Maria Abramenko in conversation with Ben Frost on his latest exhibition A Predatory Chord, a sound installation debuting May 27-28 at the Megaron Athens Concert Hall. Commissioned by Rolex Art festival.
Could you talk about any significant artistic influences or other forms of contamination that have shaped your artistic journey?
Perhaps because I moved away from Australia nearly twenty years ago, I have a slightly unusual relationship to early memory. I’m no longer in the environment where any of that happened- so it’s clear whenever Australia or anything that comes from there arrives in my dreamspace, as it regularly does, it’s clearly my subconscious pulling on strings from deep in the archive rather than processing the events of that day. And there are certain images that tend to come up more often than they probably should; memories of nature mostly, animals, the ocean in southern Australia, the smell of bushfire and the panic that surrounded it. My parents were both cops. I had an amazing art teacher in high school though- she exposed me to some art that would end up being quite formative- Andy Goldsworthy, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra…
A Predatory Chord is about to make its debut at the Megaron, Athens, could you tell us about the idea behind the conception of this work?
Uncertainty dominates my headspace these days as I am sure it does many people. So I think perhaps this an attempt as transcribing the threatening space we have all been navigating recently, first with covid, and now with what is happening in Ukraine. When I started thinking about this piece I think I was coming at it with a view to making something more meditative, something to sit inside of, rather than to observe from afar, something calm even, but the anxiety crept in.
Sitting at a piano with the sustain pedal down, playing wide suspended chords is one of my favourite things, something I have done since I was a child. I love trying to spread my hands as far as possible, and shying away from resolving, grounded chords so not only the sound hangs there but too a sense of tension, almost as if the notes haven’t decided where to go yet. This lingering unified decay, that is something I always want to be inside of. And so I’m thinking about each of the notes not as a static singular object or key, but as a series of kinetic vectors, which multiply across this field of speakers and keep interacting with one another and with the viewer. There, these simple suspended chords start to take on a more complicated shape. It is in there that it transcends a listening experience and becomes a navigable, physical entity.
Whilst the sound has a kind of horizontal, meditative quality to it, there is a feeling that this music, or sound, is reacting to something, a threat even?
The thing the notes are reacting to, almost recoiling from, is drawn from the murmuration of flocking birds, like starlings, avoiding a predator. As these flocks are attacked by a hawk or falcon, the individual birds recoil, but also try to stay together so there is a sense of collective intelligence. There is safety in numbers, and as a European, I feel that a lot right now. There is a simple effect in sound engineering called a “sidechain”, where an external trigger is enacting force upon an audible source. In dance music this sidechain often manifests as a kick drum kind of sucking the energy, rhythmically, from a synth line or whatever, to produce a kind of pumping, breathing effect. Here though I am obscuring the side chain source musically, and have actually moving it into the visible light spectrum, so there is a sense that the sound is reacting, to the light, or rather changes in the light and the sound is being sucked from the room.
In Predatory Chord, but also in a large part of your artistic production, the study and research on the vibration of the frequencies is a fundamental cornerstone. In this installation, frequencies create a constantly evolving harmonic environment around the spectator, what does the concept of sonic ecology mean to you?
Evolution, and the development of complex ecologies are founded on simple rules: restricted availability of resources, isolation of specific traits, long term exposure to specific conditions. Adaptation. These are ideas I am thinking about in music and sound production. I see my work as a process of adapting to what is available and pushing that as far as I can go with it, which is what I have done here in Athens. Without the strain, none of this would exist, we would all still be a collective coat of slime coating the rocks of a lake in Africa.
In all of my music making the most interesting moments are often borne of the simplest of rules. Setting up situations which challenge basic thresholds, and exploit technological failure have always been of interest to me, and still now any time I am confronted with a new piece of gear my first thought is always ‘how do I break this?’ Placing speakers out of phase, facing them into corners, pushing subs designed for stadiums into small gallery spaces, and turning them up to the point that they are animating the very air, and the structural integrity of a building- honestly none of that is hard. But where it gets challenging is in going, ok, I have now created this situation that I have lost control of, so do I reign it in, and if so where is that threshold? Is there a way to ride the lightning here? To harness it? Because to me, when it sits at that crucial point of falling apart, it has for whatever reason, this uncanny feeling that ‘ok, now it’s working’.
In designing the installation, how have you experimented with PA technology? And how has it shaped the evolution of your art?
Touring around the world, performing, working in different theaters, halls, etc, one of the only constants is the technology, that is the PA. I guess I have pretty specific interests in that field and I’ve always been fascinated by the universality of backline/hire equipment. And as with music and sound, the technical also sort of cuts across language and culture, I can have a pretty detailed conversation with a sound engineer anywhere. It’s a weird zone. There is this inherent invisibility designed into PA speakers; this modular system of building blocks muted in stealth black. They are right in front of you at any concert, but you’re not supposed to see them, let alone pay any attention to them, and I’m in part trying to turn that back on itself, and force confrontation. They really do feel like a sculptural medium to me, something to be shaped and moulded.
How do you strike a balance between the expression of your personal artistic vision and the public’s interpretation and reception of your work?
There is always the thing as I imagine it, and the thing that is, and finally the thing that the audience receives. They are rarely the same thing. This piece in Athens started as a conversation with the theatre, and a lot of really wild conversations with the tech crew. I said this is what I want to do, to which they respond that ‘we have these 42 D&B speakers sitting in storage’. And so quickly then the piece becomes a work for 42 speakers. The void between all of these steps, that is the art, and I’m just kind of there to steer all those components into a form that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.