I first came across Ben’s music right around when Theory of Machines was released. Like most genres, electronic/experimental music can be very dull at times. On the cover of his record I found the musician suspended from what appeared to be a meat hook in a butcher shop; I later realised it was a medicalesque mise-en-scéne. The music contained on the disc has even more personality. Not dull music at all—tranquil, brusque, ethereal, even violent at times. A charming addition to the robust world of Icelandic music indeed.
Tim Hecker: I’m listening to your new record quite a bit (which is coming out soon!) so let’s talk about that. It’s lush and heavy, but also whispers at times. Your music is great on a bunch of levels, but there’s a looming threat to this record that makes it special to me. Maybe you could talk about intention and mood, because it seems like there’s a coherent chromatic hue to this music and I’m curious how much of that was design, or whether things took on a life of their own in the studio.
Ben Frost: I felt a definite pull back to more acoustic, classical elements with this record, specifically the thick dark wooden sounds that you find in old German made pianos, hammered string instruments like the harpsichord, and of course the double bass—performed by Borgar Magnason—which was very much at the heart of it and very consciously decided. I cannot say why, but I think perhaps that came partly as a reaction to the period surrounding Theory of Machines.
It was also a return to music that was less calculated and more instinctual and more rooted in chance and performance. Leo Needs A New Pair Of Shoes, for example, is more or less a live recording and contains all of the core elements of this record at their most reduced and bare form. Most of the material was initially extrapolated from the simple cyclical tonal patterns that wound up in Leo.
This record is like a Rothko painting to me: it’s huge, warm clouds of colour—big, dark blood reds, blacks and golds. If it were a light source, it would be the glow of a burning church more than the cold light of a hospital, as in Theory.
All of those visually oriented, aesthetic ideas about this record are very much by design, and totally present from the start: again, utterly calculated. But when I started experimenting to get to those colours, the elements—such as the animal recordings and the breathing transformative qualities of the instruments—came into play. Utilising a wolf recording or an orca recording here or there seemed isolated and kind of a twee gesture that ultimately commanded a more thorough investigation—I am not interested in making ‘sample’ music.
Tim Hecker: Since you work in a studio quite a lot, and this record being what I think is the product of the possibilities of the studio as a compositional tool, talk about how you come to finish pieces like this. I was mentioning how fairly disorganised my work process is to come to a result which seems somewhat structured. Do you come at a piece with a clear vision of structure, or is it a messy, esoteric thing?
Ben Frost: To an extent, I think maybe that’s where you and I part company, because generally my process is more like a game of Jenga. I mostly build a simple, predetermined structure from the ground up, until it’s a solid towering object, and then I start poking holes in it until it collapses. My work is organised in the sense that I have an end in sight, right from the beginning.
That is not to say, however, that the end object is static, but rather it is something that is constantly being reshaped and contorted until all the redundant material is removed. The structural beginning at that root level of most of this material often ties me to the grid, as you mentioned, which interestingly is probably something that draws me to your work—a kind of-grass is greener-attraction perhaps?
Tim Hecker: Another thing I love about this record is the undeniable quality of breath as a transformative instrument. Whispers turn to gasps turn to distorted bass resonances turn to dog growls. The thing is that the nature of those sounds are never obvious, they always sort of drift under the surface. Tell me how you feel about leaving sounds like this lingering just at the threshold of audibility….
Ben Frost: Wasn’t it Hitchcock that described how the abstract threats in films like The Birds and Psycho are ultimately more thrilling than the explicit ones? There is an element of that mentality for me in this record: creating a sort of lingering unease which I find intoxicating. I am not concerned with didacticism in music though, but instead I am more interested in duality and the intersection of juxtaposing elements. By placing a growling wolf in the left channel and a double bass in the right where they utter the same transients and phrasing, I can create a space which is drawing simultaneously on naturalism and surrealism. Those two opposing elements are at the extreme edges of my work here and between them they define an internal space where a whole other level of drama can play out and that is my concern.
I am saying explore this string instrument as an animal, and this animal as an instrument and then accept this reality as a three dimensional space, a hyper-acoustic space and then focus on it because that is where my music will occur.
- When: Friday 00:20
- Where: Iðnó
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Posted October 13, 2009