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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. 
 

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Forma Share Some Thoughts on New Track and Upcoming LP Physicalist

Forma Share Some Thoughts on New Track and Upcoming LP Physicalist

On their debut Kranky outing, the upcoming 2xLP Physicalist (with breathtaking Robert Beatty art), Forma have carved out a new niche for themselves, forgoing their full-frontal synthesis attack to make way for acoustic sounds. For those familiar with the project, there are still plenty of pristine synth sounds, albeit one with a more kosmische bent than the band’s earlier techno-leaning outing on The Bunker New York. Physicalist is also notable for being the group’s first go-round with John Also Bennett, new member and multi-instrumentalist. For sufficient background, the album name comes from the idea of physicalism or “the philosophical belief that all phenomena in the universe are created entirely from physical interactions,” which, to make the appropriate jump, implies a structure in which Forma improvises—like variations on a theme, permutations, and fractals. The impossibly small is just as infinite as the sublimely huge. Physicalist is out September 23 on Kranky.

AdHoc: What prompted the inclusion of acoustic instruments on the new Forma 2xLP?

George Bennett: The instrumentation change I made on Physicalist was less about moving from electronic to acoustic and more about a distinction between automation and hand-playing. In our earliest days, FORMA did lots of manual work. Mark was hand-playing arpeggiated sequences and I was playing a drum kit, so in a sense we’re coming full circle. If there was any conscious shift for me on Physicalist, it was a return to hand-playing, where I have more opportunities for spontaneity and can get off the grid with my rhythms. Some of that was done on acoustic cymbals, and some of it on electronic sample pads. 

John Also Bennett: We’d been tossing around the idea of including some acoustic instrumentation, or even just more hand-played instruments for a while, though we hadn’t much tried it out until we got to the studio. I was trained classically on flute and piano (and saxophone!), before trading in my flute for a guitar as a teenager, and then later trading my guitars and amps for synthesizers. So this is really just coming back to my roots after a long journey. I brought my flute to the studio, where there was also a great Steinway grand piano, and George brought a cymbal and some percussion instruments. After almost two days of tracking synthesizers, we took some time to work out on the piano, Mark and I trading off, and me on flute. It’s a way for us to free ourselves from the sometimes musically constraining idea that electronic music needs to be danceable.

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Check Out Modular Sets from Members of Forma, Grasshopper, Telecult Powers

Check Out Modular Sets from Members of Forma, Grasshopper, Telecult Powers

In what has turned into the most plesant of traditions, Long Distance Poison synthesist and Modular Solstice/Equinox organizer Nathan Cearley has shared recordings from his most recent seasonal synth showcase at Bushwick's Silent Barn. The most recent edition, celebrating the spring equinox, featured sets from regulars such as Mark Dwinell of Forma, Jesse DeRosa of Grasshopper (alongside Konrad Kamm), and Mister Matthews of Telecult Powers (alongside Bhob Rainey and bandmate Witchbeam) as well as less regulars like Joe Bastardo (with Mickey O'Hara and Seamus Williams of Lean) and Dave Doyen (of Roped Off).

Mark Dwinell: "Drive"

Mark Dwinell:

Listening to Mark Dwinell is like taking a photo of a growing plant or a building being erected every day for a few years and then watching a timelapse video made of them. What at first appears to progress at no pace at all, suddenly becomes a dynamic process, in which the changes take a dizzying speed and everything is pulsing with dynamism. The just intonation organ experiments of the FORMA frontman take the same path. And the video for "Drive," directed by Matthew Caron, explores the psychedelic, transformative potential of slowly unfolding, tightly sequential electronic music through a lens of an autumn forest, gradually widening the perception of sound and entrancing the listener with a colorful aura while the visuals deform and gain additional layers, as if to unfold emerging hallucinations.

Golden Ratio is out now on Amish Records. Dwinell is playing a record release show on January 31 at Schoolhouse, Brooklyn.

Mark Dwinell: "Ascend"

Mark Dwinell:

Like all self-respecting (and ancestor-respecting) synthesizer visionaries, Forma’s Mark Dwinell browses the vast catalogue of electronic pioneers and minimalistic experimentors, employing hypnotic, repeating patterns and had a very liberal take on harmonies. “Ascend”, from Mark’s upcoming release Golden Ratio is one of the documents of his just-intonation organ era (2007-2008), which carries some heavy Terry Riley overtones. Wonderfully detuned with an extremely wavy background, ecstatic Teutonic solos are played over the track's skeleton, sprawling across the analog landscape like a rainbow through curved air, ascending into the shimmering, progressive electronic bliss.

Golden Ratio is out October 21 on Amish Records as a part of its Required Wreckers series.