Brian Eno and Ben Frost

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

Brian Eno, who became famous in the 1970s as part of the glam-rock band, Roxy Music, has never stopped finding new ways to be creative, using all the media that today’s fast-developing technology can provide. He and Ben Frost, a young Australian musician living in Iceland, are the 2010-2011 mentor and protégé in music; but, as Frost puts it: “Brian is the sort of expansive, imaginative thinker who could be the mentor to any artist or scientist in any field.” Eno and Frost spent time in each other’s studios in London and Reykjavik, but their prolonged discussions went far beyond music. At the heart of their interaction was a shared determination to create the art of the future, before they even know what it is going to be.

Brian Eno and Ben Frost

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

June 2010

An interview with Ben Frost before the beginning of his mentoring year with Brian Eno.

At what age did you start playing an instrument?
I was at the piano from very early on, I suppose around six or seven. It was my younger brother Luke who started playing it first and I remember going with my mother to pick him up from a class and being really fascinated. I immediately made it very clear to my mother then and there I wanted to play. From there on music, or rather the performance of music, very quickly became a sort of mode of transportation, not escape exactly, but perhaps more a more meditative thing, it was a way of getting lost in my head and turning off my brain which even today is still a problem and I still have that connection, especially with the piano. I can literally lose hours in front of a piano in this kind of visceral dialogue with it.

Does most of your music begin on the piano?
There are no particular rules, but certainly more often than not I gravitate towards the piano or the guitar. The beginnings of my albums are usually drawn from snapshots on little tape recorders or more recently, my phone, when I’m in someone’s house and they have a piano. In the old days I would sometimes even call in my ideas home to the answering machine.

I was schooled first and foremost as a visual artist, I went to art school and it has only become evident to me in the last few years just how strongly I am still geared towards working like a painter, how much I was affected by those methods of working. I research my work like a painter, I keep "sketchbooks" and the way in which I draw on ideas is very visually oriented. I see things like colour and texture and shape long before I imagine instrumentation or tempo or arrangement.

You have already made an international name for yourself, and you just turned 30. How did you do this?
It always confuses me when I hear artists talking about their work in altruistic terms, and saying that it’s made for other people. I think first and foremost I would differentiate myself there – my music is an entirely selfish pursuit – as soon as you start to consider your audience you end up cheating them. I have for the most part made uncompromised creative choices and I suppose I just keep trying to do that. Gut instinct has never steered me wrong.

How much of your time do you spend touring and giving performances?
A huge part of my year has been sacrificed to airport departure lounges and tour buses because I released an album only last November. I enjoy the shows, but I hope there will be less of it next year so I can focus better on new work and collaborating with Brian.

Where were you when you heard that you had been chosen as the music protégé?
I think I was in Spain actually, on tour.

Meeting Brian for the first time was funny, in that we spent the whole day talking and very little of it had anything to do with music - in that sense it was very natural. The only unnatural moment was at the end when I had to walk away and put it out of my mind, but then, I walked away thinking: “Well, I got some serious face time with someone who has affected my work and music generally in a totally profound way and it was great fun,” and then I let it go. To be told a month later on tour he wanted to work with me as the protégé was a really nice, albeit strange, moment and it definitely took some time to rewire to this being a reality.

What do you hope to get most from the mentoring year?
I am really trying not to go in with preconceived ideas about how this will work. I mean nothing would make me happier than to be able to look back to this point in a year’s time and say: “How the hell did I end up here?” Eno, the producer, and the conduit for new music is something I have always wanted to experience as an artist, and obviously I am excited about his insights into my work on that level, but it’s not so much the ideas but the processes that lead to them that make this really exciting to me. His studio, it doesn't feel like a music studio, it feels more like a factory for ideas, it seems to me he could just as easily be making furniture in there as music, and that is just fine with me.

