With a history of composition going back to the 1970s, James Mobberley has been one of UMKC's most prominent professors of composition since joining the faculty in 1983. It's a program that has grown to be among the very best in the country, drawing students from all over the world. His own music is just as highly regarded, covering everything from works for full orchestra and chamber ensembles to experimental pieces for tape. We are extremely fortunate to share an interview with Mobberley about the intersections between teaching and composing, his creative process and book, music and movie recommendations.
Do you consider yourself to be primarily a composer or teacher? How does one inform the other?
I always knew, from the time I decided to switch my major from guitar to composition, that I wanted to teach. I’m not sure why, except that my teachers always encouraged and inspired me. Also, my dad was a college teacher and administrator for many years, and I looked up to him throughout his life. So I would have to say that I am equal parts composer and teacher. Both feed the soul, though in different ways. The hours of conversations with students at UMKC and the explorations of their ideas, backgrounds, plans and dreams are an excellent counterpart to the hours of solitary creativity and exploration of sound in my home studio. They feed each other too. It’s hard to say whether students learn more from me or that I learn more from them. The freshness of their approaches and the sound worlds that they come from are always expanding my sonic universe, while the decades of experience and knowledge absorption that I bring to lessons can often help with problem solving, creative block, and in the 1000 little things that make up the professional approach to musical creation. Sometimes the best lessons are comprised simply of describing what I hear.
What would you like people to know about the UMKC program for new composers? Has your approach to teaching music composition changed over the years?
I joined the faculty of the Conservatory in 1983, just a year out of my doctoral program. One year later the Associate Dean made a controversial decision to take the theory courses out of my teaching load, allowing me to upgrade the equipment in the electronic studio and implement additional classes. He seemed to think that it was the wave of the future, and that UMKC ought to be part of that. It was a wonderful opportunity to build something that would greatly enhance creative opportunities not only for our composition students but for the faculty as well. Within a few more years the electroacoustic music I was creating was gaining some attention, and students began to come to UMKC specifically to study with me. It was heartwarming, but also challenging – the more well-prepared our students became, the more I had to up my own game. It was from this platform that we began to attract not only exceptional students but also exceptional new composition faculty – Chen Yi and Paul Rudy in 1998 and Zhou Long a year later. The four of us have formed a core of wonderfully diverse backgrounds and methods of writing and teaching. From 1999 to 2012 we grew to be one of the two or three largest and best-known composition programs in the US. It has been a joy to be part of this process, and I have learned so much from all of them.
My approach to teaching hasn’t changed too much in the last 20 years, but my understanding of it and my ability to describe it have grown considerably, especially in 2010 when a doctoral student, Chris Biggs, asked me if I would like to develop a course on Composition Pedagogy with him. It turned out to be an excellent idea, but not a simple one. A search for existing literature on the subject turned up virtually nothing. So instead of a research class, we designed a class based on experiential learning and on conversations based on our collective experiences, both as students and teachers. The results include descriptions of my teaching methods, and are up on my website for any who may be interested:
What may surprise a listener about how you compose? What tools do you use? Where do you go to write?
From what I hear from my performer friends, the most surprising thing about my music is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. I have about 100 works now, from student days to the present, and some of them draw heavily from the more dissonant music of the 1960s, others from such classical superstars as Stravinsky, George Crumb, Joseph Schwantner and Mario Davidovsky, and still others from the progressive rock music of the early 1970s. And some of my music doesn’t really sound like any one particular genre. It’s all out there for the picking, and it’s fun to use the things about each musical universe that I like the best in combination with each other. My tools include Finale, ProTools, and a rather arcane computer music language called Csound, which requires composers to create and manipulate sounds via computer code. The learning curve for this software is incredibly steep, but on the plus side you can do ANYTHING. Using the other two tools makes things much more efficient – I work in all three simultaneously, and choose the tool I need to fit the specific task I’m trying to perform, or sound I’m trying to create. Early on I wrote a large percentage of my music at UMKC’s studios, but eventually the hardware and software became less expensive, and I now work entirely at home. Perhaps the nicest thing about that is my big picture window…campus electronic music studios NEVER have windows, and are notorious for causing artistic claustrophobia.
What still challenges you as a composer?
- Deadlines. It’s so much fun to write music but eventually the deadline looms and I must wrap things up. I suppose that without deadlines I’d never finish a piece, so they’re both a curse and a blessing.
- Software and hardware upgrades. Every time a new version of something comes out, there is an inevitable period when nothing talks to anything else. I have to budget at least 2-3 weeks for Customer Support every year while the music languishes.
What inspires you about original classical and experimental music in Kansas City?
Kansas City is a wonderful place to be a creative artist. The art scene in KC is well-established enough to have a strong infrastructure, a collection of well-connected professionals, and a collection of patrons and donors who enjoy supporting our work. This is true for both classical and contemporary art, dance, theater and music. But the art scene is also new enough to have avoided the ossification and hopeless overcrowding of many large cities. One of the most rewarding developments in the last 20 years has been the way our composition students have headed out into the Kansas City community to collaborate with numerous other artists, to set up non-profit organizations, to partner with local businesses, and to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN, not just on campus, but all over the metro area. Faculty no longer must provide the infrastructure for new music – students are just going out there, finding it and doing it. Kansas City’s openness to creative arts makes this possible.