Ben Frost talks about his background, influences and work with Siobhán Kane
As one of the most gifted and progressive composers, musicians and producers of his generation, Ben Frost is not averse to taking risks for his work, though in some ways, his move to Reykjavik from Melbourne in 2005 seemed almost like a instinctive reaction towards the promise of something more, after meeting the like-minded Reykjavik resident and producer Valgeir Sigurðsson in Melbourne in 2003.
Before his move to Iceland, he had already established himself as an interesting electronic artist with 2001’s Music for Sad Children, and School of Emotional Engineering (2004), as well as collaborations with Cicada, the arts collective who describe themselves as working with ‘landscape – urban, natural, constructed and imagined‘. In a sense this is what Frost also does, fascinated by the relationship between biology and technology, he explores essentially, what lies beneath – from rage to peace, or the “sacred and profane” as he says himself. His own small description of his inspirations for Cicada is insightful: ‘dreams, darkness, edges, heart and soul, snap, crackle and pop‘.
These inspirations have remained unchanged, though with a different landscape as his backdrop. However, this landscape contains a poetically powerful charge for him, and his electric relationship with Sigurðsson has seen him release two brilliant records on the Bedroom Community label – Theory of Machines (2007) and By the Throat (2009), and becoming part of a community that has extended to him working with Björk and Amiina among others, as well as Sam Amidon and Nico Muhly as part of the Whale Watching tour.
His work is about the exploration of edges and contradictions; whether it is scoring for film or creating a score for dance pieces. His work with esteemed choreographer Wayne McGregor was timely, because they share a sensibility – that recurrent theme of the relationship between biology and technology. Their collaboration, inspired by the medical historian Roy Porter’s book about the Enlightenment Flesh in the Age of Reason captures so much of what makes Frost so special, he puts the flesh on the intellectual, and wants to place the sacred into the everyday experience, somehow.
It is of no surprise to find out that the great Arvo Pärt is a huge influence, since Pärt’s entire life has been about trying to create something that will fill that very deep, mysterious human need in all of us; from his neo-classical work through to the elevation of more ‘sacred’ music, which he explores through a kind of ‘holy minimalism’. It is also interesting to know how much Frost is drawn to restrictions, since Pärt is also, although Pärt’s was forced upon him through censorship by the Soviet Union, whereas Frost’s is chosen. Pärt’s reaction to such restrictions was to enter into periods of contemplative silence, something he has returned to quite regularly in order to compose, which might also appeal to the very unique Frost.
This year Frost became part of the Rolex Mentoring Scheme, pairing him up with the great Brian Eno, which is testament to his fiery kind of talent – the ‘snap, crackle and pop’ that he wrote of. You can sense that kind of crackle in everything he does; from collaborations with Daniel Bjarnason for an alternative score for Tarkovsky’s Solaris, to his work on Australian crime film In Her Skin, his work is gripping – deeply thought out, and brilliantly realised, yet amongst the cerebral talent there is a warm, humorous person laying beneath, as Siobhán Kane finds out.
You moved from Australia to Iceland in 2005, and have previously spoken about Australia never really seeming like ‘home’ to you, can you expand a little as to why? This is obviously something I have thought a lot about. I think there is something to be said for some kind of genetic memory, and emotional geography of some kind of place. Australia is an amazing place, but it’s not my place. And no amount of indoctrination, and let’s be honest about it, that’s what it was – my entire school life was an indoctrination into the identity of Australia, which is a fabrication on every level, a whitewash, a violent bloodbath over the ‘birth of a nation’. It was force-fed to me and everybody else, that this is where we are from and where we belong, in spite of the fact my skin is as white as yours, and the people who have lived there for 40,000 years before me are considerably darker and have a connection to that place that is working on a level so far beyond my comprehension. I miss Australia, but that has nothing to do with a cultural level of understanding it, I miss it because it is a beautiful place and full of amazing things, but as beautiful as it is I always felt like I was at war with it, I am allergic to everything, things were trying to bite me all the time, every time I stepped outside I would be burnt to a crisp.
