Composing Outside the Lines A Conversation with Kimberly Osberg

Patricia Cornett | December 2022 January 2023
    Kimberly Osberg is a Portland-based composer who specializes in interdisciplinary collaboration. Her projects have included dance, film, environmental sound installations, instrumental theater, plays, opera, visual art, award ceremonies, and stage combat. She also pioneered a Commissions from Quarantine project in 2020 that garnered media attention. In addition, Osberg has written several works for young and developing bands, with more on the way. She holds degrees from Luther College and Indiana University.  

How did you become interested in interdisciplinary projects?
    When I was growing up, I had many interests outside of just playing in band and orchestra. I participated in theater, liked to draw and paint, and also enjoyed history. Writing music provided an outlet that brought these interests together. I started to see how everything you interact with could be material for a new piece, and I didn’t have to give up any of my interests by doing composition, which was exciting.
    I kept up with theater, history, and art through my undergraduate degree. I attended a liberal arts college and had to take 80 credit hours outside my major, which exposed me to many different subjects and gave me ideas for composing. When I began my master’s program at Indiana University I encountered many students who came from conservatory-based programs and felt there wasn’t as much focus on music outside the concert hall. The school was huge, so I ventured out and paired up with film students, art students, theatre students, and dancers. It was exciting to collaborate with other artists.
    After college I moved to Dallas and started meeting and working with musicians in the Dallas Chamber Symphony. A group called Trio Kavanah (now known as the MAKE ensemble) was scheduled to give a concert at the Dallas Contemporary, an art museum. The museum had an exhibit by artist Ian Davenport who has had pieces in museums all over the world. I was star-struck meeting him, but when we spoke, he mentioned listening to drum set music while painting. With my background in percussion, we had a shared language to talk about the piece I was writing. The way he approaches his art – thinking about rhythm and gesture and color and lines – is exactly how I think about my music. We had a great conversation about how these things should play off one another. I ended up writing a piece exploring different elements of his work, and it was performed in front of one of his Colorfall paintings.
    A few months later Bruce Wood Dance [company] was going to perform dances there that interpreted Davenport’s works. They heard my piece on the museum’s website and wanted to develop choreography for it. In the end there was live music and dance in front of this huge art piece by Davenport. It was recorded by Samsung VR in 360° so people at home could use their phone to look around at the art while this was all going on. It was such a great mix of elements coming together, and it felt like we built a bridge between these different arts communities. It remains one of my favorite collaborations.

You moved to Portland in January 2020, just before the pandemic. Where did you find inspiration in this difficult time?
    While dealing with my own struggles adjusting to a new city with everything shut down, I saw the music community on Twitter go through the same thing. So many friends were feeling down because all of their gigs were canceled. With no performances for large ensembles or chamber groups, many musicians found that they lacked solo repertoire they were excited about playing. I looked at my catalog and realized that I didn’t have a lot of solo or duo pieces.
    I thought about how to keep writing in a way that was affordable for people who don’t have gigs and money coming in. I developed a model that became Commissions from Quarantine. A one-minute piece cost $5, a two-minute piece was $12, and a three-minute piece was $20. The work had to be for solo or duo, the person commissioning it had to provide a mood or a tone for the music, and I also asked for a technique or a gesture that they really loved to play.
    I opened it up on Twitter and Instagram for three days and expected to get five commissions to keep me busy for a month. After three days, I had 40 commissions! People were craving something to do, and many who reached out said they had never commissioned something before.   
    This project was so fun, and it was interesting to see what people expected from their commissions. Some wanted somber music reflecting life in isolation, but others wanted a piece that was weird or quirky. A few people asked for pieces with Hobbits in them, and I said, “Sure! We can do that.” There were a couple pieces that allowed family members to play together, including a grandfather who played guitar and wanted a piece to play with his five-year old granddaughter, who was just starting piano.
    Those pieces reminded me how many people want high-quality music to play. They may not fill concert halls or record these pieces, but it was so fulfilling to work on them. These varied projects increased my confidence as a composer. I realized that my voice comes through no matter what I am asked to compose. I also loved that these smaller projects had such a huge impact on people’s lives during a difficult time, my own included.

