Locking into the Grid: An Interview with Forma About Composing for Synthesizers

Locking into the Grid: An Interview with Forma About Composing for Synthesizers Photography by Lena Shkoda

Brooklyn's Forma congealed into a three-piece outfit nearly a decade ago. Ever in flux, the synth collective has undergone lineup changes and stylistic renovations over the years, coalescing most recently into its current configuration of George Bennett, Mark Dwinell, and John Also Bennett. Forma’s 2016 Kranky debut, Physicalist, saw the band wading even deeper into the murk of psychedelic modular synthesis, while introducing flute, piano, and even traditional drum setups. AdHoc caught up with the band around their show supporting Cluster alumnus and kosmische heavyweight Roedelius this March. They disentangled the cosmic richness of Physicalist, outlined their compositional methods, and staked their claim as devotees of a krautrock genre tracing its roots back to archaic folk traditions.  
AdHoc: Reviewers tend to describe your work using lots of visual metaphors—I’ve definitely seen a lot of terms like “pointillism,” “spectral,” “rippling,” “bubbling,” “fluid,” and “rich.” Is your music this visual to you? Do you think in terms of sight and space while composing? 
Mark: Maybe people [gravitate] to visual metaphors [because] we don’t give people a lot to grab onto in terms of lyrical content. Using visual metaphors is just a short way of dealing with how to talk about the material without having any lyrics to go on to talk about what these guys [at Forma] are actually talking about. Personally, my experience of how we function at Forma—I would say it’s a lot more emotional than visual. The visual component really has nothing to do with it. To me, there is an ocean between the audial and the visual. 
John: I understand why reviewers use visual terms to describe Forma's music, but I don't think we're envisioning a particular place or space when we're composing music. For me, Forma has always been more about feeling out a process between the three of us. One of the major tenants of the so-called "minimalist" music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass was that it wasn't representative of a specific emotion, place, or thing. The music was representative of only itself. In Reich's case, it was a process playing itself out; with Glass, it was a series of intervals gradually changing. I'm not saying that Forma's music doesn't take on some emotional capacity or evoke something visual—I think it absolutely does, and we put a lot of thought into the visuals and titles surrounding the latest album, which certainly evoke a very particular sense of place. But it's kind of interesting that with Forma those things tend to emerge afterwards, after this process of group improvisation [and] composition under constraints has played itself out. 
George: You could imagine situations where improvisational musicians would use visual metaphors or visual devices to ground or guide their activity. We do not do that. There are visual constructs that I do use in my own playing, but they are things that are very practical, like a sixteen-step grid. We’re working with a lot of gear, and a lot of our premises are around gridded-out step sequences and really long, repetitive patterns, so I would say that such imagery has a functional role in Forma, but not necessarily a thematic input into how we compose. 
In the same way that we don’t have any visual imagery to guide our creative process, we don’t have any input saying, “Now we’re going to do this sad song, now we’re gonna do this happy song,” or whatever. It’s all sort of emergent. All forms of meaning are just emergent within our music; we don’t go in with a lot of pre-established parameters, especially thematic ones. 
Mark: It’s like the beauty of math, and how math turns into poetry and art. Music is sort of the most direct art of math, and relationships between numbers We’re not noise musicians, you know, and we’re not free jazz musicians; by using ARPs and sequencers, there’s a fairly balanced construct that we work inside of. Hence, this idea of a grid. And we’re always trying to figure out ways to fuck that up a little bit, but not enough to completely sidetrack us. Just trying to find some balance with it. 