It is a very strange truth, because Aboriginal culture and people have been so marginalised in Australia in an attempt to separate them from the land that is linked in to their souls, an ancient relationship. It is a sad fact. I was quite privileged as a child to be exposed to genuine Aboriginal culture through my mother, as she worked on a cattle station up in the northern territory for many years before she had me, and a result, we had a bit of family in that part of the world, and I spent quite a lot of time around Aboriginal communities when I was a kid, and I probably have more of an understanding than most. The simple fact is that your average Australian’s contact with Aboriginal culture extends to a guy sniffing petrol at the side of the train station, that is the average view of Aboriginal Australia as it is today, it is sad in 2010 the difference in life expectancy between an Aboriginal man and Australian man is thirty years, it’s absurd.
Your relationship with Valgeir seems almost written in the stars, since it was an instant kind of recognition between the two of you, when you met in Melbourne in 2003. Absolutely, it was quite remarkable. We hit it off immediately. The process of removing myself from Australia and relocating to Iceland was so easy. It really was. I don’t know, I often think to myself, if I found somewhere I loved more than here would it be as easy for me to leave again, I don’t know, because at the time it was a no-brainer, it was so simple. Even learning to speak Icelandic – I found it really easy. I never considered myself a language person, and most languages don’t make any sense to me, but I have an ear for Scandinavian languages. I always have this bizarre thing when I go to Sweden or Norway in that my inclination is to participate in conversations where I have no vocabulary whatsoever, it is a really strange feeling [laughs].
You have previously spoken about playing the piano when you were younger, and doing music theory all through school, but when did you realise that there was a world outside of the classical canon? You know what’s quite interesting about early listening is that I have discovered over the last couple of years the insane influence that my mother had on my music tastes, without me really knowing it. I had this funny experience a year and a half ago, I went back to Australia for a month, and I was staying with mother and went for a run, and my IPod was still playing and Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love was playing, which is one of my favourite records ever. My mother saw the cover on the screen, and she is not what I would call a music person, but she recognised it immediately and said she used to play it all the time when I was a child and that I used to dance along to it. Of course I never associated it in that way, it was a record I didn’t find until I was around fifteen or sixteen, I discovered it through something else, I am not really sure what, but obviously it was in there somewhere and I rediscovered it. I have had that a few times actually, records I thought I was discovering for the first time that I had already known throughout most of my childhood.
It goes back to that thing you mentioned previously about genetic memory or otherwise, the layers of memory and consciousness. I believe in that very much.
You explore that in so much of your work, and in an indirect way with the work you have done with the the collective Cicada, looking at the intersection between biology and technology. I think what is interesting with people I have connected to generally speaking is that I often find myself drawn to people who represent some as yet unrealised aspect of myself, it’s terribly self-involved [laughs]. Essentially the two other guys behind Cicada are very much concerned with biology, and nowadays the two of them are specialists in Permaculture in Australia and have a gigantic farm, teaching people how to farm in harmony with nature. I often find myself in cahoots with those with scientific, and biological leanings. If I had the marks for it in school I would have probably gone into Zoology, I will probably get to that at some point, in fact, I definitely will. Unfortunately distance has come between us, they are in New South Wales and a solar powered community, and I am in Reykjavik and everywhere else, so our work together has waned with time, because of circumstance.
