The newly formed Ossicle Duo - trombonist Benjamin Anderson and percussionist Hamish Upton - centres their practice on the creation of great new music, inspired programming and having a darn good time. To build this new ensemble, the pair has given enormous reserves of energy, skill and dedication to the cause, but in chatting to them you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire process has been completely relaxed. There’s always more to chamber music than meets the eye, so Megan Steller caught up with Benjamin and Hamish to hear about the process behind Ossicle Duo’s thoughtful approach.
Megan: It would be great to start off with your origin story if that’s okay! When did you meet and how soon did you start considering the idea of forming a duo?
Hamish: It started about eight years ago in Singapore. I was in my second year of university there and Ben had just arrived as a third year. Naturally, our Australian and New Zealand alliance kicked in quickly!
Benjamin: There was a group of us - a little Trans-Tasman group - that hung out, and Hamish and I would go for runs together and grab cheap food at the university canteen. We started playing for each other in the lead up to exams - performing our pieces over and over again until we were happy with them. Our first experience of playing together was in one of my recitals, a piece for trombone and two percussionists.
Hamish: We then graduated at separate times; Ben went home to Melbourne and I went back to New Zealand, and then eventually we both ended up at Australian National Academy of Music. I actually stayed with Ben when I came over to do my audition!
Benjamin: We started talking about playing together when we were at studying at ANAM but we were both doing a lot of freelance work and then I got my job [Ben is the Principal Bass Trombone for Orchestra Victoria], so we didn’t have enough space to do anything else. But in late 2016, we finally decided that we really wanted to make the duo idea a reality and began that planning process straight away.
Megan: So, by the time we get to the launch in late-February, this will have been in the works for a little over a year?
Benjamin: Yes! We wanted to do it properly, so we took the time to think about what we wanted to play and what the ensemble’s philosophy would be. We chose a program - a few works that we really wanted to do - and then started to think about how we could build around those pieces. We’re very committed to commissioning, so we began to look for grant opportunities and interesting composers who we thought would fit our overall vibe. Hamish has worked with James Hullick before [composer commissioned to write a piece for the duo’s launch], and he’s been a great mentor.
Hamish: James has been incredibly helpful in providing advice on how we set the ensemble up, offering a lot of invaluable wisdom on getting everything organised in time.
Benjamin: Once all those initial things were organised and we’d thought a lot about why we were doing this, we began to look at grant opportunities with gusto, and found the City of Port Philip’s Cultural Development Fund. We were unsure whether we’d get it or not but we decided to go for it and it came through successfully, which was fantastic. I think the time we put into setting the duo up properly has been a real plus in securing support, but also in giving us confidence in the idea overall.
Hamish: We’re so grateful for that grant, because it means we can do things properly - pay for commissions and have a proper marketing campaign, included! ANAM has also really helped us out; we picked this crazy program with two enormous percussion setups and there’s no one who owns all the necessary gear, so it has been great to have had access to the school’s equipment. We would never have been able to pull off a program of this magnitude without that help!
Benjamin: I think the program has basically every single big percussion instrument we could think of, right? Except for timpani! We’ve got marimba, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone; it’s ridiculous. Then there’s this battery of smaller auxiliary percussion instruments.
Megan: And Ben, you have a pretty cool instrument selection too, right?
Benjamin: Yes! I’ve always had this idea that it’d be fun to get a double-bell euphonium, which is an instrument that dates back to the early 20th-century. I put an eBay alert out for them a few years ago and an instrument pops up every now and again but until now, I’d never been able to justify the price for something I wouldn’t get to play all that often. It just so happened that in time for the upcoming launch, I was looking at the website of an instrument repairer in California and he had one for sale at a surprisingly reasonable price, so I asked my colleague in LA to go and try it out. He said it was great, so I bought it and it arrived in Melbourne just after Christmas!
Hamish: It’ll make its debut in James’ piece, which is exciting. He was great about making some adjustments and fitting the instrument into the work.
Benjamin: In the program, I’ll actually be playing bass trombone, alto trombone and the new double-bell euphonium. That’s a big part of this ensemble; creating an exciting and varied sound world. Hamish plays about fourteen trillion instruments, give or take, so I’m trying to play as many instruments as him! We don’t want to limit ourselves.
