Ben Frost 2014When watching The Wasp Factory at HAU 1 in Berlin, the audience is immediately faced with a two dimensional wall of soil, in which limbs and faces were just protruding enough to allow the air to the actresses (one of which turned out to be Mariam Wallentin of MARIAM THE BELIEVER – a Swedish vocalist whose work sits somewhere between THE KNIFE and free-jazz – a perfect choice for the role in BEN‘s piece). The rear of this soil-covered platform begins to rise revealing itself as a 15-meter square, illuminated platform. Shifting from two-dimensions into three throughout the work it slowly forces the string quintet into shadows at the wings, whilst the three female performers switch rapidly between the book’s multiple masculine roles. The text being sung by these three athletic vocalists is taken directly from Banks’ book, however the written male roles are undercut by feminine leads; their embodied sexuality truly honouring the adolescent confusion of Bank’s novel. At times the text-setting was clumsy, perhaps a little naive – yet the Wagnerian notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk seemed firmly in mind – something whole and overbearing being strived for at all points, even as the audience flinches trying to avoid the up-skirt views and walls of distortion that they are being relentlessly subjected to. Some people leave early. I don’t.

If one was being critical, you might say the piece is confused for failing to acknowledge the humour so present in Bank’s writing, instead the sense of threat to innocence is the only emotion being totally exorcised – a movement into another, lighter sonic territory might contextualise the piece more fluently, perhaps? However, BEN FROST‘s choice to do this seems justified; the singer’s deft moves from the flat earth they begin on, to the backlit, strobing, vertical wall which is clung to at the finale demonstrate the simple metaphor of an external destructive will in full effect. It’s exhausting and confusing, yet having spoken to Mr. FROST  about his need to make essential work you can sense he is deliberately antagonising his audience with the same cathartic disregard that Banks (if he were alive to have seen this production) would have recognised as his own, and hopefully condoned with an approving nod. Even when the audience doesn’t know what going on, BEN FROST seems to know precisely and isn’t so concerned about whether the audience is enjoying it or not; enjoyment, he seems to say, is an over-rated concept in art anyway.

Hi Ben, tell us a bit about the recent record ‘Aurora‘ and what you’ve been up to lately.
I put this record to bed in December 2013. The record as the object was kind of finished for me back then although we’re talking about it as if it’s hot off the press. That’s fine – that’s how everyone else hears it – but for me it becomes this artefact of a period. It’s like finding a spearhead from certain civilisations. They’re representational of one guy but that one artefact has all these ramifications for the language that’s used to talk about that period, or that time in history, and I think in a way this record, Aurora, is an artefact of this time, this period, which has covered a lot grounds for me personally. I spent significant amounts of time in new situations, specifically in central Africa and the Congo, working with Richard Moss – making the Enclave – I wrote, directed and staged an Opera called The Wasp Factory, produced a couple of records and have travelled a bit.

Life, and work – which seem pleasurably synonymous currently – seem to be going quite well?
Well, um, yes! As much as they can. I lead and insanely privileged life. I get to write highly questionable music and not starve. So I don’t have any complaints really.

I wondered if I could ask you about the term ‘neo-classical’ – a phrase, or genre specification, which is bounced around fairly relentlessly in regards to your work. I see TIM HECKER, JÓHANN JÓHANNSON and other names appearing, all under this umbrella term for a tearaway 1940’s style. How do you as an electronic music with a strong noise focus, feel about this term existing, and then being applied to your music?
I have some serious issues with the general nature of music criticism… of journalism. It’s a fucking desolate landscape of cliché, rehashing of old terms with very little imagination. Not only do I write the music but I work the live aspects of it, and do the interviews and oversee the artwork and visual representations.

[In current times], as a musician it’s up to us to define the language that’s used to define the music as well, because we can’t rely on (laughs) decent journalists – they’re very few and far between. People who actually have the balls to write about in ways that go beyond these stupid fucking labels that have existed since, like you said, the 1940’s or beyond.

Do I consider my music ‘Neo-Classical’… No!? I mean, do I have a problem with that term? I mean… no, not particularly. I don’t care. It doesn’t mean very much to me. I think our language hasn’t caught up with our technology. Nobody’s addressing the fact that in 2014, literally this same machine that’s being used to communicate with the world, to write letters, to talk with your parents, to pay bills, to do Excel and Word documents, to watch pornography and jack-off to – the hub of your very existence – is the same thing that’s being used to make music. It’s replaced the piano, it’s replaced the guitar, it’s replaced the drum machine – it’s become the be-all-and-end-all of your existence. There’s a fucking camera pointing at your face whilst you are writing music. You can do all these things simultaneously. You can have your cock in your hand and your other hand on the keyboard writing a melody at the same time, and they’re both going into the same interface.

