Music for anyone, anywhere: Interview with Kimberly R. Osberg

Kimberly Osberg at Cape Blanco

Kimberly R. Osberg (b. 1992) is a Portland-based composer whose projects have included dance, film, environmental sound installations, instrumental theatre, plays, opera, visual art, award ceremonies, and stage combat. Her music has been described as “brilliant,” “highly-engaging,” “wonderfully suspenseful,” “intensely colorful,” and “wonderfully humorous and witty” and has received acclaim from academic, commercial, and public audiences alike. Kimberly holds degrees from Luther College (BA) and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (MM). She has also attended several premiere festivals as a composition fellow, including the Brevard Music Festival, IRCAM’s ManiFeste, and the Aspen Music Festival.

ASN: I’m continually impressed with your flow of commissions. What have been your strategies for creating or soliciting opportunities?

KO: I’ve been really blessed that so much work has come to me from word-of-mouth. During the pandemic I offered these super cheap commissions (Commissions from Quarantine and later Project 12) that got a lot of buzz on Twitter and Instagram—some of those projects turned into full commissions or led to larger works. What made those commissions really successful is that the price point gave some musicians the courage to commission a piece for the first time – and by providing them with their first commissioning experience and making it a positive one, it really opened up their minds to what that collaboration could be like. A few people I’ve worked with have applied for grants to do larger projects or make commercial recordings of our work. They’ve told their musician friends about our work together—giving that new person the confidence to reach out. 

I strive to make everything as transparent and approachable upfront as possible. All of my commission rates are on a table on my website—it’s super easy for a potential collaborator to see what kind of pieces are within their price point ahead of time. When they first reach out, my first step is always to set up a face-to-face call. We meet each other and I ask them about their goals—what performance setting is this piece used for? What are things about your playing you’d love to highlight? What is something you feel like you don’t see enough of in your repertoire? What kinds of things have you always wanted to write a piece about? Would you benefit from paying a little bit monthly rather than in big chunks all at once? 

I view what I do as a service for them, not necessarily as them providing a vehicle for my own expression. I believe in my writing voice enough to know that it will sound like me regardless of what they ask for—I can’t help it at this point! So when I talk to potential commissioners, it’s always through the lens of “what can I do to make something for you.” If the musician really loves the piece, any audience is going to feel that and get something out of it, too.

I think not enough composers really cater to first-time commissioners and less experienced players. Everyone wants to land those big, well-funded, and impressive players. I still want that when it can happen—obviously!—but there’s a whole world of people out there who need high-quality, fulfilling music to play. Sometimes its students who are never going to pursue music professionally, sometimes it will be a regional orchestra made of players who have day jobs and kids and little budget, sometimes it will be an incredible professional who has never played music by a living composer before. Sometimes it’s a great musician who has no funds of their own and has never done any kind of grant or fundraising application before. All of those are people I work with in addition to the amazing professional musicians who love contemporary music and have access to decent funding.

In short, my goal—always—is to write the piece. And I work with the musicians who approach me (or who I approach!) to figure out how that can happen in a way that both of us are able to commit to.

Not every composer can work the way I do—some people will need to charge a lot more because it takes them longer to write something, or they have other demands on their time or budget. Some composers want to be approached because that musician will let them do whatever they want—they don’t want to be told what to do. Some composers don’t have the time or bandwidth to provide end-to-end services for everything in their composing business (like maintaining a website, running a digital storefront, running clinics/masterclasses, engraving their own music, self-publishing, designing covers, posting to social media, creating contracts, applying for grants, registering their work with royalty companies, asking for and submitting programs for performances, etc.), so they have to build in higher fees for the people they pay to handle those things. They have to say “no” to small things so they can say “yes” to big things. It’s all a valid way to approach the field—this is just what’s worked for me.

ASN: Can you tell me about your day-to-day as a freelance composer (including other activities/jobs) you might be pursuing? How do you keep your plates spinning?

KO: Right now my weeks are usually split into two halves—half the week I work for myself as a composer, and the other half I do administrative work for a new music choir. Since the people I work with are also creative professionals, they’ve been really wonderful about giving me a super flexible schedule. I was able to negotiate working 20 hours across two full days and one half day, rather than half days every day. This has allowed me two full days a week for just writing/composing, and it’s been a real game changer.