Your collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor was also an interesting exploration of the body in a different way, that brilliant piece of work Flesh in the Age of Reason. That Roy Porter book is so interesting, and in a sense, that describes your own music quite well. It’s funny you should mention that, because when Wayne first asked me to get involved with that piece, I was aware of the book, but didn’t have it and didn’t know anything about it, but that title to me was something in itself. I am often attracted to things for simple, aesthetic reasons, I am the kind of person who buys wine because I like the look of the label, and I can be that way with music and literature often as well, the surface aesthetics of things can be quite telling of what lies beneath, sometimes things fall through the cracks because their aesthetics are not to my liking, or require an extra level of effort for me to get involved with them, but in the case of Porter it was very easy for me to snap into that world, because I liked those words, and the idea of that piece was very striking to me and spoke to me quite directly. It was a piece of music where I felt I was trying to realise something that essentially already existed in my mind. I never really felt like I was in the dark with that piece, it was about making it come to life.
So much of what you do is about working with deliberate restrictions, like with your first record, you set yourself constraints, moving to the middle of nowhere for example. Someone you have worked with before, and who has something of an interesting relationship to restrictions is Björk, for example that work she did with her husband Matthew Barney – Drawing Restraint 9, which takes it to a different level. Barney’s work, like with the Cremaster Cycle, is often about that complicated relationship between a sense of flesh amidst reason, just as records like Kate Bush’s The Sensual World or Hounds of Love are, the sensuality of something that is not obviously tangible. Absolutely, for me everything is about the sacred and profane. Everything that I am drawn to is an oxymoron, violence is not beautiful to me, but beautiful violence is beautiful to me and all of the things that I am inevitably drawn to plays on that razors edge of things that can go either way. The reason that I wanted to work with Wayne, and I wanted to work with him for a long time, is that he plays with that line, and fights for it. That piece could have easily gone either way at varying points. The last three days before the piece was literally dealing with volume all day, sitting at various points in the theatre, finding that space where things were uncomfortable, but not throwing you outside, but you are still on the edge – everything should always be a balancing act. For me that Barney-eqsue idea of ‘drawing restraint’ is increasingly more important, the idea of restriction in art generally is always a good thing. Particularly where you are dealing with music in the digital realm, it is so easy to do, you can do anything, and often that is not necessarily a healthy thing. Most of my best work is done when I have got one hand tied behind my back.
Your most recent record By the Throat, seems to almost have a strange criteria attached, in a subtle way, that it seems most at home when listened to at night, it is both eerie and warm, a very radiant piece of work produced through absolute restrictions. I think that the way in which that record in particular is being perceived is being dictated by the more elemental forces behind it, that being the presence of the animal, the visceral within it, the presence of the wolves in there. What is interesting about it, is seeing the way in which that, as a sort of gut reaction, divides people. It is quite telling of the listener in many ways, how they choose to respond to that. I think that record is more at home in certain places and certain times, it doesn’t work for your 10am coffee [laughs]. To be honest I am not sure if it even works in groups. I have struggled quite a few times with the live aspect of that album and somehow think that the hue of that record, the texture somehow, is mutated by the presence of a lot of people.
The live aspect of your work is always interesting and difficult. It must be very challenging to have your work performed in a collaborative live context, as with The Whale Watching tour. I do enjoy it, but it is a completely different experience for me. I am out of myself when performing, I feel like I am standing on the outside looking in, and that is not a bad thing, it is quite thrilling, it allows me to be more objective about my music in a weird way, and I never get that opportunity. To do less and get something out of it is remarkable for me, as someone who is used to being on my own. Having said that I am increasingly aware of the fact that I work better on my own, there is no easy way to say that. My ability to engage with what I am doing on stage is heightened by a massive degree, by being on my own. I get locked into it, I lose myself in it, on a good night. It’s hard, it is draining, but the payoff is massive, whereas when there are other people on stage with me I feel like my concentration is divided. It is a funny place to be, because I am in many ways a social person, I need people around me, and I have an amazing community of people around me, but at the same time I also need the opposite, it’s very complicated.
