Five years ago Ben Frost was among the first artists to perform at Unsound Adelaide. This month the Reykjavík-based Australian returns to Queen’s Theatre with a very different show in store.
In his first Unsound Adelaide appearance in 2013 Frost brought us Solaris, an unsettling musical companion to the contemplative sci-fi film of the same name. It managed to be true to his minimalist roots while still incorporating the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, but it’s a far cry from the album that sees him return after five years.
On The Centre Cannot Hold, he wanted to create a stripped back sound that was both raw and live. Straight away, he knew that he had to work with the producer most famously associated with those adjectives. “Very early on I had suggested that [Steve] Albini would be the one person I’d want to do that job,” he says, and though the prolific producer is more famous for his work with rock musicians, Frost insists that the partnership was a natural one.
“It was pretty easy – it wasn’t as strange for him as I think it might seem,” he says. When it is put to him that “easy” is not the most common description of the famously abrasive Albini, he elaborates that “he’s a very particular kind of human, but I think he’s very clear – there’s no ambiguity with Steve, which I really appreciate.”
The resulting album is by turns buzzing, abrasive and icy, a musical world that seems to have all humanity stripped from it. It’s ironic, then, that it is essentially a live album – “for all intents and purposes, a series of takes,” with just a few spliced together.
That makes it an easy show to take on the road in some ways, though the live show does not attempt to recreate the sound of the album. Rather, each night is a journey that begins from the same starting point, like a succession of simulations run one after another.
Frost explains that many of the sounds he uses come from objects and instruments with a significant amount of internal movement and unpredictability. Add to that “a lot of cross-pollinated relationships” between the sounds, and his role is to harness these sounds and prevent them from spiralling out of control entirely. He suggests that his performance is “an interaction with those things as much as it is a control of them.”
Frost, who studied at art school, is adamant that there’s always been a strong visual language associated with his music. It’s where his ideas begin, and The Centre Cannot Hold began not with fixed images but with an aesthetic of movement.
The album had its genesis in the idea of “the transitory state of water, the various states, the way it can exist in so many ways.” Various streams running in and around each other in constant flux are at the heart of these compositions, both in their recorded and live settings.
Naturally, the visual element of the performance reflects this and Frost collaborated with German visual artist MFO to bring these ideas to life. Using two types of projection and a range of lighting modes, he designed a show that reflects and even amplifies the unpredictability of the music.
Digital connections and software patches connect the audio and visual elements in real time so that MFO’s software reacts to the sounds that Frost is creating and he in turn is inspired by those visual elements. “There’s a whole underlying ecosystem of relationships there that I’m not entirely in control of, barely in control of in many instances,” Frost explains. “The whole thing is very dense, and quite complicated in the way that the sound and visual relate to each other. And that changes pretty much every night.”
The unspoken third partner in this collaboration is the venue, and this year Unsound Adelaide returns to its first home, The Queen’s Theatre. Frost frets about this aspect – “that’s always been a bit of a problem for me. I think the space is, for better or worse, highly influential on the way I perform. I sometimes wish I could be less affected by the room – it can shape things in a pretty major way.”
But this is part of the joy of this show, which begins anew every time it is performed.”
Friday, December 14 to Sunday, December 16