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Karola Obermüller

Associate Professor, Department of Music

What excites you most about coming to UC San Diego?

"So many things! It’s hard to pick just a few… first of all, the brilliant students and the fantastic colleagues. I got to know a few of them during my visit in the spring, and then I met some UC San Diego students at a music festival in Germany this August — so wonderful to hear their compositions and their performances! I’m also very excited about the amazing concert halls and recording facilities, and about the beautiful campus. I am very much looking forward to teaching and doing research at UC San Diego — such an energetic community, everything seems possible!"

Why did you choose your field of study?

"I started composing music as a child. I had two tape recorders and did a sort of multi-track recording with them: record on one of them, then play that back and sing/play along and record that on the other machine. Of course, the noise got very dominant after a few rounds. As a teenager, I learned how to notate music, and at age 16, I was sure that I wanted to become a composer. There were (and are) a few other strong interests: astronomy, philosophy, literature, visual arts — but I was mostly interested in pursuing these so they would produce ideas for and connections with compositions. I love to work collaboratively, and I love learning new things every day, and composing has been an endeavor where I have been able to do both. It’s an endless challenge, it drives me crazy and consumes me at times, and sometimes it seems to be the crack through which I can sense time and the universe."

What advice do you have for students studying in the arts and humanities?

"Arts and humanities are some of our most human endeavors. Like human beings, they are both fragile and strong, they absolutely depend on a curious mind, and they can dream up and ask the most important, most beautiful, most heart-wrenching questions. There is never just one answer, and sometimes there is none, and the practice of these disciplines can teach us how to live, and how to live with paradoxes. Dear students, the arts and humanities are excellent ways to explore the most important questions, and to grow strong and brave while doing so. Questions like the one that Mary Oliver famously asked: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

How do you view your role relative to the greater regional community?

"I am very excited to make connections with the regional community that UC San Diego is a part of. I will be able to draw upon my experience from the past 13 years at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. During that time, my partner and I collaborated with local music ensembles, concert series, and venues, as well as youth orchestras and music programs at public schools. Our composition students composed for several of these collaborators, and my orchestration students arranged pieces by Black female composers of the 19th and 20th century, to be played by the local youth and school orchestras. We were also able to connect with local composers by programming their work on our annual new music festival. I am looking forward to exploring the myriad opportunities along those lines in San Diego, and I’m excited to hook into and expand the beautiful network that’s already there!"

What is something about yourself that is not typically included in your bio?

"My partner and I have two kids who are now 13 and 16 years old. They make our lives very interesting, and it has been a joy to watch their ongoing metamorphoses. We sometimes sing (four-part) Bach Chorals together now, since they are able to sing their part on their own. For me, some of the happiest times are when we sing or play together. "

Professor Karola Obermüller composes in search of the unknown, with layers upon layers of obscured material buried deep beneath a surface that is sometimes sumptuous, sometimes bristling with rhythmic energy. Her unique voice began forming in collages of sound made with tape recorders as a child and evolved later with composition degrees from the Meistersinger-Konservatorium Nürnberg, the Hochschule für Musik Saar and the University Mozarteum Salzburg. Her sense of rhythm and form was forever changed by studying Carnatic and Hindustani classical music in Chennai and Delhi, India.

A Ph.D. at Harvard University brought her to the U.S. where she taught at Wellesley College and at the University of New Mexico, co-directing the composition area and the annual John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium music festival, before joining the Department of Music at UC San Diego. She often spends time in Europe and has been a visiting artist at ZKM, Deutsche Akademie Rom, Centro Tedesco di studi Veneziani, Akademie Schloss Solitude, Leipzig Gewandhaus & Hanns Eisler House, and IRCAM as well as serving as a resident composer for new music festivals at Hochschule für Musik Nürnberg, Conservatorio Piccinni di Bari (Italy), University Mozarteum Salzburg, Festival Virtuosi Century XXI, Recife (Brazil), Samobor Music Festival Croatia, and others. Professor Obermüller frequently serves as an adjudicator for competitions such as the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Hochschulwettbewerb, the Femfestival and the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis of the Darmstadt Ferienkurse.

Her music, often political, always dramatic, includes operas for Staatstheater Nürnberg, Theater Bielefeld, Theater Bonn, Theater Heidelberg and Stuttgart’s Musik der Jahrhunderte. The emotional juxtapositions of story suspended in a tableau architecture that one finds in her operas can be heard in her concert works as well, which include commissions from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fromm Music Foundation, New Music USA, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Saarländischer Rundfunk, and numerous renowned soloists and ensembles.

Professor Obermüller works with lauded contemporary music ensembles such as Ensemble Modern, ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), Arditti Quartet, Neue Vocalsolisten, Ekmeles, MusikFabrik, Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, E-MEX Ensemble, Iridium Quartet, New Thread Quartet, Soli fan tutti, Pegnitzschäfer Klangkonzepte, Ensemble Adapter, New Mexico Contemporary Ensemble, ensemble phorminx, saxophone quartet, Splinter Reeds, Gewandhaus-Ensemble Avantgarde and AsianArt Ensemble. She has received numerous awards including the Heidelberger Künstlerinnenpreis, Darmstädter Musikpreis, the New York Musicians Club Prize, the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer’s Award, the Bavarian Youth Prize for Composition (awarded by Zubin Mehta), the John Green Prize for Excellence in Music Composition and the 1st Prize of the “New Note” International Composers Competition Croatia. 

Recordings of several of Obermüller's works have been released on CD including Jacqueline Leclair’s solo CD (New Focus Recordings, Music for English Horn Alone, FCR272), a record by harpsichordist Luca Quintavalle (Brilliant Classics 96476: Mousikē—the art of the muses), a CD with the Voices of the Pearl project (Volume 3) and a disk by Duo Harmonium d’art et Pianoforte (forthcoming on dreyer-gaido). Having been selected by the German Music Council to be a part of the Contemporary Music Edition, the first portrait CD of her music was released by WERGO in 2018 and a second CD is forthcoming on New Focus Recordings.