All these things are connected in a way that’s never existed before in history, and the nature of the term ‘electronic music’, the nature of that term is NOT WHAT IT WAS. It’s offensive to me that people are using ‘ambient music’ to describe the widest possible array of, like, complex digital composition – it’s a phrase Brian Eno coined in the 1970’s for what’s essentially elevator music for a new generation – music that can be ignored [that wasn’t entirely Brian Eno’s objective, but we’ll let him off – ed] and yet journalists are applying that, at whim, to composers such as TIM HECKER, JÓHANN JÓHANNSON, MAX RICHTER and myself… it’s like… how dare you put all these people in the same boat, and how dare you put all these people in a boat in which they don’t belong in in the first place. It’s just lazy, lazy writing. I just wish people were braver, it’s not like there’s a lack of adjectives out there. I wish there was a way we could have a conversation about music that could transcend some of these Spotify meta-tags.

Ben Frost - Photo by Börkur Sigthorsson

Photo by Börkur Sigthorsson

It’s like there’s an absence of abstraction what it comes to genre… everyone becomes a notch/number in a database here and there, all for a sense of ‘needing’ to categorise, and the subtleties of what’s intended in the music is compromised, effectively through which digital shelf your CD has to appear on. With this in mind, I wondered if I might ask you about how ‘The Wasp Factory’, an adaptation of Ian Banks’ novel, came about? It required a close relationship with several orchestral musicians, and whilst I recognise that electronic musicians work regularly with orchestral players, it’s often quite an unstable interaction… I wonder if you could expand on the relationships and processes you encountered when bringing ‘The Wasp Factory’ to the stage.
There’s a way of approaching orchestral musicians since the school of classical musicians remains largely unchanged for the last century: that they are willing to follow a direction, irrespective of a changing environment. This can work against you in ways, for example, most ‘classical’ musicians are terrible improvisers – that’s a mass generalisation, there are exceptions, but by and large, it’s mostly true – because it flies in the face of how they’ve been trained to react to music, how they’ve been trained to react to notes on a page. The idea is that they’ve been told to play in a certain way, and they will continue to play in a certain way. What that actually does is create a situation where you can use that [property] to your advantage; you can change parameters around them and they will not be affected by that. With Solaris, Daniel Bjarnason and I perform on stage with those guys, and they’re working a way where we can flex and react and move and improvise around them… and rely upon an inherent structure within their performance to lean back on, and push against. It can create a really unique system to exist within, particularly on stage.

The way you can get big metaphorical ideas across onto a page, and have that translate into a performance of 20-30 musicians… wow…. the way that translates across is pretty exciting, and can have pretty uncanny results, especially when it’s involving the interpretation of digital artefacts. There are several instances in Solaris where I would create something ‘inside the box’ (create something using synthetic means) and it would synthesise itself into a series of notes on a page, with a series of instructions for the amount of pressure from a bow, or the amount of expression – it would sort of translate into this live rendition of an ostensibly digital process. That you can turn creation back on itself, that is really exciting.

Perhaps, therefore, I could ask you about how these interactions manifested, specifically, in ‘The Wasp Factory’ – how did you transfer them over visually, sonically and structurally to the piece?
Well the idea there is pretty simple really… the staging of the work is the driving force behind the performance. The music exists outside the actions on the stage. It’s a fully realised piece of music, three vocalists, a string quintet from Iceland and a lot of electronics, and they perform that on a stage that is kind of changing, moving and imposing itself upon them in a way that’s totally irrespective of what they’re doing. It’s an uncaring, unstoppable object – an uncaring force of change upon these characters. It embodies how you impose a series of obstructions or problems onto music, which then forces a different kind of performance. I worked really closely with a stage designer called Mirella Weingarten. She and I came up with this idea and now it’s a fully formed into 20 tonnes of hydraulics and steel. And yeah, I’m really proud of it.

Rightly so. It’s seems to have caused a lot of positive rumbles throughout specific circles.
Well, it’s certainly pissed a lot of people off too.

I wonder if that has anything to do with Ian Bank’s passing away last year, and a possible perception that you are latching onto someone else’s notoriety by staging a posthumous rendition of a seminal work?
Communication with Ian was always very difficult and I realised later on that was because, you know, he was dying… He didn’t reveal it until the last minute. He only announced he had cancer about six months before he died, and I’m sure he was aware that he had cancer, realistically, for 18 months before that. I don’t know. It’s not for me to say but, um… we never met. We never shook hands. And of course I was incredibly sad that he never got to see it. His widow was there on opening night in London, and I hope, I hope we did it justice. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t really what to say about it.

You should know, when you get into that world of Opera and performing arts, you’re operating on different timelines. I had a meeting last week about a project that’s not going to happen until early 2017, the timelines [in this field], when you are talking about teams of 20-30 people, the timelines become kind of insane. The first talk about The Wasp Factory occurred in 2009?

Gosh, I’ve been an utter cliché and have just assumed you were capitalising on his death haven’t I? I never realised it took so long to stage.
(laughs) Yeah. Well, it already premiered a year ago. It’s already happened. This is round two.