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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

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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