With Composer Damien Geter and Conductor Katherine FitzGibbon

Many educators struggle to find good music for younger players. Can you talk about the pieces you have written for developing players?
    Hope is the second piece of music I ever wrote, but has a lot of meaning for me. The first piece I wrote was for our youth orchestra in high school. My band director, Gene Power, who also conducted the youth orchestra, encouraged me to begin composing. He saw me fiddling around on the piano and suggested I write something. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know that bass clarinets were written in treble clef or even that instruments transposed. Then my band director put me in front of Finale and said, “Figure it out.” So I did. I went from doing nothing to writing an orchestra piece – which I don’t necessarily recommend – but it was a great learning experience.  
    Unfortunately, Mr. Power was leaving our district after my senior year. We were devastated, and I convinced him to let me write something for our band to play at his last concert. He had a few seniors he wanted to highlight, so I wrote something special for my friends, too. He taught me how to conduct, read a score, run a rehearsal, and organize music. Hope was written for him and dedicated to him. A few years later he passed away in a car accident. Since then, I have been slowly updating Hope while preserving some of those requested solos as a tribute to Gene Power and my friends. I am hoping to release an anniversary edition of it in the next year or two that will be available for free so that bands anywhere can play it. I will be happy to do free Zoom clinics to keep his memory alive.
    Band Together was influenced by my middle school band director, Laurie Francis, who was amazing and taught in the district for over 30 years. When I was in her program, I liked music, but she was the one who made me practice and get to the point where I was good at it. I always kept in touch with her. While I was working on my master’s degree she announced her retirement and commissioned me to write a piece and come back for a week of clinics and rehearsals with the band.
    She plays trumpet, as does her son who was an 8th-grader in the band at the time. When we discussed what she wanted for the piece, we decided to start with a trumpet trio fanfare where the players would be out in the audience. She wanted something simple enough for them to put together, but that would also showcase how far she had been able to bring the middle school band program.
    I made her nervous because I put in all this aleatory at the beginning and end of the piece. While it looks intimidating, students sound so good when they play aleatoric music. They rehearsed the main part of the piece in advance but waited until I arrived for the week of clinics to tackle the aleatoric passages. When I described what they could do during those sections, they were eager to experiment.
    With certain types of aleatoric music it is not usually so much about being  precisely in tune or being in sync, but rather creating a texture. It is also cool for the students that no repetition of the piece is ever the same because of the choices they make in the moment.
    Ms. Francis was nervous about it at first, but the kids really killed it and had a lot of fun. The idea of Band Together is that the piece begins in chaos, with everybody doing different things, and then it starts to tighten up and become more orderly. By the end everyone is doing the same gesture, even though it’s happening at different times – freedom without as much chaos.
    I wrote Our Little Secrets during my time in Dallas. One of my friends, composer Joshua Jandreau, put together a consortium of composers to write flex ensemble pieces. The model he developed called for eight to ten instruments, and at least half of them would have alternate transpositions provided. Most importantly, all parts had to have a beginner version. The flexibility allowed the conductor to have one score but then adjust, perhaps even just one voice, if needed. For example, the group might play the advanced version, but there might be one or two less-advanced players. They could use the simpler part, and the piece would still work out.  
    For my contribution, I used pop idioms to make it aurally more interesting to high school players. It starts with a bass line in the bassoon with other voices in the background. Then there is what my partner calls the “Mario Kart” section. This piece is just fun. It uses more of the rhythmic and harmonic language that high school students are used to hearing. It is a chamber piece with a big sound and makes the players feel part of something large and fun. During the pandemic, when ensemble size was limited, suddenly many groups were playing this piece. It has been great to see it out in the world.

Osberg in a Virtual Rehearsal with the Pittsburg State University Wind Ensemble

What challenges have you found in writing music for younger players and what are some strategies you use to overcome them?
    I think you can see, even in my early pieces like Hope, that I love hocketing and this idea of passing lines and color and playing with ebb and flow. For younger players, it can be scary when they have parts where they are playing  alone, so I try to find ways to incorporate hocketing, textures, and changes of color while also giving them an anchor point to hold on to. I know composers worry about restricted ranges and things like that, but for me, it mostly comes down to how it is orchestrated. If I am going to use a technique like hocketing, I just need to make sure those parts are doubled somewhere else so young players have a friend to help them through that portion of the piece.
    I also love playing with textures like flutter tonguing and trills. Sometimes that can be tricky for really young players, just the idea of extended techniques, so I try to focus on one technique at a time. For example, if I am working with a string group I will introduce one new idea for them to work on for a couple of weeks. I remember working with one group on circular bowing. While it’s not a particularly difficult technique, it was something they could work on and feel good about doing. I also think that having one part of a piece that is a little tricky can motivate students and give them something to work towards.

What do you want conductors to know about commissioning music and working with composers?
    It can be overwhelming because there are so many composers, and people don’t always know where to start looking. Online resources like Facebook groups, the Institute for Composer Diversity database, Wind Repertory Project, and the American Composers Orchestra are good starting places to discover composers. Collaborations will be more successful if you thoroughly research the composer’s catalog and background to make sure you genuinely connect with their work.
    The other resource I learned about during the pandemic is the new music Twitter community. All you really have to do is tweet out “I’m looking for this type of piece” with the hashtag #newmusic, and you will usually get more replies from composers than you know what to do with. If you find someone interesting, start listening to some of their music. Even if they haven’t written for band before, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to write for band or that they think it is beneath them.
    Sometimes people are afraid, particularly with a well-known composer, that they won’t want to write for high school or middle school band. You can usually tell from someone’s bio if they are excited about working on interesting things for younger players. Band directors shouldn’t be afraid to just ask. You can simply start with, “I love your music. This is the budget I have. What can we put together?”
    Even if it ends up as a two-minute piece, your students will get to play new music written for them by a living composer. I know some composers reduce fees in exchange for good recordings or promising to play the piece at a state festival. It is more important to find a composer whose music you like and who is fun to work with than it is to find an impressive, big name composer.    

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