What are the attractions of Iceland?
This country has changed dramatically in the time I have been here. All of the banking and political turmoil is really just the start of it. I have certainly lived through some interesting times. My reasons for still being here have become much clearer to me largely because everything around me has changed. When you’re cancelling shows and washing volcano ash off your house, you start to really reassess the reasons for staying in Iceland. It comes down to this though: I know everyone on my street, my water and my air are clean, I can drive 10 minutes from my studio and be fishing for salmon, which I do a lot, I grow vegetables in my garden, and 30 minutes in any direction I can be completely alone in nature. Maybe it’s my reaction to this digital existence we are all getting sucked into, but I just need more and more to balance it out with something altogether more visceral and rooted in the dirt.

Do you know Lee Serle, who, like you, is from Melbourne, and has been chosen as the dance protégé?
We worked together onMortal Engine[a production by Chunky Move, a Melbourne dance company]. That was a really intense project and we spent a lot of time together. I’m not in the least surprised he was chosen [as dance protégé], he is incredible.

Why do you make music?
I wouldn’t know what to do with myself otherwise. I’m constantly making something new because I have to.

Brian Eno and Ben Frost

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 3 of 6)

November 2010

Australian composer and Rolex music protégé Ben Frost is enjoying a highly productive year, promoting his latest album and writing music for dance, for films and for stage. A recent key project which involved, in the final stages, his mentor, renowned British musician and producer Brian Eno, was the creation of a new musical score for a special screening of the classic Russian film, Solaris, at the Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland.

These contrasting, demanding musical projects were the subject of a recent interview with Ben Frost.

What was it like seeing Brian Eno in July in Iceland, where you now live?
Very unofficial. Brian and I have made quite a deliberate effort, although unspoken, to just allow things to happen as opposed to forcing them. We spent a lot of time together. He got a bit more of a peek into my world and I got a peek into his. It was nice to have him on my turf, in my space, as opposed to his. [Eno and Frost had met briefly in April in London, where Eno is based.]

I put him in my truck and we went to see the volcano [Eyjafjallajokull, whose eruptions disrupted European flights last April]. During the week that he was there, we only spent a total of 40 minutes in the studio. It was more about getting to know each other and talking a lot. That was valuable to me. There was no specific agenda.

If there’s anything that brings us together, it’s that we both share a general fascination with the world that extends beyond the bounds of music and art. We are comfortable talking about advances in neuroscience, in fact, even more interested in talking about that than in talking about music or instruments.

Did your expectations for the mentoring year change after this encounter?
We haven’t decided anything for the mentoring year. The scheduling for the whole programme put us both in a situation where we had a stacked calendar through the end of 2010. But there should be more room for interaction next year. Having said that, we’ve already spent quite a bit of time together….I feel connected to Brian. It’s like we’ve known each other from before.

You have been working on music for the 1972 film Solaris, a psychological drama about a fictional crew aboard a space station. The music was commissioned by the Unsound Festival in Krakow. Apparently this was born out of your dissatisfaction with the original score for the film by director Andrei Tarkovsky.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the music from the original score. I felt that it compounded the science fiction element of the story instead of exploring the inner workings of it. It was external and futuristic. For me that story is a very human story. And the fact that it’s set in outer space is irrelevant. I discussed this with Mat Schulz [Australian-born director of the Unsound Festival] which planted the seed, and he had this idea that he wanted to commission a work from me and we had happened to be talking about Solaris at the same time. The idea slowly evolved. He asked me: “What about if you made new music for the film?” It’s been a long process. That series of coincidences started two years ago.

Brian Eno got involved in the Solaris project, and this was the first opportunity for you to work with him. How would you describe the experience?
It was great. We never really talked about it in those terms. Brian does what Brian likes. He really liked the idea of coming to Krakow and seeing what it was all about. There was no discussion of him being involved in a practical way. The beautiful thing about this particular collaboration is that I had resigned myself to the absence of film. It had become unnecessary. I was consumed by the music. I couldn’t think about anything else. But when Brian arrived with a fresh mind, he had the space to look at the bigger picture. When we went to see the venue, he saw the screen and his mind started ticking. It was a weak spot in the performance. And then we started talking about different ideas, not in terms of solutions, but possibilities. After mulling it over for a while, he laid out his idea for the video work one day. It was very elegant. That’s what I like about it the most. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

You recently collaborated with Julia Leigh, the Rolex protégée in literature in 2002-2003 [mentored by Toni Morrison], writing the music for her screenplay in a film she is also directing. What is the film called?
The film is called Sleeping Beauty. It hasn’t premiered yet. They just sent me the final prints. I wrote all the music. It was a good experience. Julia Leigh is a remarkable woman. We’ve never met in person. In my short experience of working with directors, there are very few people that I have come across who are as determined or focused as she is. This is her first time directing a movie.

