Published May 27, 2014Australian producer and electroacoustic composer Ben Frost hasn't been up to much in the past decade, other than moving to Iceland, helping found experimental collective Bedroom Community alongside Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson, scoring critically lauded films and theatrical pieces, rescoring Andrei Tarkovsky's Sólaris with Daníel Bjarnason, releasing several solo albums, producing such Canadian masterworks as Ravedeath 1972 by Tim Hecker and New History Warfare by Colin Stetson, working with Swans, and being mentored by Brian Eno. One of his most recent projects was an audio/visual installation produced with photographer Richard Mosse, which sent Frost to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with an iPhone and a laptop, and there, he created the basis of his new album, A U R O R A. With the album set for release on May 27 by Mute Records in conjunction with his own Bedroom Community, and his third appearance at Mutek on the horizon, Frost took the time to discuss his creative process and his outlook on life, from Western privilege and complacency to the humanity of error.
Can you walk us through the creative process for this album?
I spent, between 2011 and 2013, a series of incursions into the DRC with an artist from Ireland called Richard Mosse, whose work as a photographer. He has his beginnings in a photojournalism background. Using a military film stock that was designed to reveal military infrastructure in jungle, as a surveillance film, he was using this to shed a new light on the continuing conflict in the eastern part of the country, and the civil war situations and the various tragedies inherent in the situation there. He was using this film to reveal something new, something that had kind of been lost over time, perhaps a collective tiredness of the image of war from a journalistic point of view. There are only so many pictures of tragedy you can see before they start to lose their effect. What Richard achieved through revealing this invisible light spectrum through the use of this infrared film, he was able to pace the conflict in a new light, reveal something new about the situation, and bring it to the attention of a new audience. So I was really drawn to that, and through a series of coincidences, we ended up in contact. I found myself very quickly going into the Congo with him, as part of a project to document that situation with the same film stock as a moving image, 16 mm video, and my role was kind of a sound designer, sound recordist, composer… Observer, maybe. And through that process, I made a lot of music as well. It was affected profoundly by that experience, on a number of different levels.
Did you feel limited by the process?
There were various practical limitation imposed by the whole thing. The constant presence of a diesel generator outside my window, in order to get electricity to write music on a laptop. You're trying to listen to what it is you're doing with this rumbling, fossil fuel burning fucking monster on the other side of the wall. It's a weird space to be in, a weird space to try and work. Being limited by finite battery power, and being imposed upon by 97 percent humidity and mosquitos the size of dogs. There's an entire ecosystem of factors you can never really foresee, things that I never could have predicted as being fundamental aspects of my work. It had a profound effect.
Limitations breed creativity. What do you think it is about the human soul that feeds on that?
We're problem solvers. That's what we do. That's why we're reigning over the entire planet, and dominating every wrung of the ladder. Because we're way too clever at exploiting what's around us, and we do it in a way that pays no heed to the finite level of those resources. Or pays any respect to the fact that they have importance to the rest of the planet that is beyond our needs. That intersection of the need to create, the need to make something, at least on my part, and the circumstances with which I'm faced through an experience like being in the Congo… Yeah, I don't think there's any point where you sit down and analyze the situation you are in, at the time you're in it, and make some kind of curatorial gesture toward effecting the outcome of the work, rather than just working through the restraints of life as they come to you.
And that's something you admire about Brian Eno's situationist principles?
Of course! When I look back on that experience now, it reads like something straight out of 'Oblique Strategies.' "Go to fucking Africa / Turn the electricity off"… It could have been on one of his cards. I don't think I'm at the point where I'm lacking in ways to do that just yet. The record really began, in many ways, with the removal of certain crutches that I felt I was beginning to lean on, probably from the records previous to this one. Sitting down with the guitar or the piano, it immediately felt wrong. It felt too easy. At that point, I'd done what I could with those elements, and I wanted to be uncomfortable again. That was a musical decision, a creative decision, but it's also a personal one. I didn't want my understanding of the world to come to me from a BBC news feed. If only subconsciously, reaching out to Sir Richard in that first instance was probably some attempt at that, trying to find a way out of this fucking safety net I feel wrapped up in. And largely self-imposed. I'm fucking lazy. We all are. I definitely am. That experience of working in that environment, I feel privileged to the point of disgust, often. Standing there recording the inherent horror of the situation there on an iPhone that's filled with rare earth minerals that have been extracted from the ground I'm standing on while I'm recording it. I'm part of the cycle of collective indifference to the subjugation of an entire continent of people, and we just collectively agree that it's okay. I still don't know how to reconcile that, not sure if I ever will.
What should people take away from this album? How should they feel?
I have no idea. I know I should be able to answer that question, but I can't. I can tell you what I've taken away from it. It's an attempt at a kind of ecstasy, a kind of oblivion, a punching through that wall that exists between the morbid reality we are in and the imagined luminescent space I wish it was.
Do you see yourself as an idealist?
I certainly see myself as an optimist. It's not a tragic record. It's an inherently positive record. One of the things that interesting about that infrared film, one of the things that I think it less understood about the technology, is that it's not infrared film in the way it reacts to heat. It's actually reacting, at least in relation to the plants, it's reacting to living plant material, to chlorophyll in living plants. Which is to say that if the plants are dead, they don't go pink. They don't irradiate the eye the way the living does. So when you look at those images, when you see that work with that in mind, even in the most tragic of circumstances like refugee camps, even on the most rudimentary forms of shelter, where people have just clumped mud on top of big sheets of plastic and hung them over tree branches in order to make some form of shelter for a family, within days, the mud is springing with life. There's pink everywhere. The whole place is pulsating with bioluminescent prosperity. In spite of everything, there's an overwhelming vitality to the image and to the place. I would like to think that, in some way, the music is an attempt at a similar thing, an attempt at expunging darkness to the edges. It's not dwelling in the shadows. It's trying to rip apart the density.
Like you're trying to create a bed of fertile ground in a landscape smothered by compression?
The thing is, even these records that are so loud, the Metallica school of mastering where everything is crunched to the point of flat lining, everything is so pristine, so clear, so fundamentally disconnected from the human hands that created it. It loses all meaning. It's less human for its lack of error. I don't subscribe to that ideal. I don't want that. I want something bigger, something that celebrates the completely fucked nature of our world for all of its inherent beauty, violence, and terror. If you can't take something from that, and wrestle with it, and find a sliver of light in there, it's just too much. It's too much to deal with. I need to feel that, even in that moment where music feels like it's swallowing you whole, it can kind of hold your hand at the same time. That's okay.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition, like surrealism or situationism?
If you look at any form of human creation, and this is a theory I'm still grappling with myself, this inherent need to create starts with realism, in the way of drawing pictures of the animals that exist outside the cave on the cave wall. We see the world around us, and we reflect it back on itself. Eventually, through time, all art forms are reaching towards a state of oblivion, of disintegration back into the fabric of nothing. Every attempt at dislocation from reality, whether it's Stravinsky pissing people off with "The Rite of Spring" for its perceived abstraction to Francis Bacon, they're all, in some weird way, connected in this series of attempts and failures at pulling ourselves apart and returning to the baseline where everything is connected, and nothing is. My work isn't even scratching the surface of what I hope, one day, it will be. I look at those final paintings of Rothko's, and I see a man so close to the end of that journey. I don't even know if he felt like he nailed it in the end. Probably not. I don't for one second believe I'm close to scratching at that level. It's going to take me the rest of my life to get to a space where I'm at peace with what I'm doing. Everything up until that point, maybe everything period, is gonna be a documented series of attempts at that, throwing yourself against the waves and going back for more again and again.