The day after his performance at Sonar Istanbul, I set off for Karaköy to meet Ben Frost. When I come to the tiny park across from the Tophane tram stop, I find him sitting on a bench all by himself, enjoying this first sunshine of spring. Nobody around is probably aware of what this man was doing in Sonar Festival the night before, nor aware that he was working for the soundtrack of Dark (one of the highly acclaimed productions of Netflix) in his Istanbul room just couple of hours ago. His unique humility and the ability to mix with the crowd, make him not stand out in a park in Karaköy. But as soon as you start talking to him, you can instantly understand how his keen observing ability, his intelligence and superior accomplishment on grasping the world and the different branches of art is reflected in his versatile production. He’s not creating just for Dark. The experimental albums he released (which made him friends with even Brian Eno), his soundtracks for films and video games like Sleeping Beauty, Super Dark Times, Fortitude, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, his adaptation of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory to theatre, his sound installations for the art pieces which are focusing on the migration crisis are just a few examples of Ben Frost’s creativity.
Just the way he became a whole with the rest of the park, he became united with the audience on previous night’s performance. He was performing in the middle of this large venue, surrounded by the audience, without a presence of any barrier or even a stage itself. It was an event that could be called sound installation rather than a concert, with the speakers placed 360-degree round. As we are heading to Galata from Tophane, we stop by Depo Istanbul to see the exhibition over there. I bring the word to his performance. When I ask him about the intention behind it, he begins to tell. “My music comes back from playing in small venues. As things progressed, stages I’ve performed became bigger and bigger. There are things that I do enjoy about this. What I don’t like about is the disconnection between myself and the audience. I have a lot of issues with this kind of accepted paradigm on playing in stages, which are three meters above the crowd. All my decisions always bring me back to this idea of removing the artefacts of electronic music stage.”
What is the reason behind the physical distance between musicians and the audience?“I think part of it has to do with cinema. Because there is a cinematic aspect to the way music is presented. You probably noticed last night at the show; the lighting design is pointed directly at overhead where I’m performing and at the speakers. When was the last you went to a show and notice the PA? They’re designed to be invisible. I think there’s a problem with that. Part of this show is about playing in the same space as the audience. And then trying to challenge some of those ideas about what performance is.”
Ben Frost explains that he still gets excited about the performances in which he is physically close to the audience. “I’m still sort of working through the anxiety of being surrounded by people who are all looking at you.” He says the experience is much different in the big stages. “Stage provides you a cloak. You can kind of hide on a stage. A lot of people do that in a way that is quite unhealthy. Some of my peers are extraordinarily introverted people whom on the stage have this persona of extrovert. I don’t feel comfortable in that space.” I’m curious what excites him the most about music and especially live performances. “The physicality of sounds is incredibly intoxicating to me. I like it when music gets physical to the point where it’s like my vision is blurring. Because then it is transcending auditory experience and becoming about the body. In order to do that you don’t have to have the biggest speaker. Actually, it’s about the room being as smallest possible. It’s about the ratio.”
He is not having this physical experience with sound only on stage. He once experienced something similar underwater. Australian born musician’s dad and himself was keen on surfing. But Frost found the real peace in swimming. After settling in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he had lived for many years now, he also started to swim in Northern Europe. Even in some level, he started diving with killer whales, the infamous orcas. While our tour of Istanbul continues with the exhibition of Sergey Parajanov at Pera Museum, Ben Frost’s stories take us to the Norwegian Sea. “I swim every day. It’s kind of grew out of my interest in meditation and breathing. I had asthma very badly when I was a child. Anything that kind of strengths my lungs and deals with the breath is really interesting to me. A lot of aspects of my music kinds of deal with this idea of breath and the anxiety of breathlessness. When I started free diving, I end up diving with killer whales, orcas in Norway. I didn’t realize what a physical thing that it is. The second you hop in and get your ears in the water, it’s incredibly loud. Especially sperm whales. When they’re using echolocation, it’s so loud that you can actually rupture your hearing under the water. You need to be very careful in their presence.”
Frost’s relationship with water is of course not limited to swimming. While we are at the terrace of Grand Hotel de Londres, and enjoying the view of Golden Horn and the ferries passing by, the subject comes to the US warship USS Theodore Roosevelt. He spent time in this ship while it was in Persian Gulf.
Two separate projects (Bombing Isis and Incoming) which photographer, director, video artist Richard Mosse created and also invited Ben Frost to take part, linked to their time spend in this ship. The initial plan was to shoot a documentary for Channel 4, called Bombing Isis. Because the airplanes departing from this battleship were on their way to bombard Isis, when they were wildly active. But then the project turned into Incoming which documented the migrant crisis, and exhibited on highly acclaimed museums around Europe and United States. “For me it was about making a very direct correlation of cause and effect. It’s a well-established fact that the Arab Spring has its roots in climate change. The drought, falling crops are basically forcing farmers to point of desperation. It’s sort of snowballs into a space where it becomes politically charged. All of a sudden next thing you know is another fucking war. And then a lot of people lost their homes. And then all of a sudden islands in Greece are being inundated with Syrian refugees. Spending time on the warship, floating around in the Persian Gulf you have a horizon that stretches into infinity on every side of you. Showing that aspect of military industrial complex, and its role in this crisis is one side of it. The other side of that is documenting the migration routes to Southern Europe, Northern Africa and through the Middle East.”
