slate of upcoming works (see fact box right), including a performance with Mid America Freedom Band, which commissioned “It’s For Us,” a double drag queen concerto for clarinet, bassoon and wind ensemble featuring award-winning musicians/drag queens Tajma Stetson and Mrs. Jones as soloists.

Busch’s work falls roughly into two categories: commissions for work within the broad range of “new classical” and her own performance pieces, which lean more electro-pop.

“I try to do one big show every year that is my own production of all new work, that expresses where I’m at personally and artistically.”

This year’s show is “When/Time” (originally for June, now Spring 2021), and will premiere in Charlotte Street Foundation’s new Black Box theater. It is a coming-of-age journey, featuring vignettes involving a six-person cast of singing actors and singing instrumentalists, including Busch. “They are telling different aspects of myself, different aspects that I believe most women feel and relate to.”

“When is it time to speak up? When is it time to stay silent? When is it time to take action?” she asked.

It’s her most elaborate production to date, and she also intends to record a studio album.

It’s a big year for No Divide KC, too, which hosts a free storytelling event, “Stories from Under the Stars,” sharing the voices of those who are homeless or have experienced homelessness, and the 1st Annual Queer Narratives Festival on Halloween night.

Busch started NDKC after social workers encouraged her to share her work as a way to facilitate discussions about mental health and addiction. It was the first time she thought about using her work as a way of giving back, she said.

“It’s based on my experience in 12-step programs. The idea is that through simply sharing our stories, we can not only help each other but also improve ourselves.”

“I’m committed to this lifestyle where I’m going to keep self-excavating and peeling off the layers,” Busch said. “I’m inspired by anyone who takes that on, including most of the people who I meet in meetings. The people who are just working, who we will never know, the ones I owe my life to. They are the people who show up to work on time, who are genuine and kind and working on themselves. That’s the most inspiring thing to me.”

Above: photo by Jim Barcus

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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