If I’m getting close to a deadline, those days are basically packed with just writing—8am until 12pm, and then 1pm until around 6pm or later, depending on how much I’ve gotten done. I like to take short walks throughout the day to clear my head and stretch, but there are definitely days when I’m not the best about getting up to move around! I recently got a standing desk, and—not to be like everyone else that has one—it really did help a lot with getting more movement during these long writing days.

When I’m not furiously writing and don’t have a masterclass or lecture, I like to take time to listen to music by other living composers (especially when there are scores available), work on a blog post about a recent project, or do some sketching, My sketching process is pretty chaotic—sometimes I’m drawing cartoon panels, sometimes it’s a bunch of lines and arrows, other times I’m shuffling around index cards with short musical ideas on them or writing out bubble-diagrams to see where the piece could go next, or it’s just a bunch of words and flow charts.

On my half-day, I usually take that time to answer emails, edit my website, prepare for an upcoming lecture or masterclass, or do other administrative work for myself (like submitting programs to ASCAP or doing some bookkeeping). It’s been awesome having a set time to do that kind of work each week.

ASN: I noticed you had a highlights area on Instagram about “branding,” and you do have a consistent look for your covers. Can you tell me how this evolved and your thoughts on composers having a “brand”?

KO: When I was in grad school, I remember a bunch of students getting very obsessed with fonts. It got to the point where some of them wouldn’t tell each other what fonts they were using so some of them would spend time trying to compare it to lists of other fonts—it was very American Psycho. While I never got that obsessed with fonts, it was the first time I started thinking about how much of one’s personality could be conveyed just by the physical score. I’ve seen some composers with bright yellow covers on all of their music, or they have a special border they use each time. Some people license photographs from Getty Images or use their own photos for the covers, making each score completely different-looking than before.

I started playing around with SparkPost (now Adobe Express) and seeing how I could use simple icons to hint at what the piece was about. Since a lot of my music is more grounded in physical things (mountains, a spark of light, chickens, etc.), my covers lent themselves to that kind of simple icon-based imagery. I don’t consider myself a graphic designer by any means, but I like that each cover has a kind of plug-and-play formula. It gives me enough structure not to make my covers really crazy, but also enough flexibility to really tailor each cover to the piece I’m working on. Sometimes I take a break from writing and work on these cover images for awhile, and it gives me a better perspective on how to finish the piece – I’m approaching the music from a different angle and thinking more like someone who is responding to it rather than creating it.

I think the idea of “brand” is such a big topic—and it sits at a really interesting intersection of personal identity, social media culture, and capitalism. It’s a lot to think about, but in general I think if a composer is interested in creating a “brand,” there are a lot of authentic, interesting, and artful ways to do that which will support and uplift the work they do, rather than being a distraction from it.

ASN: How do you like to unwind or recharge—either daily or in between projects? 

KO: Since moving to Portland in 2020 into a one-bedroom apartment with my partner, Mauricio, my composing space has been a single desk in my bedroom. I spend a lot of time in there working, taking calls, pacing, thinking, sketching, writing emails, doing paperwork, editing my website, doing lectures/clinics, and—of course—taking naps. My workspace can get very cluttered, mentally speaking, with so much happening there. When I need to recharge, I tend to leave the apartment / Portland entirely. I like to take long drives on back roads to the mountains (I can see Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens from my apartment), or out to the coast, or into one of the many forests nearby – sometimes I listen to a bunch of different music to get inspired and let myself wander in unfamiliar sounds, but in recent months I’ve found that what recharges me most is going to these places in silence. I hike for a morning or a whole day without music or podcasts, just taking in the sounds of nature and letting my brain shout into the silence for a while. I let myself get bored. I find it clears out a lot of the extraneous noise / stresses / other voices in my head until it’s just “me” again. Once I reach that place, it’s a lot easier to come back to the writing desk with a clarity of purpose—and often some new ideas from my wanderings!

ASN: Thanks for sharing your insights, Kim! Readers, for a taste of Kimberly’s music, check out Fowl Play on Elizabeth Robinson’s recent album, Aviary.

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