Photo courtesy Brett Reif, edited by Caitlin Horsmon
Shawnee, KS, resident Mara Gibson is a composer whose incredible musical work has received international acclaim, with renowned ensembles and soloists having performed her music throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Asia, and Europe. Gibson's recently released album Artifacts: Recent Chamber Workshas been described as "rich, luxurious chocolate of colour and texture." Gibson is currently Associate Professor at the UMKC Conservatory and is Director of the Conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy, as well as is founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop. She was generous enough to answer some questions about her creative life, how she "surrendered to being a composer", as well as her personal picks from the Johnson County Library catalog. Whether you're new to contemporary classical music or are already a fan, you're in for a treat.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
I live in Shawnee and work in Kansas City at the Conservatory. Depending on the time of year, a typical day for me includes teaching, writing, creating and sustaining arts programming (in the schools or through engagement involving art/music collaboration) and enjoying time with my ten year-old son.
I’m curious about something you state in your Creative Philosophy: I intend to achieve a relationship between the process of composing and the composition itself. Can you delve a little into your own process of composing? What may surprise a listener of your music about how you create it?
For me, composition requires a balance between the micro and the macro. My mode of working includes an understanding of the creative process, a reflection on that process, and a design of individually tailored tasks. Constant shifting between the big picture and the small steps is critical.
I map my musical ideas obsessively. It helps me to discover the relationship between the macro and the micro connections between my ideas. I draw a lot of inspiration from visual arts, specifically the process of the abstract expressionists. As Morton Feldman identifies the “more perceptive temperament [of the painter] that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer’s vested interest in his craft” (Zimmermann 1985, 90). Rather than convince my listener of my ideas, I am interested in breaking down barriers between the listener and the composer, so as to include the experience itself, allowing the listener to hear a piece of music as evolving. In my music and collaborations, I intend to achieve a relationship between the process of composing and the composition itself.
I talk more specifically about my mapping process here: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/rethinking-how-we-teach-composition-part-1/
Generally, I emphasize the use of orchestration, particularly, the blending of sounds in my music. I am especially interested in the moment that the start of one sound and the ending of another become blurred. I aim to create a musical continuum between seemingly opposing parts. Ultimately, I hope to prompt questions about the distinction between the real and the unreal, or “imaginary.”
As a listener, I cherish surprises. A composer, whether admitted or not, creates a certain system (or form) for his/her ideas. I think we can tell a lot about a composer by the manner in which he/she holds steady to these “systems.” For example, Bach creates a system, then breaks his own rules. These moments are the best for a composers to study. In the case of Bach, he always makes the choice for musical reasons.
Can you point to one time in your life where you knew you wanted to be a composer? Who inspired you early on to create new music and what were your earliest compositions like?
It happened late for me. In high school, I had some hints that I wanted to be a composer, but it was not until college that I became convinced -- as Verdi said, "I surrendered to being a composer" -- in a sense, that is sort of true for me. It was less a choice for me and more of a discovery. If I do not write for a few weeks, I feel incomplete.
I had a very influential piano teacher in high school (Marjorie Mitchell), and amazing music professors at Bennington. I met Betsy Jolas my senior year. She introduced me to the "Rite of Spring" in a class with Allen Shawn. I still have that marked up score! I then attended her summer session at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. That same year, I took a class on the Beethoven String Quartets which also changed the way I hear music.
While I have all of my college compositions, I rarely look at them. In graduate school, I made a decision that I would write as much as possible and not look back. The only piece I have ever revised since was Map of Rain Hitting Water (2006/2012).
You have studied, performed and have had your work premiered in many places throughout the world. What have been some of the highlights for you of your travels and musical experiences?
Highlights include Banff, Thailand, England and Europe, though I think I would have to say that Banff was my most transformative time. It was the first residency I ever did. Being surrounded by mountains and artists in seclusion helped me carve out a process in the real world for being a composer.
What advice do you have for younger composers?
Listen to and question everything
Hear what you compose and compose what you hear
Organize what you compose (know where/when things belong)
Create a structure/language for what you compose/hear
Meet as many performers as you can and actively seek out performances for your work. This is the best training you can receive!
Who or what inspires you now?
My students, poetry, my son, travel and nature.
Mara's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
MY ABSOLUTE FAV: "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." -Atticus.
My first dog as an adult was named Atticus. He was a black lab and my first baby before Coel, my 10-year old son. I recently watched this (1962) with Coel and continue to be inspired by the message and narrative of this story.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
What can I say, I am a romantic at heart.
Life of Pi (movie and book)
My son Coel and I LOVED this movie - a visual masterpiece, as well as a beautiful story.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
I was completely captivated by this book and could not put it down.
Dubliners by James Joyce
Irish Catholic upbringing, what can I say?
The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery
This was the first book I read and comprehended in French. I think this was when I started to understand and appreciate that words in another language held as much (if not more) poetry.
Poetry: The Man with a Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Inspired my dissertation piece El Mar.