I am curious about his observation of the soldiers while he spent some time in this ship in the middle of Persian Gulf. “I met one guy who is from Arkansas. He never left his hometown. He joined the navy and after basic training flown very quickly out to Bahrain. He took a transport plane over there which had no windows. After taking this crazy landing like in Top Gun, the door opens and all of a sudden, you’re on the deck of this ship. For months you’re floating in this ship and the only thing you have is American news channels, American music, American food. But you’re floating around in the Persian Gulf of Iran. And your job every day is to go out onto the deck of this carrier, grab missiles and strap them to the underside of these planes. And they fly off into the distance, and they come back empty four hours later. And you do it all over again.”
With the help of another installation, documentary and photography work of Richard Moss, called The Enclave, he had the opportunity to spend some time in Democratic Republic of Congo. While he is talking about the misery he had witnessed there, he pauses occasionally. After experiencing such emotional trip and observing such destruction, what was the first thing he told to people when he got back to home? While gazing at the photographs taken by Yıldız Moran in Istanbul Modern, he talks about a completely different world that we often tend to forgot how it is.“How fucking lucky we’re. It’s insane how lucky we are. The fact that my children don’t have to live in the war zone… That I don’t have to put them on a boat… That I can go wherever I want… The freedom of movement is something we take for granted so much, it’s unbelievable. A lot of Syrians have big families. The second Damascus had ripped apart, everybody had to get out of there. They cannot all go the same way. One guy goes to Iraq, the other ones goes to Jordan, Turkey, Iran. Some lucky one manages to make all the way to Sweden. That’s great. Everybody gets away from horrible situation but then what? Here is a family who will never see each other again. Because when someone gets asylum in Sweden, he will never have allowed to leave. The second he leaves; the country won’t let him back. Being a refugee is a prison sentence.”
How does he reflect all these on his art and music? “I try not the think about it. I try as much as I can to allow these things to filter in and trust that It’s coming out in some way. I think advocacy in music and art is very dangerous. We start thinking about what it is you want to send as a message? What is the thing you want to support? When that becomes a leading edge of your work, then it stars to eat away pure creation of your art.” What can art do about all of these? Should it do something? “I don’t think it needs to in a conscious way. Look at a festival like Unsound, which I also do involved. The director of the Unsound Festival is very brave. The festival is always reaching a little bit further. Bringing things into the Western Hemisphere that are very unknown. Than he goes the other way and bringing music to really difficult places. Fundamentally a lot of music is still created by white men from the western world, like me. I think that’s okay but it’s very important we keep challenging. What Unsound doing is incredibly important, in reaching further out and widening that sphere of influence.”
When we board the Kadıköy ferry from Karaköy, we start to talk about something else. He has a strong interest in everything around him. He asks questions with sincere curiosity to know the city and culture. He is trying to understand everything from architecture to politics, from music to art. One of the areas of his interests is the food culture. He says Iceland’s food is weak. Walking in the middle of the fish market in Kadıköy, while gazing his eyes to all the colourful foods surrounding him, he inhales all the delicious smells scattered into the air. During his short visit to Istanbul, he had the time to visit Mikla, owned by chef Mehmet Gürs. He talks highly about Mikla, which we get used to it being selected as one of the best restaurants in the world. I brought the topic on Musa Dağdeviren, another very well-known chef who Gürs also talks with respect about him. I start the conversation on the fact that Mustafa Dağdeviren is also involved in a Netflix series. Even though he is a fan of Chef’s Table, he tells that he hasn’t seen the episode with him and his restorant Çiya yet. It’s not a problem. Although he didn’t watch the documentary, he would be able to taste the food. When we arrive at Çiya and I begin to explain the food, a huge smile appears on his face. It takes a long time for us to get up from the table where he fell in love with everything he eats.
We spend the rest of the day and night in Kadıköy’s streets and bars. During our visit to two popular places of the neighbourhood, Bina and Arkaoda, I realize whenever we talk about a musician during our long conversation, he happens to be worked or at least met with that person. Towards the end of the night, Portishead starts to play in our place. He turns around and shows me his phone. “We were texting with Geoff Barrow (one of the founders of Portishead) right now” he says. How small is the world, I think to myself. Nevertheless, I sometimes can’t believe how distant people can be from each other. The things Ben Frost create through his art are in a way reducing these distances. His work sometimes reduces the distance between the audience and the artists on the stage, and sometimes reduces the distance between the people whom are living in completely opposite countries… This one of the most beautiful things about his work…
Photography by Burcu Karademir