The Australian JULY 23, 2010 - by Iain Shedden


There's something unsettling about Ben Frost's music. He likes it that way, mind you.

His often intense, occasionally brutal soundscapes are intended to provoke and disturb.

He takes the same approach to his work as Franz Kafka did to literature, as he underlines by quoting the famed novelist by way of explanation.

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us," wrote Kafka.

"If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? ...We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide."

"That," says Frost, "is exactly how I feel and why I make the music the way I do. That is precisely what I am going for, and nothing less than that."

With that modus operandi pinned to his music stand, we won't be seeing Frost on Hey, Hey, It's Saturday or Dancing With The Stars any time soon, but we might be hearing more about the Iceland-based Australian in the coming year than we have before.

Frost, who moved to Reykjavik from Melbourne five years ago, has been confronting and building audiences for ten years with his experimental electronic music, featured on albums such as Theory Of Machines and By The Throat, both of which earned him rave reviews around the world, elevating him to the new-music elite.

That could be one reason why the thirty-year-old from Box Hill in Victoria is suddenly good buddies with the English godfather of experimental music, producer and musician Brian Eno.

Last month it was announced that Frost was one of six artists to receive a year's mentorship through an international program, the Rolex Mentor And Protege Arts Initiative.

Eno will be his mentor and for the next twelve months the two musicians will spend a lot of time together, swapping ideas and possibly collaborating on a piece of work.

There is no set plan about their arrangement, nor does Frost know how it came about.

"I have no idea how it happened," he says. "I got a series of random emails from Rolex telling me I had been nominated. I guess if you spend enough time in the arts world you learn to take these things with a grain of salt. That was certainly my approach with this one."

It's no hoax, however, and already the two men have met several times, comparing notes, although no more than that.

"The bottom line is that neither of us has an agenda, which is a healthy way to go," Frost says. "I've been in situations before where I've met certain individuals that I admired from a distance and all of a sudden you find yourselves in the same room and forcing yourselves to work together on the basis that you make similar work or know similar people.

"It's an arduous task to force relationships to work in that way. I'm very wary of that and I think Brian is too.

"Very few of our discussions have anything to do with music, which is quite refreshing." Although there is no guarantee the two men's artistic sensibilities will match, Frost recognises a number of traits in the Englishman's work that appeal to him.

"What I admire most is the way his work is so far beyond music," says Frost.

"It really in many ways has nothing to do with music. The fact that he can so comfortably transition himself between different modes and ideas says a lot about him and his gift."

The explanation for how Frost has come to be Eno's protege and the darling of Iceland's burgeoning avant-garde music scene lies in a mixture of talent, diversity and triumph over adversity.

Frost grew up in rural Victoria but spent most of his teenage years in Adelaide. He moved to Melbourne to go to art school and university, but with the idea of becoming a painter rather than a musician.

Music came to him through the expertise of his tutors at RMIT's School of Media Arts.

"I studied with Philip Samartzis and Darrin Verhagen, who is one of the most underrated musicians in the world," Frost says. "He's a remarkable character and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him. There's a lot to be said for working with someone who knows you well and is comfortable with telling you to your face if something is complete crap. That was certainly the case with Darrin."

Frost released his first recording, Music For Sad Children, in 2001, which was followed by the more guitar-based ambient piece Steel Wound in 2003.

Pivotal to his success, however, was a trip to Reykjavik to visit like-minded Icelandic musician and producer Valgeir Sigurosson.

"I came to visit him and I was there for two weeks and I knew as soon as I got off the plane that I wanted to be there," he says.

Since then Frost has spent much of his working life with his friend.

They share a studio, Greenhouse, and a record label, Bedroom Community.

"He's one of my dearest friends and biggest heroes."

Aside from his own recordings, Frost's oeuvre has extended into many other areas of the arts. He has written music for Australia's Chunky Move dance company and for similar companies in Iceland. He has also written for film, most recently for a Sam Neill vehicle, In Her Skin, which is yet to be released.

Although much of his music has a filmic quality, cinema is not the perfect vehicle for his work, he believes.

"My work is often far too visual already to be a visual narrative for film," he says.

"I enjoy putting a narrative structure on my music, but compositionally it is a difficult thing. I have to go into a completely different mindset."

His mindset in creating Theory Of Machines and By The Throat, both of which combine minimalism, haunting ambience and terrifying bursts of noise, has as much to do with his visual artistic development as his aural one.

"By The Throat was the result of a limited palate of ideas," he says.

"I studied first and foremost as a visual artist, as a painter, and I realise more and more how affected I am by that school of thought. I keep scrapbooks. It is always a collection of images and ideas and words and phrases. They all swim around each other in a bizarre swarm for months."

Aside from his ongoing relationship with Eno, Frost will continue his association with the stage in the coming months, albeit in a few different guises.

He will perform at London's Barbican next month alongside some of his stablemates from the Bedroom Community label and will follow that up with a rare collaboration with an orchestra, working with Polish musicians on a re-scoring of the soundtrack to film director Andrei Tarkovsky's acclaimed film Solaris.

He's uncertain about when he might work in Australia again. The lack of opportunities for his craft here was one of the reasons he left. And he seems perfectly at peace with his new life, with his partner and daughter, in the heart of Reykjavik.

"I love it here," he says. "When I'm not working I'm fishing; that's pretty much it.

"I couldn't be more at home."