Megan: Is there already lots of repertoire out there for this combination of percussion and trombones?
Benjamin: The Richard Barrett piece, EARTH, that we will be performing is an incredibly important piece in the repertoire and because of how compelling it is as a work, lots of people have commissioned pieces to perform alongside it. As a result, there is quite an interesting body of work for the setup, including Brenton Broadstock’s piece, Beast from Air, which we will also be playing. I suppose the Barrett really kickstarted a canon of music while leaving space for additional commissioning and writing.
Megan: And I suppose that the interest in continuing to build the canon is part of the ensemble’s larger mission?
Benjamin: Absolutely, commissioning will be a big part of what we do with Ossicle duo. The driving force for us was wanting to play great music with great people, but then also in terms of grander ideas, we wanted this duo to be a starting point from which we can move and add and build and subtract. It will be an existing duo that allows space for us to play solo works if we want, or add a saxophonist or a pianist should a piece require it. There’s so much Australian repertoire that is built on this duo with some additional players.
Hamish: Philosophically, the reason I play music is as much for the people as it is for the repertoire. This concert is allowing me to tackle some works that are beyond anything I’ve ever played before; the Barrett is a dream to play for a percussionist - it’s a bucket list piece, really - and that is really special. And honestly, it’s just fun to play with Ben! All the aspects of working on the duo are great, actually; from marketing and event organisation to the actual rehearsing.
Benjamin: We have a ball!
Megan: Does being great friends help when you’re in the rehearsal room, getting this crazy tricky repertoire ready for performance?
Hamish: It does. We can be extremely honest with each other and we don’t take things too personally. If there’s something not going right, we just chip away at a solution. I think we’re pretty diplomatic about everything.
Benjamin: Absolutely, we’re both very accommodating. We want to make the overall experience good and so we’re both always happy to be the person that admits to having stuffed up! It’s important for us to be solution-driven.
Hamish: We’re really limited by rehearsal space because of the amount of instruments we’re using, so we do quite a bit of rehearsing away from our setups; just working on the repertoire by clapping through sections. We get together and do a bit of emailing, have a bit of dinner and do a bit of singing! This means that by the time we get to the instruments, we’re not scrambling to get things together. Rehearsal time is precious, so we want to be using it in the most effective way possible.
Megan: I imagine any rehearsal time is hard to come by - with or without instruments - considering how busy you both are?
Hamish: It is tricky - I have an unpredictable freelance workload and Ben has his busy job at OV, but we’re both very accommodating of each other's commitments. And we’re always honest about those times when we are freaking out or panicking, which does happen! We’ve both had a few little moments in the lead up to the launch…
Benjamin: This is such an ambitious program and we both recognised that from the outset. We kind of work by the motto of: “bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell”. I think that lends itself to aiming for goals that don’t have a clear-cut path, but we’ve found that if you voice your concerns as they arise and talk through potential problems, everything generally turns out okay!
Megan: With a restricted schedule, I imagine that attitude has helped with all of the extra administrative tasks that come alongside setting up a duo. Have you got into a rhythm with those additional jobs?
Hamish: We’ve both assumed roles without really talking about it, actually. I’m working on venues and Ben has been in charge of marketing. We’re using Google Docs to sort everything out - our scores are there and we both work off a marketing plan.
Benjamin: I’ve also been doing some grant writing while Hamish makes content for the website, so there’s definitely a bit of a split in terms of tasks, but we’re constantly talking about what needs to be done and helping each other out with anything that is pressing. We have the most enormous iMessage chain, that gets super fast-paced at times! Hamish sits on his computer and types out all these huge messages while I’m on my phone trying to keep up! But really, being open with all our communication is the most important thing for us. We’re trying to be super realistic and relaxed, and we’d like to keep saying yes to things - experiences, instruments and ideas. I guess we’re saying yes to as much as is reasonable.
Hamish: Maybe that makes the duo’s overall philosophy a “within-reason yes”? I like that.
Benjamin Anderson and Hamish Upton launch Ossicle Duo at Temperance Hall in South Melbourne on Sunday 18th February at 2pm. $15 tickets are available for City of Port Phillip Residents, seniors, students, and concession card holders. Photo by Jon Woods.