Extremes drive Iceland-based musician Ben Frost's new work

Ben Frost
Australian guitarist Ben Frost constantly challenges himself and his listeners with his music. Based in punk and metal, he creates intricate pieces which overwhelm audiences with their sound.
Photo courtesy Bjarni Grimsson

Australian musician Ben Frost likes challenging music — both for his listeners and for him.

His roots are in punk and heavy metal, yet he writes for orchestras and contemporary dance companies. This weekend, Frost brings his latest work to the Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul as part of the Liquid Music Series sponsored by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Walker Art Center.

Frost lives and works in Iceland. It suits his temperament, and his music.

"Fundamentally I'm just interested in extremes," he said.

And what pours forth from this soft-spoken composer can be extreme. It ranges from quiet contemplative passages of guitar and keyboards to roaring cascades of sound which are felt as much as heard.

In small doses Frost's music can be disturbing, jarring even. But in their entirety, his pieces become almost hypnotic and draw in listeners.

Liquid Music Series curator Kate Nordstrum said the series is intended to highlight the work of new composers.

She worked with Frost when she ran the music program at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

"Truthfully, when I first considered presenting Ben Frost about three years back, the descriptions of his music frightened me," she said.

She'd heard words like "violent" and "threatening." But she says sitting down and listening to Frost play proved a very different experience.

"Words like that really don't do his music justice, they are too confining," she said. "They only describe moments in his work."

Listening to Frost is a visceral, emotional, experience. His pieces build to all-consuming crescendos, and ebb to intricately detailed solos. Listeners will hear cellos, orchestral percussion, even wolves howling in the mix.

"Híbakúsja" by Ben Frost

Speaking from his studio in Rekyavik, Frost said he's always looking for something new.

"I am just less and less concerned with what's going on around me musically and far more concerned with pushing beyond my own limits, I suppose, my own abilities," he said.

You could say Frost plays guitar and keyboards, but that would be simplistic. He uses an array of computers and effects boxes to coax new sounds from his instruments and those of his band mates. Some sound almost like malfunctions, but if you listen carefully it's clear they are part of the composition.


Frost is often very impatient with himself. He wants to move into the future as quickly as he can.

"The question I am asking myself constantly is 'what do I want my music to be 50 years from now?' And I want to do that now. I want that result earlier," Frost said.

If that sounds difficult, it is.

Frost said what makes it worse is the new digital reality of music where it's much easier for people to produce work.

"There are just armies of people who can basically approximate something which will trick the ears of 90 percent of the population and the whole thing is, it devalues the work of the composer," he said.

And he makes his work harder for himself. He composed and performed a piece for six guitars and a brass sextet for the normally much quieter Reading Room at the New York Public Library.

He just returned from a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where civil conflict still simmers. He gathered material on the edge of what he calls a war zone which he hopes will become music at some point.

On top of that, Frost is recording a new album to be released in the fall. It's much different from what fans have heard so far. Working with two drummers, he's limited himself as to what he can play.

"There's no guitar, there's no piano, there's no strings, no acoustic instrument really of any kind," he said quietly.

Saturday night's St. Paul concert will be one of the first places Frost presents the new music live. It's still very raw to him.

"It's also very uncomfortable to me, and I really like that, a lot," he said. "That's what I am going to bring."

The work is so new not even curator Kate Nordstrum has heard it. She again admits to some nervousness about what's coming.

"But I trust it will be exciting," she said. "I trust it will be moving, and interesting."

She's clearly not alone. Saturday's concert is sold out, although there will be some standing room tickets available at the door.

"Wayne McGregor feat. Ben Frost "Random Dance Direction" "