[Photo by Aurora Halal]
Working within the traditions of two decades of synth innovation-- the kosmische sounds of 1970s Germany and the tauter, more claustrophobic minimal synth music of the '80s-- the Bushwick, NY based trio, Forma, comprised of George Bennett, Sophie Lam, and Mark Dwinell make cosmic music for people who live surrounded by concrete. Forma's music is an interaction between the flux of improvisation and the structures of repetition and elongation-- a mastery of analog equipment and an embrace of that machinery's inherent instability. As counterpointed rhythms gradually unspool, and drones and arpeggios helix around one another, we find ourselves in a world that is lush and spacious, discovering its terrain alongside the band itself.
As I found out when I caught up with them at their performance/recording sanctuary, The Schoolhouse loft, the crammed urban environment of Bushwick has been significant in their musical development. Discussion ranged from the uncoordinated accumulation of their instruments and their recently Zoned In debut LP to the philosophies of their forebears. This was the day after their record release party at The Schoolhouse, where they added one such inspirational musical personality, Richard Pinhas, to their growing list of admirers.
AZ: You guys have quite a live set-up. Can you give me a run down of all the equipment you use?
AZ: When you were playing acoustic drums, were the rhythms you were playing similar to the ones you use now?
George: No, I have certain reflexes on an acoustic kit that I couldn't go to on a 707, so it fundamentally changed the sound. The acoustic stuff was a lot more like Can or Cluster. It was way more intricate and jazzy. The 707 sort of put me in a different place-- trying to unlock the tribal patterns that came with the natural constraints of working with the equipment. It ended up opening up a new part of my percussive creativity.
Mark: Sophie and I originally started playing organs together. I had a Farfisa Compact and so we started doing this Terry Riley thing...
Sophie: We didn't use loop pedals at the time, so we'd be doing these hand-played loop patterns. We'd literally just be playing long series of patterns. We’d get really tired-- playing the organs was very impractical.
Mark: We had these EBows too. The stuff I was doing prior to Forma was more drone-based. I just played around with the classic minimalist template of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. And so basically we used the organ as a drone device, and then we'd have these things that produced a simple sine wave of crisp, unmodulated, unmoving sound. We got to this point where we thought maybe we'd just get a synthesizer; it was a Moog. And then quickly after, the [Dave Smith] Mopho came on the market, and I picked up a cheap digital synth to use as a control board to control it. We'd play the organ and then have the Moog or the Dave Smith on top.
Sophie: Going down the Keith Emerson road with the dual keyboard. It semed to work out. Then we ditched the Farfisa and Mark was bequeathed the Roland SH-1000, the earliest analog synth that Roland ever made.
Mark: A friend of mine, after his dad died, brought me down to his studio where there was an SH-1000 in mint shape. Then things really started falling into place. I think the interesting thing to say about our accumulation was that we almost got on the synth-buying circuit a little too late in the game. The prices were already starting to really slide upwards. I mean, we’d love to have the really powerful stuff like an Odyssey, but we can’t really afford it, so we’ve come across all these oddballs, and what's been nice is that these oddballs tend to be more '70s-style synths.
AZ: When you say that you came in late on the market, I guess that implies there was already a burgeoning interest in these classic, vintage synths. How do you take into account this renewed interest in these classic instruments in the digital culture? For you was it a deliberate act of return?
Mark: Yeah, I think maybe unconsciously it was. We knew what sound we really liked, which was '70s era synth music. A lot of the acts we were drawing on were Cluster, Harmonia and Kraftwerk, as these were triumphs of music, and these were the synths that produced those sounds. I think it's really interesting seeing manufacturers take notice, with Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, and Roger Linn all designing stuff again. It'd be great to see more people producing this equipment. But it wasn’t really a conscious thing. Sophie and I were thinking we’d be an organ band. That was the vision.
AZ: Do you want to return to the sounds of, let's call it, the Organ Period?
Mark: I can see the Farfisa popping up again, defnitely. It shows up on some of the Faust records. There’s just something satisfying in the hardware. There's definitely a magic to these physical objects. As George mentioned, there are limitations. You do get put in a box, but part of the beauty is that it's wonderful when the limitations are part of what produces great results. It would be very difficult for us to change crazy time signatures in the middle of a piece, and so very simply, we don’t.
George: I think you have to look at the infinite possibilities of digital instrumentation, but then the limits of its tactility. That's a big thing. I never feitishized the sound of the 707 or 606 so much as I did the unpredictable nature of the equipment. You get these really interesting, serendipitous moments with them, like they're another member of the band.
AZ: And they are also something tangible, right? Physical objects that you touch, by contrast with the remove of a computer interface.
Sophie: It is funny, because I don't think of it as old gear when I play it. It may look old, but it doesn’t feel like it. When we play something new or do something different, I feel like we’re breathing new life into something. We’re not playing a church tune on the Farfisa. It has a different life to its original being. I don't think of it as some captioned technology.
AZ: One of the more prominent underlying philosophies of acts like Kraftwerk was achieving some sort of fusion between man and their machines. Is that inheritance something that is ongoing in your music?
Mark: I'd have to say no. I think that was something that was really important to their total vision as a group and a performing entity. But I just have these records that I put on and I just hear the music. At the same time, yes, it's very interesting what they’re doing, but as far as personal identity...
