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.