Best known for his soundtrack to the television series Dark, Melbourne-born composer Ben Frost has built a formidable reputation for his scores, operas and sound art. By Andy Hazel.

Dark soundtrack composer Ben Frost’s music is “an expression of violence”

The scream I let out brought everyone in the house running to my room. When they arrived I was unable to speak. All they could hear was the laughter on the other end of the phone. The cause of the commotion was Ben Frost, who had just informed me Björk had invited our band, School of Emotional Engineering, to remix a song from her forthcoming album. This, I was sure, was the moment our lives would be utterly transformed. More screaming and hugging ensued.

Twenty years on, I work at a newspaper and Ben Frost is a composer with a long list of dynamic and innovative projects to his name. When he invited me to shadow him as he assembled his latest in Athens, A Predatory Chord, I accepted for the same reason I joined his band two decades earlier: Ben is warm, sincere and his love for making music often leads to moments of unexpected excitement.

When I first see him, he is, as he so often was, amid a cluster of empty coffee cups and water bottles, bathed in the glow of a laptop, a look of sharp focus on his face. Back then, he and his battered MacBook could often be found in galleries and small venues throughout Melbourne, generating vast, darkly atmospheric sounds, making wherever he was a far more interesting place to be. Today, that place is a colossal concert hall in the Athenian art complex Megaron. Scattered across its stage are dozens of speakers, attended to by a team of workers in loose black clothes, devising ways to attach them to the ceiling.

A Predatory Chord is being produced for the Rolex Arts Festival, a celebration of the work produced by participants of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. In 2010, and in another moment of unexpected excitement, Frost was selected to spend a year working with composer and producer Brian Eno as part of the scheme.

After a welcoming hug, Frost returns to work and I listen as vast cello-like sounds move between the speakers, sometimes solitary, sometimes choral. High above, a white light flickers intermittently. Frost’s installation is inspired by the way starlings move in murmuration when responding to attack from birds of prey, but in the room conversation focuses on the practical: speakers, curtains, crossfading and software interactivity. He makes asides like, “It’s all fun and games until you plug in a network cable” and “I’m trying to get something to talk to something else; it’s the story of my life”.

After several hours, Frost and I ascend the stairs into the sunshine and out to a nearby cafe, where we talk about his time with Eno. “Sometimes,” he says, “I regret that I didn’t push harder to do what I think everybody expected me to do, which was to have him produce my next album. In that moment I really had his undivided attention and obviously I don’t anymore, but I just loved our conversations so much.”

Born in Melbourne, Frost spent the early 2000s studying at RMIT, composing scores for short films and dance productions and playing shows to promote School of Emotional Engineering’s sole album. After his remix for Björk in 2005, Frost moved to Reykjavík, where he, producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and composer Nico Muhly established the collective record label Bedroom Community, also releasing albums by composer Daníel Bjarnason and singer-songwriter Sam Amidon.

His first solo album, the guitar-heavy Theory of Machines, arrived in 2006 and marked the beginning of his career as an internationally recognised musician and composer. “I remember reading the reviews and it was all like ‘guitars like the sound of cracking glaciers’. People just jumped on this idea that this was Icelandic music,” he laughs. “I wrote that in an apartment off Lygon Street. All of that was done in Melbourne.”

When I visited that apartment off Lygon Street, I would often find Ben occupying the living room, cornered by a laptop and speakers struggling to handle sounds of indeterminate origin. “Could you play an E?” would be a typical request. Ben would take my chord, enlarge it, extend it and infuse it with a narrative. His intellectual curiosity and work ethic meant he never seemed to rest. Between piecemeal jobs I’d see Ben composing, learning Icelandic, voraciously reading, toiling over grant applications, disappearing on spontaneous road trips and drawing people to him who were similarly driven.

“Maybe I should have backed off a little bit. I kind of raced through my early 20s,” he says. “It felt like a bit of a sprint.”

Once settled in Reykjavík, and with regular work, Frost, to his own surprise, began a family. “The thing about a small town is that it forces a level of intimacy on people,” he says. “Arriving in Iceland I was confronted by an overwhelming sense of ‘Let’s put our bullshit aside and be parents.’ I turned up to a kid’s birthday and there was mum, there’s her boyfriend, there’s her boyfriend’s kids, there’s the boyfriend’s ex who is the mother of those kids, and here’s the dad with his girlfriend and their baby, and his oldest child from another relationship is 25 because he had a kid when he was 14, and they’re all there singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to this five-year-old,” he says laughing. “You have to deal with the fact that people move on, and that extends into the arts in a profound way.”

The end of Frost’s mentorship with Eno sparked a period of extraordinary productivity. Over the next five years, he co-produced the soundtrack to a video game, travelled to Central Africa to work with video artist Richard Mosse, scored several dance performances and films and the television series Fortitude, and directed and composed his first opera.

His 2014 album, the symphonic A U R O R A, was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews and the offer of more soundtrack work, including for the German Netflix television series Dark. Beginning with the disappearance of children from a village, the science-fiction thriller became one of the most celebrated series of the past decade.