I think I am just getting a bit older now and am more aware of where my own boundaries are, I need to have things a certain way in order for me to get something from them. I don’t make music for other people, it has to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and if it doesn’t, it fails and there is not a lot of room in that for other people, thus far. There is an element of trust that comes from that, a self-trust, you rely on people less and when you do bring people in, inevitably my bullshit meter comes in, which is more of an internal thing than external thing, and it is something that I have learned. I also recognise people I can learn from and go after them in a pretty major way. Valgeir is an extreme case when it comes to that idea of no compromises, he is the ultimate in that regard, it is something I have learned from him, if he can’t achieve things his way then he doesn’t do it at all; from mixing a record, to building a studio, to painting a house, Valgeir’s approach to life is one of no compromise and he is a massive influence on me in that regard.
Someone that comes to mind as a kind of ghostly figure around your work is the great Arvo Pärt, how do you feel about him? He is….there is nobody…I wouldn’t even know where to begin, trying to deal with my admiration for him, and I am so humbled even to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I adore him, there is almost nothing else to say about it [laughs].
Another interesting composer and producer that you are actually working with is Brian Eno, under the Rolex Mentoring Scheme. How are you finding it? It took a little while to settle in. Working in the area of music I do, I am often in a position where I have the potential to win or be rewarded for something, a record or project can be shortlisted for whatever, and over the years I have taken those kind of notifications with a pinch of salt, in the same way I have never taken any notice of anyone who criticises my work, just as I apply that logic to those who praise it. So to be honest I didn’t find out about it until later than I should have, as the Rolex email went to my junk folder, I think when you look at enough pornography my junk mail figured that it was equivalent to Viagra or something [laughs], so I didn’t know until they sent me the letter in physical form, and it went through its steps and at no point did they say that I was out. Then I was meeting with Brian and discussing the future [laughs] it is great, I have nothing but good things to say about the programme itself, hats off to Rolex, as there is very little direct funding for artists these days, it is pretty remarkable and I am humbled by the nomination. The other remarkable thing about it, is there is no structure, nobody’s telling us how to do it, it is about finding your own path. At this stage, we have spent a lot of time together already, but at no point has it felt like ‘now we start’, that we are on the clock, we are just good friends.
And you have already had such good creative experiences with people that you have been drawn to on a personal level already, like Valgeir. Well absolutely, and for me that idea of education, that old ‘Masters Apprentice’ Italian renaissance idea of artisanship has always resonated with me, since my earliest days in school. I would always gravitate to one person rather than a department or subject, it was always about one teacher. That person would inevitably have this effect on everything else I was doing. In high school, it was my art teacher, but it was irrelevant that she was my art teacher as I did most of my maths homework in the art room, but those relationships have been very precious to me, I have always been drawn to people that are much older than me too, so in that regard Brian is definitely my type [laughs], we get on incredibly well and I am excited as to what will come out of it.
A record that seems to permeate through much of your work like a watery little bookmark is Disintegration by The Cure, and in fact, much of The Cure’s work, because of their sense of time and strange atmosphere, the eeriness and their tragic love of the world. Disintegration came to mind in particular perhaps because it was recently reissued. Now that’s a fucking record [laughs]. Disintegration is my favourite record of all records that have ever been made by any human being. It is the ultimate album. It is a perfect piece of music. I don’t even know where to begin. Everything that I love about the world is summed up in that record, it is tragic, but triumphant, it is fragile but so powerful as well, it is so gutteral but somehow is also one of the most melodic records I own. It is so of a space and a time as well, it is so unbelievably mid-eighties in the way it sounds. If that record was a wine it would singularly be a potent aromatic wine that smells like no other wine. It has a feeling to it, you could play me a one second sample of any moment on that record and it would be instantly recognisable to me, it just reeks of that moment, 1987 or whatever it was London-studio-reverb-on-fucking-everything. It was the perfect storm of the death of analog recording and the birth of digital recording and all the best elements of analog recording and worst elements of digital recording meeting, and then Robert Smith in this comedown. The record is the morning after the night before, Pornography was a hedonistic black hole of a record, and this record is the waking up in the emergency room afterwards somehow, but at the same time still twitching.