Mark: And in Popul Vuh, Florian [Fricke] had some kind of religious conversion, where he then sold off the thousands of dollars of huge Moog modulars, swore off electronic instruments, and would only work with acoustic instruments. But in a sense, their music was remarkably related to Kraftwerk's. What Ralf [Hutter] and Florian [Schneider] did really lines up with what Popul Vuh were doing in terms of melody and open structure with not many modulations or key changes. It just kind of permeated my life a long time ago, and it was a real pleasure. I played guitar for a long time, but I never thought of actually getting synthesizers. It was almost too holy.
George: I agree with Mark in that Kraftwerk were aspiring to a very specific political and cultural moment in Germany. That's not to say that all of Krautrock was unified by a singular vision, but there was a striving for a kind of cosmic music that transcended all the cultural baggage the country had at the time. That makes them a good reference point, because I think there is an analogy to what's happening now. There is a desire with people in our scene to get beyond the proliferation of microgenres and all the things that are permeating music as a result of the Internet, and get back to a place that is sort of eternal and seems more permanent or cosmic. Music that is not so subject to flash-in-the-pan fluctuations. But beyond that, there’s not much of a guiding ideology.
Sophie: I don’t think that we’re as conceptually structured as Kraftwerk. We’re not going to come out in suits and a calculator. We don’t have lyrics, which is a huge part of Kraftwerk’s message. Radio-activity and even Autobahn are very literal and conceptual. We are also interested in the non-verbal, and that’s the thing that helps me to think about the technological.
AZ: I find what you were saying really interesting, George-- how you are noticing an attempt to achieve a sort of universal form, a movement away from the microgenre. Do you have any thoughts about why this is happening now?
George: I think it's a phenomenon occurring at the global level. When you get into the language and vocabulary of the New Age and the Cosmic, you get hung up on a lot of clichés, but I think there is something happening culturally and socially that people are reacting against, or rather are building up, with the sense of a unified planet. The fact that communication has reduced the globe to a single entity, with everybody being hyper-aware of what’s going on politically, socially etc.-- I think that has played a huge role in the interest and resurgence of this music. It's almost as though there were a prelude back in the '70s that stressed what would happen when technology fully blossomed.
Sophie: When we play, I try to channel a sense-- not so much of timelessness, but of the fact that we could stop playing at any time and we'd still be going. It’s like the Theatre of Eternal Music or something like that.
Mark: It stops time. We live in this culture where it's all about soundbytes: "Give it to me now, I got it." You can’t listen to our music that way, and you can’t play our music that way. I think that what we set as an imperative for ourselves, and that we are constantly getting better at, is coming from the minimalist tradition, where you don't change-- you just keep on going and repeating. And just doing that is an exercise of discipline, and it's not the dominant paradigm of culture. There are these moments when I'm playing where I'm doing these things, and my brain goes, "Okay, how do I get out of this?”"And you have to remain patient and keep going and keep going and keep going, and, "Oh, now I have a solution." But those are really micro-decisions that come from improvisation as performance. It is absolutely radically different to writing songs, recording songs, going to the studio, laying it down and getting up on stage. I used to make this joke-- and with all due respect, as well-- that getting up on stage is like pressing play on a tape; all the muscles work where and when they need to. And it's cool-- that’s one way to make music. But there’s a whole other tool kit that you need to do what a lot of other people are doing, which is being in the moment.
Sophie: Because we are looking at several instruments, it's hard not doing too much. Maybe that is a cultural thing, that you want to overload. People say that our music is really simple, and I think that is a really great compliment, because it's really hard to make really really simple music. It is not as easy as just stretching out "Autobahn."
AZ: How did you select the tracks that made it onto the record?
Mark: A simple initial thing was finding a piece of music where there aren’t obvious mistakes, or volume jumps when we switch to another instrument. Our record is a live mix, right off our mixer. We can't go in and edit-- the only edits we can do are starts and stops. I think people would find that really archaic. Like, "Are you insane? You’re losing all of these moments that could have been tracked out on Ableton." It's true, but our recording process is mostly a convenience thing and was not a conscious decision. We were recording multi-track for a while until my machine died. That's all it was. And the machine died right before we were getting really really good. I replaced this $700 machine with this $180, handheld Tascam. The whole record was recorded on a 4-gig flash card. I find it remarkable that throughout the scene now there is a mode of people self-mixing, taking complete control of the music.
AZ: Many of your performances take place here at The Schoolhouse, which you have been pretty active in developing into a music and performance space with a dedicated community behind it.
Mark: Yeah, I think so. We know this room really well, even though we are only now reaching what will be the final soundsystem. But yeah, it's our space and it is quite convenient when we can just drag our equipment out of our rehearsal room onto the stage.
Sophie: We’re surrounded by so many talented musicians that it's just such a pleasure to invite them to play and be part of our shows. It's a pleasure to see people returning not only because they like the space but because the music is great. And it is a community, which is absolutely important to us.
George: I think it's a remarkable phenomenon what is happening in Bushwick right now. The cohesiveness and community of the scene and the common vision that transcends just music-- like video and the visual arts. The community and support network that's here-- I've never seen anything like it, and it's really inspiring.
Sophie: I think in the community people are challenging each other in a really good and noncompetitve way. Everyone is so technically skilled. It's hard to see someone working hard on Ableton, but it's great seeing someone working really hard on their instruments; people like Telecult Powers, who build their own synthesizers and are making these awesome sounds.
Mark: It's the beauty of improvised music-- the high of being surprised to find yourself in a place where everything is in unity. Those moments come, and you have to respect that they will depart when you don’t want them to. I actually don’t believe in the perfect set. Maybe we will produce more of these moments, but you can't predict it. And I think that's the magic of those shows that come off stronger than others, and you can’t really lock down why.