“In my mind, Dark is like a soap opera,” he says. “It’s Neighbours with time travel. But the way other people perceived it, and certainly the way Hollywood perceived it, is that I make this fantastically scary, oppressive music. So, I’m getting calls like, ‘We want to talk to you about ... some Conjuring sequel,’ ” he laughs. “So, there is a disconnect there. I want to do Jane Austen. English period drama. Something beautiful.”

If you’ve heard Frost’s music, it is most likely one of his soundtracks. When scoring, rather than composing to the picture, he interprets themes the writers and directors are exploring, in some cases pushing back against them. In the case of Dark, Frost took an experimental approach with Poland’s Sinfonietta Cracovia, placing microphones very close to the strings of the musicians, asking them to play with their fingernails instead of their bows, issuing instructions such as “one octave lower, half the speed”. The results, and the success of the series, transformed his life.

“There are my fans and there are fans of the show, and they’re not necessarily the same people. If I post about this on social media,” he says, gesturing around the leafy open-air cafe, “people will be excited. But if I make a post about Dark, I have to turn my phone off. It’s too much. There’s a huge disconnect because that’s not me.”

That sense of disconnection was echoed by his work with director Ridley Scott on the television series Raised by Wolves. Frost describes it as driven by what he calls “a good kind of conflict”. When Scott left early in the production, the nature of the conflict shifted.

“They wanted music to serve this machine that they’d created, and I’m no good at that game,” he says. “I don’t have the Swiss Army knife that a lot of film composers have. Whatever I work on is going to sound exactly like me. In the real working-film-composer world, that’s a problem. Not every film is looking for you the composer; they’re looking for a composer.”

Frost has put a microphone in the mouth of a snarling wolf and on the edge of an erupting volcano. He narrowly avoided injury recording F-18 bombers while embedded on a United States aircraft carrier off the coast of Iran, and while recording the sound of the Amazon rainforest on fire. These are sounds he describes as “documents of direct experience”. When compared with his studio recordings, they take “a bigger chunk of me in their making”.

In the case of his forthcoming album, Scope Neglect, Frost wrote songs he intended to be played over – music to which bassist Liam Andrews, of Australian band My Disco, and guitarist Greg Kubacki would react. Frost then erased his original songs and built new ones from Kubacki’s and Andrews’ parts, amplifying the intensity of their contributions by situating them in brief vacuums of silence.

From the moment we began working together, Ben explored ways to take the sound of the electric guitar into a different aural environment, usually one that dwarfed the listener. Since 2017, he has been a member of the experimental rock band Swans, described as creating “some of the most assaultive music ever produced”. I ask about his attraction to this sense of scale, and whether he thinks of his music as violent.

“I think it’s an expression of violence in a way. But it’s also an expression that I’m very comfortable in that space. My parents were two cops who were constantly surrounded by it. My mother was the head of the first-ever all-female rape squad for Victoria Police. That’s the woman picking you up from primary school. How is that not affecting you?” he asks with a shrug. “My dad was working in Russell Street police station when it was bombed and spent his days running around after Chopper Read and his buddies. The shadow of that was always present. I abhor violence but…” he considers his response. “The inherent violence of Australian culture is rooted in the violence that brought all those people there in the first place. Of course we’re violent, fucked-up people.”

In 2022, Frost explored another act of violence in his collaboration with research agency Forensic Architecture on the opera The Murder of Halit Yozgat. On April 6, 2006, Turkish dissident Halit Yozgat was assassinated in his family’s internet cafe in Kassel, Germany, a killing widely believed to be one in a series committed by neo-Nazis with tacit endorsement of domestic intelligence. Of the five witnesses, one was domestic intelligence agent Andreas Temme, who claimed not to have heard the shots or seen the body. Forensic Architecture and Frost re-create the cafe in fastidious spatial and aural detail – a speaker standing in for the assassin – and ask the viewer to contemplate Temme’s perspective.

“There is a sort of storytelling you can do on the stage as part of a musical score that is totally unique to opera and I love that about it,” Frost says. “From the back row you watch a guy sitting on stage in a chair while these shots are fired out of the speaker, a metre away from him. In that moment, the official report doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what he says, it doesn’t matter what the police say. All that matters is what you experience.”

From afar, as I watched Frost’s profile grow, reading glowing reviews of his albums and seeing his fan base build, I had imagined acclaim and a sustainable income would make his life easier and that better opportunities would come. He reminds me that, as when the album we made was described as “like getting stoned and floating face down in a swimming pool”, feedback has no impact on his work.

“I loved that review,” he laughs. “I mean, everyone wants to be loved, right? But it’s more important to me that the translation is correct, that what I’m hearing and what I’m experiencing is what you’re experiencing. I don’t mind if you don’t like it. I can’t control that. What I do want to control is that you get what it is.

“Doing it on my own came from doing it with other people, not the other way around. Working as a producer in a studio environment, as a director on stage and on a project like this, ultimately, it’s all about relationships.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 20, 2024 as "Going off-key".

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