It was a nice project to be involved in. She knew what she wanted and she sent me a finished and locked edit. She said she needed 8.5 minutes of music by a given date. Brian had told me something about his process making the music for Lovely Bones that changed my approach to this project. He said that when he works on music for films, instead of trying to make music that fits specifically to each moment or scene of the movie, he creates a ton of music and hands it over to the sound designer to let them choose the parts they like for the film.

I used this same technique for Sleeping Beauty and I found it to be a very effective way of working. I sent them over 50 minutes of music, they put it to the film and sent it back to me for approval and I fine-tuned it to make it better. Doing it this way strengthens the collaboration. Now that I’ve tried it, I wouldn’t do it any other way.

You are also working on the music for the dance piece FAR with the Random Dance Company, in London. What is this piece about? How did you approach the music for it?
FAR premieres soon. The piece itself is essentially based on a book by [British medical historian] Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason, which is essentially a dissertation on the journey of man through the dark ages and the Enlightenment period and the changing perception of the soul and body through science and discovery. To start the project, I read the book – it’s more like an encyclopaedia than a novel. It can’t be read page by page. I chose different sections and made hyperlinks in my brain. I had medieval books all over my desk and I thought to myself, how did I get here? I listened to a lot of Mozart and Haydn. I consciously tried to bring in elements of that. I always do a lot of research when I take on a project. I’m still working on the research for this piece.

You mentioned you were commissioned to do a piece for the Bregenz Festival, in Austria. Can you tell me more about this?
I can tell you that that piece is new territory for me in all respects. It will be my first work for the stage. I’m not even sure what that piece will be yet, but at the same time, I know how it looks. It’s a funny thing to say, I know.

I am an absolute control freak in almost every respect of my music. It’s a natural step for me to write for the stage and take over the entire sensory experience.

It’s a challenge. It doesn’t scare me. I think it’s exciting. Come to think of it, I haven’t told Brian about this project yet, but I’m sure he’d get involved with it if I had my way.

You have a very busy schedule. Apart from being on tour for the release of your latest album, By the Throat, you have been commissioned for a variety of different projects.
My working life has become very cyclical in the sense that I seem to have periods where my creative process is internal.

There is a very external element to what I’ve been doing. I spend a lot of time giving. It’s not possible for me to make money from album sales. My albums are large, expensive business cards for everything else I do. The process of releasing an album creates this extroverted period of touring and giving, output. You drain your battery giving to others.

But then there’s the other side where things turn in. I can feel that. It’s coming. The past couple of months, I’ve been feeling a huge need to slow down. It has been hard for me, and my natural inclination at this stage is to read books and go fishing. I need to put my brain somewhere new. Making a record like By the Throat is like being in a marriage – I take it with me everywhere – and now I need to end that relationship, put it away. The only way I’ve survived the last six months is by relying on the energy of other people – their ideas and inspiration. I do this much more than during the in-phase.

Brian Eno and Ben Frost

A year of mentoring

The Nurturer and the Hunter (Chapter 4 of 6)

Eno met Frost through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, but it might have happened anyway, not so much because they both make compelling post-rock or post-minimalist electronic music with, in Frost’s case a menacing, fearless kick, and, in Eno’s case, a celestial, detached caress, and sometimes vice versa, and sometimes simultaneously, but because their stories, so far apart, separated by geography, chronology, psychology, biography, are, to some extent, the same story. Even if that just means they base themselves in recording studios and meanwhile travel the world, for work, adventure, audiences and pleasure, for whatever happens next, even if that means following irrational thoughts absolutely and logically.

