Ben Frost composes for films, dance and even the odd car company. But nothing excites him more than composing for music’s sake.
Ben Frost is a musician for the 21st century, defying the old classifications of instruments and genres. Whether composing or performing, he is capable of playing a guitar and sometimes does, like a rock musician of the late 20th century, but more often he uses synthesisers and laptops to create his unique music. Frost has broken geographical classifications too, moving, over a decade ago, from his home town, Melbourne, Australia, to Reykjavík, Iceland, where he feels very much at home in the spectacular landscape and with a community of like-minded music artists. His latest album, AURORA, released in May 2014, prompted rave reviews around the world. Critics marshal seemingly contrasting words to describe Frost’s minimalist yet highly atmospheric music. “AURORA is dark, dreadful and dramatic; it is also a masterpiece,” (allmusic.com) is a typical critique, with reviews emphasizing the music’s wild, frenetic and abrasive qualities, but insisting at the same time on its beauty.
Rolex Arts Initiative: Did your extended tour across Europe late last year present music from your latest album, AURORA? And who and what instruments do you have on stage with you?
Ben Frost: I tried to keep the format quite modular, I could make it work either alone, or with as many as three other musicians on stage with me – all drummers actually. In its later phase, the work really focused much more on the solo shows because I found more freedom in that format somehow – I developed a collaboration between myself and German light artist Marcel Weber which I enjoy a lot. But I think it’s important to keep flexible – specialization killed the dinosaurs.
How long does each show last?
I usually clock in just over an hour, but sometimes it’s well over.
Had you previously done a tour this extensive, with so many performances and countries? Was it exhausting?
No, I’d never toured like that. It’s not the performing that’s gruelling, the people are amazing; it’s just the human minutiae of airports and security lines and hotel wifi that doesn’t work; it’s the daily grind that chips away at your resolve to be a better person. As for the job itself, I’m not going to pretend it’s hard, I’m very lucky.
The reviews for AURORA were very positive, emphasizing how harsh your music can be and how beautiful. Are you happy with those comments?
I think [my intent] has been communicated pretty well by the label, and my writer friend John Holten was a big part in that – communicating such a complex and frankly disorganized set of ideas into something that can be more easily navigated. There are some very good writers out there – slowly evolving our language about music and that is positive – we’ve finally surpassed that time when the computer in music was an oddity, or a kind of gimmick. In Icelandic, the word for computer is “number witch” or “number oracle”. This speaks volumes as to the way in which people dealt with that technology until recently – with equal wonderment and fear.
How long did you spend working on AURORA?
This record began in 2011 – I suppose – on the back of a touring cycle. I wasn’t thinking about an album. It was very disparate, elemental ideas that were not connected, and they very slowly started to coalesce, and move together, gaining a density that eventually manifested itself as a singular idea. It’s like: “This is a thing I can hold in my hand” – it’s really only then that it becomes an album.
Do you have a big following in particular countries? How do you decide where to tour?
I am always pushing my agent to reach further east, further north, further south. It’s been my experience that allowing a BBC news feed to dictate how I move through the world is a dangerous thing. I want my engagement with the world to be physical and as such I absolutely have an interest in performing in places where others won’t readily go. I have no strong feelings of national identity and as such I really appreciate that there are a lot of other people out there to whom nationalism means nothing, and that there are kids with iPods everywhere and people just want to listen and lose themselves for a moment – and when you are receiving arts funding, as I often am, I see it as a responsibility to be at the sharp edge of that kind of engagement with the rest of the world.
You collaborate with other artists. You write music for films and for dance. You’re more than a musician. Is this part of your vision of your work or does it just happen?
Records have a way of finding their way into the world in ways that I could not dictate. It’s fascinating to see the narratives music seems to create for itself. I remember there was a weird period of a couple of years after the release of By the Throat [an album Frost released in 2009] when a whole slew of major car manufacturers wanted to use a very specific piece from the LP to advertise their new engines. It was uncanny. It was like someone sent out the same demo tape to them at the same time. It was a pattern no one could have planned for and was absolutely random. I could not have planned for that – this makes me think a lot about resonance, and some form of collective mind.
And in dance, maybe because of my history of working in that world – certain pieces have become almost standards now and that’s cool – the music has a life of its own – it doesn’t need me or really even feel like it belongs to me anymore.
Did you say yes to any of the car manufacturers?
I would actually really love to engage more with that world in the design process. The sound design aspect of engines and user feedback systems in things like cars, aeroplanes, rockets. Especially as we move away from internal combustion and the technology gets quieter, there is a new space there to play around in that is fascinating to me. We can start to ask the question: “What could this sound like?” rather than “what does this sound like?” I was in a new BMW recently on the way to an airport and it had this indicator sound that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was just so perfect, so round and delicate, and poised – I just wanted the driver to keep turning. But there are very few companies who get it right like that, and invest in that level of detail, or realise its importance. The modern world, for the most part sounds horrendous.
You were commissioned by the creators of Fortitude, a 12-part TV crime drama set in the Arctic Circle, to write the soundtrack. The music is quite ethereal and it seems unusual for a TV series to engage an experimental composer. Did you enjoy the work and do you approach a commission like this the same way you approach your other musical work?
I loved working on Fortitude. But then, I simply enjoy problem-solving. When the conditions are right; that there is a director I can engage with, cinema is still a fascinating space to work in as a musician. With Fortitude, the conversation was always about how to make this space, which physically was dealing in glaciers and snow and man-eating polar bears, feel internal and emotionally-driven rather than simply a product of enchanting landscapes. And then the television aspect of it – ad breaks, severely limited timelines compared to a film, the time pressure of delivery – that was all new to me, and while chaotic, I actually got a lot out of it. Creatively, I think I am quite competitive – by which I mean that I definitely work better when I have to work against something, to be shoved back by the medium, by a collaborator. To have to find my way around or through an obstruction forces my hand and the music has always worked harder, is more muscular.