In anticipation of the upcoming Ossicle Duo & Rubiks Collective concert on Wednesday 6 December at the Primrose Potter Salon, trombonist of Ossicle Duo Benjamin Anderson sat down with composer Jakob Bragg to talk about his new pieces Displaced Bodies, Weapons of Action.
This piece was the result of a commission from the Melbourne Recital Centre and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Composition Award, and you were able to choose an ensemble to write for. Why did you propose the combination of Ossicle Duo and Rubiks Collective?
Yes, I was extremely honoured to be awarded this commission by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Melbourne Recital Centre. The commission is a pairing between the composer and the Centre’s local heroes ensembles. Somewhat unorthodoxly, I approached both Ossicle Duo and Rubiks Collective to see if they were interested in combining forces. I have been a long-time supporter of both ensembles and in my opinion, they really represent the best music-making of our generation in Melbourne. Many of the members are close friends of mine, allowing for collaboration and experimentation, something I see as vital for developing new music as opposed to simply delivering a score and reading it through. The combination of flute, trombone, cello, piano, and two percussionists carries a miniature sinfonietta sound world that can straddle both the intimate chamber and grotesquely orchestral. Both Rubiks Collective and Ossicle Duo embody a virtuosic, nuanced, and personal practice of music-making that navigates sound, score, technique, and improvisation in a fiery dance of raw creativity.
Displaced bodies, weapons of action is a very evocative title. It captures the tension between the despair of grappling with anthropomorphic climate change, while also placing some level of hope in the individuals who call for action. How important is it to you to tackle social/political issues in your work generally? Or does this work represent a response to a particularly strong impetus?
This is something of a dance I do, differing from work to work. Responding and confronting the political, the social, the ecological, is something that is deeply important to me. However, it takes a lot of energy and I always want to do this in the most effective and compelling way. As such, not every work I write addresses issues such as these. When it is done, I try to give it my all. In 2019, the skies turned a dystopian red haze, the air toxic to breathe, and scenes of entire townships wading out into the ocean to escape the inferno engulfing homes, schools, shops, and bush; it was almost impossible not to be deeply moved into action, especially upon a backdrop of climatic inaction from both the corporate and political spheres of power. Within the work, there is a certain operatic absurdity (media circus, parliament, etc), a desperate plea for action and a call to arms (protest, suffering), an escalation and an uncertain aftermath that dives into a new normal of our Anthropocene ‘hothouse’ earth.
In this piece you use a variety of unusual instrumental techniques, what are some of your favourites? What sounds are you particularly excited to hear?
Instruments are bodies, and as such, entail a vast geography of possibilities for exploration and sound-making. From baroque figuration to lush microtonal chords, and folklike glissandi to distorted scrapes and scratches, I embrace all these sounds. Unique to both Ossicle and Rubiks however, is Ben’s double-bell trombone and Jacob’s Ondomo. I have loved getting inside these instruments, learning how they work, learning their personality, and what sounds (and noises!) they’re capable of. Some other interesting sounds to listen out for in this work include squeaky toys, tin cans, ratchets, and bowed piano!
As a member of Ossicle Duo, there is a section specifically written for us (Section II - Call to arms). Over 2019 and 2020 Ossicle Duo presented a number of experimental improv evenings at The Espy in Melbourne which you were often at - how much did this influence the language and sound choices for Call to arms? And for the wider piece?
There are a few terms I like to use when discussing my close working relationship with performers, that being a ‘personalised collaboration’ and a ‘personalised virtuosity’. I really like to capture the person when composing. With this work, there is definitely some of Ben and Hamish’s Epsy Improv evenings in the second movement, a bit of Kaylie’s Speak Percussion work in the fourth movement, a bit of Jacob playing Turangalila in his Ondomo part, Tamara’s nimble virtuosity between all three flutes, and a rich timbral palette that I’ve heard Gemma play many countless times.
You're at Huddersfield studying a PhD now, what have been some of the highlights?
I’m currently at the end of my studies there; three and a half years have flown by! I began my PhD remotely as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world. So, the first year and a half of my studies included supervisions, seminars, and rehearsals on the laptop at 1 or 2am in Melbourne, working with speakers and artists across the UK, USA, and Europe. I was able to relocate to the UK in January 2022 as Australia’s travel restrictions ended, where I’ve been soaking up the cold, grey, post-industrial landscape of West Yorkshire—anyone who has spent time with me knows that I love this! The PhD is a unique opportunity in which I can further my artistic research, giving space and time to further my musical interests, question my methods of practice, experiment, build my academic voice, and develop a network of collaborators from across the globe. It has been an honour and a wild journey, and one that will hopefully continue!
Thanks Jakob, both Ossicle Duo and Rubiks Collective are super excited to present this major new work, thank you for writing for us.
Don't miss Ossicle Duo & Rubiks Collective's performance in the Primrose Potter Salon on Wednesday 6 December. Click here to book.