So there is still hope, since it’s “twitching”? Yes, absolutely, and the lyrics on that record! Actually I will tell you specifically in regards to By the Throat, and for the record, the thing I took most both literally and metaphorically from it was the idea of a beginning and an end. In that the way the music works on Disintegration is unlike most music that is around now, insofar as it works more like Missy Elliott in a weird way than rock music. There are virtually no intros and no outros, everything kind of starts and becomes this space for a narrative to occur, and Robert Smith is almost narrating that record. The music kind of exists and he pops in and out of it, you just get thrown into these worlds, they are not revealed to you slowly, and there is no post-rock aspect, where things come to life, everything is more like a switch on Disintegration. That is probably far more than you wanted to hear! You know, I even stole some of the lyrics from that record, the last three pieces on the album are direct quotes from the song Disintegration.
You have scored some work for film, as well, recently you worked on Tarkovsky’s Solaris, saying that you thought the original soundtrack did not explore the “internal” and “human” enough. It’s not that I don’t like that score, I just don’t think it did what it needed to do in that film, and it was so much fun to play with that. Going back to what we talked about before, the film itself largely became irrelevant to me when I used it to create new music. I am not so much interested in creating an alternate soundtrack for a film as I am in using a film to create music, then I remove the film and present the music – it is drawing restraint again. The interesting thing I learned about film music, is that I have to work quite differently. My work is largely digital, I work in a fairly immersive way in the studio, it is a process of creating a whole, I am not creating a music that has some other imagined aspect to it that will be filled in by somebody else, it is holistic in that way. I often think it funny that people talk about my work in terms of it being cinematic, or how great it would be to use in film, whereas I think most of my work would be horrible in film because it is far too dominating, it does too much. So the film music I have written is actually very different to the music I make on albums. I actually have to do a lot less, pull back a lot more.
Was working then on the 2009 Australian crime drama film In Her Skin a very different experience again? It was. I made a lot of mistakes with that film, to be perfectly honest. Brian [Eno] has been a big influence on me with regard to working with film. I just made music for a new film this year called Sleeping Beauty and the music I made for that film is infinitely better than any I have done before because I really ignored the film, which is, in a strange way what I think film composers need to do more of. It is an interesting artefact of the digital world, where often you are asked to work to picture which is not dissimilar to the work of a sound designer or foley artist, where you are forced to work to a narrative, but also an edit, and a cut, it is more like making music for advertising or sound design. In my experience it weakens the music, and weakens the film as well, where things work too well together. It is something Wayne and I spent a lot of time on with Flesh in the Age of Reason, as we never worked with each other, in the sense I was delivering things to him in a very pinpointed way, about feelings and ideas, rather than timings and tempos and things like that, and the most amazing things happen when you allow things to coalesce of their own accord, instead of forcing them in a very specific way.
Rza talked in a similar way about his scoring Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. I do like his work. I listened to a lot of hip-hop when I was younger, and the thing I like most about it is the storytelling. I have very specific tastes, as I do in most things, and I like people like Mobb Deep and their record The Infamous. I really got into the early Anticon stuff as well, Deep Puddle Dynamics, all that stuff, fucking amazing records. The thing I like most about those records, in a similar way to The Cure actually, is their specific, static atmosphere that is instant; there is no growing, you are thrown into the space, someone opens the door, throws you in, you’re just there, someone tells you the story, and it is affected by the atmosphere it is sitting in, it doesn’t have the didactic qualities of other music and I appreciate that.
You are so prolific, what are you working on at present? Well this year is pretty much over for me, thank God. It has been a long year, I asked for it, and I got it, and I am not complaining at all, but next year is not much different it looks like, so far. I am pretty much booked until the end of 2012, and I have a few things in the pipeline. Although, I am taking a break and am going to Australia for Christmas this year.
Ben Frost‘s By the Throat is out now on Bedroom Community.