INTERVIEW: Ben Frost on Dark OST

Ben Frost speaks to Patrick Clarke about his soundtrack to wonderful German sci-fi mind-bender 'Dark'

Dark has been touted by many as ‘Germany’s answer to Stranger Things. This is deeply incorrect. There are a few shared themes – it is (partly) set in the 1980s, and its narrative includes missing children – but that is where the similarities end.

Where Stranger Things is kitsch and retro, Dark is a tightly wound masterpiece of writing that uses time travel as part of a far deeper vision. The way horror and dread unfurl at first in the every day, dragging the viewer further and further out into the realms of genuinely mind-bending theoretical physics.

Part of the reason the series is so effective in its handling of a narrative that could very easily collapse under its own weight, is its score by Ben Frost. His motifs add terror when there should be none, subvert expectation and add one of the most crucial layers . He’s eschewed the easy route of revivalism in favour of something more forward-thinking and immersive.

With the soundtrack Dark: Cycle 1 getting its digital release last week via Invada/Lakeshore, Cycle 2 coming this month, and physical versions on their way in the future, we spoke to Ben about his involvement with the show, his approach to composition and more.

tQ: How were you first approached to do the soundtrack for Dark, and what drew you to the project?

Ben Frost: I have an email here somewhere, something along the lines of “German language, time travel, called DARK". I cant remember what happened after that, but it was very quick.

How did you approach the composition? What were the differences between this and your previous soundtrack work?

I went to Berlin and saw some rushes which were incredibly strong, and then we just talked a lot about the ideas behind the story, and it all felt pretty good so I just went away and started writing. I wrote a lot, generating as much material as I could as quickly as I could, not over thinking it. I was really into these kind of overtly plastic string shapes and embracing the shittiness of midi string libraries.

It was right around then that Mika died which hit me pretty hard and so I was going back listening to a lot of early Pan Sonic too and I think that definitely fed in there. I just kept reducing everything, pulling towards simpler melodies that keep falling over themselves, very cyclical, circular patterns that eat themselves uncomfortably.

When I handed everything over to my arranger it was a mess, full of artefacts of writing in a midi environment, like, when I was playing with the pitch wheel and I’d let go of it too early and it kind of slaps back into tune on the very tail of the note rather than after it- thats usually something id have edited out, but I asked that it was left in. And so having 25 people play what is me, well, just sucking at playing keyboard, it became something new and weird.

What differences have you found between compositon for TV and composition for film?

I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to write for this type of long form story-telling but I am very grateful for it. I think it lends itself to a modular approach where ideas can evolve over a much longer time span than within the confines of say, a 90 minute film. Season 2 of Dark is over 7 hours of score.

I took very loose sheets to the sinfonetta in Krakow, who I´d worked with for Solaris with Daníel [Bjanarson]. That was maybe 10 scores, not a huge amount of linear material, but then we’d just start working through them, breaking them up. Orchestral ensembles always frightened me quite a lot until Solaris, but watching Daníel’s ability to communicate virtually anything to the players in classical language and Eno’s presence in that process, constantly egging me on, I learned a lot.

With Dark I wanted the string parts to work more akin to a modular synth than a string orchestra. I wasn’t writing cues, or even to picture. It’d be like, OK, once as written, but then seven other times, slower, faster, quieter, louder, and then more and more complex rules, when the player next to you does a, you do b, start with this idea and over 60 seconds change to this one, don’t listen to the person next to you, only listen to the person next to you, and so on and so forth. We’d give the cello parts to the violins and the violins to the basses and get everyone to sight read those parts up or down octaves, inverting pages, making games out of everything and growing the world exponentially.

Did you have a hand in the use of contemporary 80s music and modern indie and pop music in the show? What do you make of their use of it?

Ive had a hand in a few of those choices but mostly they are coming from [show creators] Jantje [Friese] and Bo [Odar]. Part of what makes the score work the way it does is the sharp contrast it has with the pop music but there are things I’d still like to get in there – Scott Walker for example.

Dark takes place across so many different time periods, from the 1920s to the 2050s. Was the music and culture of any of those times of any inspiration?

Yes and no. it’s inspiring in that its exciting and interesting to think about. In the beginning we did play around with that as it seemed obvious as a way to go but actually it felt kind of dumb in practice. The placed music – Nena or whatever – I think does the job really well, much better than I ever could of letting you know where you are, when that is important. But what’s crucial in Dark is that the score helps bridge the divide between those spaces.

Like, when you are watching a character as a child, as an adult and as an old woman, in 3 separate scenes, sometimes cutting back and forth rapidly, the score is actually pretty crucial in holding you on course, and helping to glue that story together. When it comes down to it, I want to stay with characters, in an emotional space that exists outside of time, and in that way the period they are in doesn’t matter.

That said, there are exceptions and they are fun. When Jonas wakes up in the 20s we really wanted the score to drive the point that we were now somewhere new, and really far from home. And so I rewrote the main theme of the show for Liam Byrne who performed it all on viola da gamba.

Dark has had a lot of comparisons to Stranger Things that to my mind are completely unfair. I think one of the reasons it stands apart is your soundtrack – it doesn’t feel kitsch or retro. What do you make of those comparisons? Were you keen to avoid ‘retro’ aesthetics?

Thank you. I’m not sure I could convincingly do retro even if I wanted to, evoking a specific period is actually a really hard thing to get right, and I am pretty sure I’m not the person for that.

The first two seasons of Darkare available now on Netflix. Ben Frost’s Cycle 1 is available digitally now via Invada/Lakeshore, with Cycle 2 due in July and a physical release forthcoming.

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