In his room in Iceland, Frost says: “This whole process was sometimes just like a long conversation that wasn’t even about music, a simple cup of coffee, an occasional word of advice, a visual contribution to a project based around theSolarisfilm I was collaborating on. He made it clear, though, that he wanted to make a real difference to what it is I do, rather than it be me just follow him around like a shadow. Don’t get me wrong – part of me is a bit curious about that side of his life, and how it works and what he does. I’d love to hear him conceptualize with Bono! But this is all about the work we do, who we both are at this stage of our lives and the fact we have come together in this way out of the blue.”

In his room in London, Eno says: “I never assumed the point of this was for me to produce a Ben Frost album. I wasn’t necessarily against that, but it’s not what happened. What was far more preferable was that we set out to achieve something in some form that doesn’t even have a name yet, where we curate, edit, oversee something that suits our own desire for originality, that is more than just a record, is very much part of the post- Internet world, and that works as the result of us being together, not me working or doing whatever it is I do and him just looking on. Even if I had just ended up critiquing one of his records and giving him clues about what he did next, it would still have been worthwhile. But the relationship is more than that. We can perhaps come up with a bigger, better idea together about what music can be than we would separately.”

Frost entered the room of Eno, and Eno entered the room of Frost. The words of one artist to another induced an idea chain and they made room for each other.

Extracted from an article written by Paul Morley, forMentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Brian Eno and Ben Frost

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Ben Frost talks about his music and his mentor

On his biography, as the son of two police officers:
I was conceived in the back seat of a police car in the streets of Melbourne. My Dad’s family are very aggressive, very bold and up front. They were the sort to get really fired up around the Christmas table. You’d see the best fights ever at Christmas. On the other side, my Mum’s family were quite the opposite. They were devoted Catholics and it was a very quiet household. I am the by-product of those opposites, but ultimately more my father’s son.

On moving from living in Australia to living in Iceland:
It is moving from one extreme to another. I suppose I thought that something dramatic was inevitably going to happen. That was a result of reading about the clichés of Icelandic music, that it was glacial, bleak, epic, and I imagined I would be affected by that. The more I travel, the more I realize that, in fact, I have very distinct boundaries in terms of what I’m interested in aesthetically and that doesn’t really change wherever I am. If anything, Iceland supplies an absence of environmental information, which I like. What really counts in terms of where I am in the world is my reading or listening habits. They don’t change much between Australia or Iceland or wherever I am, in whatever hotel room, airport or different country.

On whether he wants to create the musical equivalent of “like nowhere else on earth”:
Absolutely. In that sense it’s chasing the essence of romantic music – not Hugh Grant romance, but something Wagnerian, creating something that is the ultimate version it can be of itself and the creation of something that is not a reflection of the world as it is, but of the world as you imagine it to be.

On Brian Eno:
Brian likes to imagine future world histories where people are looking back at genres that in fact as history turned out never really happened. He creates an alternative future history and tries to make music from these genres that never were. It’s a great way of making the sort of music that doesn’t already exist and I’m very much interested in making something new. I don’t understand making a facsimile of music that already exists. I don’t understand musicians who are happy to make music that already exists. It really disturbs me actually. I find it offensive. There is a lot of music around at the moment, and I’m not saying that everyone should do what I do, and I’m not saying what I do is obviously better or anything, it’s a genuine frustration I have that I don’t understand what their real motivation is. Yes, it is obsessive, and I admit I do get obsessed about the integrity and originality of music. My girlfriend tells me to calm down. She has the ability to have the iPod on shuffle, which I just hate, and when a piece comes on that to me seems wrong, I have to leave the room. She says it’s just music. I’m going: no, it’s not!

On the violence of his music:
I’ve always been attuned to the dark side of...anything really. It doesn’t matter what it is. I’ve often wondered if I am into aggression because I am an aggressive person or I am an aggressive person because I’m into aggressive things. The music I like most is always the most visceral. I like to play my music really loud. That’s as close to God as you can get.

