Now Hear This: Kimberly Osberg, composer

The 2019 Basically Beethoven Festival opens with an afternoon of music for the clarinet, including a recent work by Dallas-based composer Kimberly Osberg. Read on to learn more about her influences, what Billy Joel and Igor Stravinsky have in common, and get insight into her piece Interplay, which will be performed at the July 7 concert, “The American Sound.”



Composer Kimberly Osberg

What does a week in the life of a composer in Dallas look like? Do you have time to compose built into your day?    I’m fortunate enough to be working with the Dallas Chamber Symphony, both for event operations and as librarian. Both jobs can get pretty time-intensive near concert time, but the flexibility of working from home most of the season allows me to make my own schedule—so my week can change a lot! I like the variety, however – it makes every day feel like a new one, which can be a really helpful way to reset after a bad composing session or a long day at the concert hall. Some weeks are less about writing music (I may not write a single note!) and more about meeting musicians or hearing new work; other weeks are more about learning new skills to help my business grow; some weeks I find time to write every day. There is always something going on in Dallas, so – especially as an artist – it’s been really great to adjust my schedule regularly in order to experience what the metroplex has to offer!



What kind of music do you like to listen to? Does what you listen to influence what you write?    I grew up listening to classic rock and jazz, and I think a lot of the rhythms and musical concepts I work with reflect that. In the last few years I’ve really challenged myself to branch out in my listening: I listened to a lot of dead, European composers when I was in school, so since graduating I’ve been moving away from that to see what the world of music has to offer—and it’s a lot! Rap, hip-hop, trance, indie rock, folk metal, experimental electoacoustic installations, the various trends in film music  – there’s a vibrant and meaningful community for everything, and I try to listen around as much as I can. I end up synthesizing some facet or sound or rhythm or texture from everything I listen to – but always within the context of my own soundworld. For example, I don’t try to write rap or use their instruments in my music, but sometimes the rhythmic interplay that an artist like Kendrick Lamar can pull out from text alone really changes the way I think about setting text in my own work.



When did you decide to pursue music, specifically composition, as a career?    It was more of a gradual realization that I would be pursuing composing. I wrote my first piece when I was in high school – for full orchestra – and I really loved the experience of writing music for my friends and trying to think of ways to make the piece fun for them. From there I ended up at the Tanglewood Institute, where it hit me that there were living people writing concert music—like, a lot of them! That summer really made me think about pursuing composition, and throughout the course of my liberal arts degree at Luther College it became more and more clear that writing music was going to be my full-time path.



Walk us through the process of receiving a commission to write a piece. Do you have constraints like time or ensemble size, or is that usually up to you?    Because I went to small schools for a large part of my education, it was always the case that you found the ensemble before writing the piece. For that reason, commissions have usually been the result of conversations between myself and musicians who were interested in working together: this means that the ensemble size/instrumentation is usually preordained by whoever I’m talking to. In short, I don’t write a piece and find players later. I always find the players first, and it’s usually my job to tell the players I’m interested in writing for them (though more players have approached me recently, which is very exciting!). Time constraints, technical features, extended techniques, mutes and so forth are things I discuss with the performers directly as I work on the piece; I like to make musicians part of the process because they feel more invested in the work, and they also tend to know a lot more about their instruments and capabilities. My favorite experience is to add something new to a musicians’ toolbox through my music—a new technique, a new favorite way to play their instrument, a new way to interact with their fellow performers—but I try to do so in a way that makes them feel comfortable enough to try.


The biggest two exceptions to this were my opera (which was my undergraduate thesis, though I had singers in mind as I wrote), and Rocky Summer, the work that was just premiered by the Dallas Chamber Symphony this past spring. Both were pretty challenging for me, because I was composing in a bubble—away from the input and collaboration of players. I still worked through issues and adjusted things in rehearsal, but the bulk of composing for these commissions was done in isolation.



As a composer, do you rely more on inspiration or a certain process to write your music? What inspired or helped you write your piece Interplay?   I tend to think of inspiration as “conscious excitement.” Once I get all the constraints—how long, will it be one movement or four, what instruments, what techniques do the musicians want to try out, what are the musicians’ goals, what is the venue, what other pieces are being programmed, etc.—I start generating ideas that I think will fit those constraints well. 


In the case of Interplay, the musicians and I had wanted to work together, and they had an upcoming concert at the Dallas Contemporary for an exhibit on work by internationally-acclaimed artist Ian Davenport—they would be performing a concert in front of the artwork at the gallery. [In composing,] I had not just the interests of the musicians, but of the artist, and the Dallas Contemporary to consider as well.


I met with the musicians, and we talked about what kinds of goals they had—they wanted to demonstrate the range of colors their ensemble had, the technical capacity of each individual, and their strength of playing well off of and with one another. The artist walked me through his exhibit and showed me several paintings, but one in particular seemed to be the one he really wanted the piece to be about (from his “Colorfall” series). After speaking with him, it was exciting to learn we thought about our crafts in a lot of similar ways—balance, a changing relationship with the art over time, rhythm and color, vivacity, and so on. The musicians and the artist talked a lot about relationships—colors and lines playing off each other in real time—so I had a title, Interplay, and the concepts I needed to work with



Some composers write their music at coffee shops, some have hidden cabins out in the mountains, some carry notepads and write down ideas as they come. Where do you like to compose, and why?    I wish I had a cabin in the mountains! Many of my favorite works in my catalogue have either been written in or about mountains. Since I travel a lot and maintain a pretty busy schedule outside of composing, I don’t tend to tie myself down to any one “composing place.” All I really need is some quiet, my laptop (or some paper), and my headphones. There are some great coffee shops in Dallas, but all of them play music over the speakers, so unless I’m really focused it’s actually pretty distracting to work there most of the time. Composing at home is usually my default these days.



Do you have a favorite piece, composer, or genre of music?   My two favorite composers growing up were Billy Joel and Stravinsky. I’ve had a lot of other favorites over the years, but those two have remained constant since I was in high school. It’s basically impossible for me to pick a favorite piece, but there are a lot of really great living composers out there right now; ones who I really admire include Andrew Norman, Nina C Young, Sky McKlay, Jake Heggie, Katie Balch, Joel Thompson, Kevin Puts, and Chris Cerrone.



What’s your favorite sound?    I really love the sound when you drop one wooden bowl into the other: that satisfying *clack* is one of the most perfect sounds I can imagine. Also laughter – people have so many unique, interesting, quirky laughs. Least favorite sound?    I despise wet, chewing sounds. I know they can be used effectively, but it hurts me.



What advice would you give 14-year-old you?    Soak it all up! The world is a really beautiful, exciting, vibrant place with many hidden wonders if you’re brave enough to look for them. Always be kind, even when someone won’t return that courtesy to you. Be the person people aren’t afraid to mess up around. Be bold in accepting and fighting for yourself when necessary, but be open to the idea you may not always be right. And always know where your health insurance is accepted.

Fine Arts Chamber Players