Your two most recent physical releases, 2014's Cool Haptics and last year's Physicalist, alluded to another sense: that of touch, of material movement. The premise of Motorik—the thrumming, regular groove of mechanical motion—seems to be embedded in the very essence of krautrock and kosmische. How does synth-sculpted ambient music lend itself to this sense of movement and touch? 
George: You’re correct to draw a link between the tactility and the thematically physical aspects of Haptics and Physicalist. What sort of drew us toward "Physicalist" as a title and “physicalism” as a concept was this tension in the premise of physicalism: one between the perspective that causality in the universe is everything—a big domino effect—and the chaotic and spontaneous nature of improvisation. We see in improvisational and live music decisionmaking the centrality of the concept of choice. I think by virtue of the nature of improvisation, and certainly by the nature of our gear, it sometimes feels like it’s going, and we’re just kind of stewarding it and pushing it and seeing where it takes us. It has a mind of its own; it’s taking us where it wants us to go. Of course there are limits to the amounts of control you can impose over those pieces of gear, and we can’t replicate it properly every time. But that’s part of what makes our creative process distinct.
Mark: I remember seeing an interview with Michael Rother from maybe ten years ago, where he talked about how a good deal of what happened in krautrock was a rejection of American rhythm and blues. Up until that point, improvisation was either by way of jazz or blues structures. Specifically, what was going on in krautrock is a clear rejection of that, and a reexamining of European folk music structure. It was basically a rejection of American-style music, and looking at a more teutonic, Northern European folk music as a structure. 
So we just embraced that. And a technical thing is that there shouldn’t be a lot of chord changes or modulation in this music. That structure is actually a really ancient structure of music-making around the world. You can find it in indigenous societies. You didn’t have these big pop songs with all these elaborate chord changes. That's a lot of what Forma is—where we’re connected with krautrock is precisely there, you know. And it engenders the ability for us to compose, so there are some ground rules that we have when we come into making a piece of music. We don’t even have to think about it; we just play. 
We go into a studio, I whip out a couple things, but then everything just starts happening. It’s like magic. And part of that is just because we have a shared language, and John [Also Bennett, third member of Forma] was somebody that gets it. I immediately heard in his playing that he listens to krautrock and understands it. I was listening to a brother up there, and that’s a rare thing. 
George: Right now, there are some really calcified tropes around krautrock and “kosmische music”—the imagery of the cosmos and of escape and of blasting off into space, of Germany in the 1960s, of synthesizers. That was all great, but we didn’t want to just make that statement again. We live in a different cultural epoch, and we felt that there was something interesting about returning to terrestrial planes, and alluding to the earth with the title, "Physicalist." But we play with that dichotomy, that dialectic. Our imagery does look kind of fanciful and kind of otherworldly, but it’s the Earth, and we’re here on a planet, and we thought there was something interesting in playing with that a little. 
Mark, you mentioned a kind of shared language you guys have together. What did you mean by that—something telepathic? 
Mark: When speaking of the melodic material that John and I work with, I don’t think there’s anything psychic about it, anything mysterious or magical. It really is just a knowledge of this stack of records; a good chunk of them happen to be from the early or middle '70s, but [the various records composing the krautrock canon] are spread all over the place  Half the time, when people say, “Ohhh, that's a real kraut-influenced band,” you’re like, “What?” You know, it has nothing at all to do with krautrock. It could be like a country-rock band and they’d say, “Oh, there’s krautrock elements," because they go into a breakdown. Creedence Clearwater Revival did that—it was amazing, but nobody ever said that Creedence was playing krautrock. They were just jamming, going out on some fucking riff. So I’m into calling out to the Northern European die-hards. There is a common language, and we’re really good at it. We enjoy it, and it’s fun. It’s just generative, and we keep at it. 
How has this process of performing Physicalist treated you? Is it different than the recording process?
John: Performing Physicalist has been a lot of fun, since we now have a structure to work with rather than being 100% improvisational on stage. Playing back a piece live, when we know exactly what to do in order to knock it out of the park, can be pretty cathartic. That said, we still leave a lot of wiggle-room for free exploration before locking ourselves into the grid, and even some of the gridded-out tracks are structured to give us the freedom to react to each other and the space we're playing without feeling too constrained. 
George: In Forma's past, when we were just getting started, the live performances and so-called studio sessions were really blurred. Our albums were essentially recordings of live performances, and they were just clipped at either end, and it was what it was. As we started going into more professional studio environments, we didn’t want to change our improvisational approach—we just wanted to capture it the right way in the studio. As we’ve matured and become better at identifying the things that matter from those sessions and preserving them on a record, we’ve been able to bring that to the stage. It’s just a process of uncovering what is fundamental about this track—what is the core of it that we need to stay faithful to—and where are the zones where we can kind of expand. But then there’s sort of a synthesis element on the stage. It regenerates, because we’re doing our thing, and we have a more strict set of parameters. And then we explode out of them. And then the cycle starts again. 
Ambient electronic music has an interesting relationship with the notion of progress, especially considering the age and specificity of the synthesizers you deploy. Where does FORMA fit in with the legacy of an artist like Roedelius?
George: It's hard to know when you’re right in the middle of it—to place yourself in that lineage. I think one thing that’s safe to say is that we feel a lot of affinity with the American minimalist tradition. I wouldn’t say that we’re 100% just trying to carry the krautrock flag—I think that what a lot of what goes on on Physicalist is more attuned to some of the great American minimalists: Terry Riley, La Monte Young, John Cage, and Philip Glass. 
John: Cluster and Harmonia are huge influences on us, and it does feel that in a way we are carrying the torch for something he helped start. But I want to make a point: Forma does use hardware to make electronic music, and we do use some vintage synths in the studio (I mean, smoke 'em if you got 'em, right?), but within the past year or two, we've actually gotten to the point where 90% of our rig is made up of electronics that were built within the last few years. The three of us use Eurorack synthesizers with modules that could never have existed back in the '70's and '80's. So I hope that people won't look at Forma as some kind of "retro synth" band. We're making music for now, but we're conscious of the legacy behind us and the people whose shoulders we stand on.
Mark: I think it’s a pretty valid critique to be like, “What is Forma doing? Is Forma just continuing this idea?” We take that critique, and I do agree that with Physicalist, we put attention into trying to find a new way forward. Every once in awhile, a really sharp review that calls out some tendency—that stuff’s good. It makes you start thinking about what you’re doing, you know? We’re really looking forward to the future and this upcoming Saturday, working on our new record, and just seeing where it takes us.


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