On hunting for food, sounds, on fear and danger:
I hunt. I quite like it. I don’t do it for the sport. I do it for food. I would never kill anything I was not going to eat. There is something about hunting that fires the same neural pathways that go back to when we were living in the darkness of caves, scared of what might come in through the opening. It gets my blood going, getting back to a natural state of being. When the (Eyjafjallajškull) volcano was erupting on Iceland (in 2010), I went to the very top and I was genuinely scared. I realized that it was the first time in my life that I had been genuinely terrified of something. It was something completely and utterly old that you could not reason with and you couldn’t change it or protect yourself against it. It was so much bigger than anything you could possibly grasp. It could just end you in a moment without there being any pause. It’s like playing the guitar in front of a mountain of amplification. It’s the process of losing control to the point where it could be dangerous to your hearing and the audience’s hearing, where the electricity flowing through everything becomes real. You become a little less human, or more human, certainly more naked. I remember travelling up north of Iceland to go fishing and I’d lost my knife, but I didn’t want to stop fishing. I dragged this trout out of the water and then, without thinking about this big fish thrashing about in front of me, I grabbed a rock and crushed its skull. Nobody trained me to do that. I didn’t read about that in a book. It was something that came from deep inside me and it was a little bit shocking when it appeared. And then I ate the fish. It was great.

Brian Eno and Ben Frost

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Brian Eno

On his latest album, Drum Between the Bells, a spoken-word project in collaboration with poet Rick Holland, released in 2011:
I have used spoken word before on and off, from Dead Finks Don’t Talk on my first solo album to something on the Everything That Happens Will Happen Today album I made in 2008 with David Byrne. I have used spoken word as part of my continuing fight against singing. I love singing, but I hate that thing that happens in pop music of the identification of the singer with the lyrics they sing. It seems to me so childish. You don’t for a minute imagine that Hamlet is a manifestation of William Shakespeare or that Tom Stoppard is actually like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.You understand in other art forms that you can construct scenarios or characters that are separate from you. That’s what I like to do and some people I have worked with have been very good at it – David Bowie is an example – where you treat each work as a theatre piece and in it there appears this character – the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust or whatever and, of course, Bowie is clever enough to play around with the idea that people will think that it is really him. The interesting thing to me is not that it might really be him, but that he is constructing stories and scenes and legends. That’s the problem with singing in rock music, the sincere school of criticism, the need for everything to have to have personal meaning and emotion, that the psychological intention of the singer is the most important thing. I would love to see critics write about what the drummer is doing as though it is as important as what the singer is singing, which it usually is. It’s at least as significant as the lyrics to a song how one chord becomes another. You can view the rock song through the prism of the words, but you can also view it through lots of other prisms. That’s why I’ve been keen to explore other ways of using the voice.My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, that I made with David Byrne, is a prime example of when you say what happens when you don’t have a singer, and we made it clear that the voices we used were not done for that song, they were found and stuck on. As soon as you put voices found from anywhere into a musical context, then they become singers, and they are the singer of songs whether they know it or not. It is like Duchamp putting a toilet into an art gallery and calling it art. So I am interested in the different ways you can use the voice and make that into singing, even if it is not. With spoken word you can do things that you cannot do with singing.

On the idea of a whole new way of composing, packaging and distributing popular music that continues the recent 20th-century narratives, but that belongs to the flexible new spaces and transitional, pulsating dimensions of the post-Internet 21st century:
I want to think that it is possible. That somehow a piece can be made that enters the world and somehow inside the world it is constantly refreshed by how people interact with it and actively change it because of how and where they listen to it. So that a piece of music is changed by its contact with the world and yet is recognizably still that piece of music, like a remix but beyond.

On Ben Frost:
I had three choices presented to me as a potential protégé and I ended up choosing the person who was closest to what I do. I could have chosen a musician who might have taken me in an unexpected new direction, but with Ben I felt I could solve the...not the problem...but this self-imposed challenge I have given myself about what a different form of collaboration might be in this new world, one adapting to post-Internet circumstances and possibilities. Where can I go now that I haven’t been before in the area that I already inhabit? The fact that he was already established as an electronic musician was attractive to me. I knew how he did some things, and other things he did were a mystery. The intention was then that we would together create something that we could not have done separately. Together we would produce a bigger idea.