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The Brooklyn-based electronic band Forma has released two acclaimed albums on Spectrum Spools and a 12 inch on Bunker Records. Their latest outing on Kranky has seen them add acoustic instrumentation to their musical paradigm. We caught Forma in the middle of a rehearsal to have a chat about improvisation, playing live in clubs, their rekindled love for non-electronic instruments and the nature of American electronic music.
Interview by Rafael Severi/Sensu
Photos by Richard Perez, shot in Brooklyn, New York
What is the nature of improvisation in your music?
John: Forma improvises within a setup that has certain parametres. There are three of us, which in my experience is the perfect amount of players for exciting improvisation. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin used the concept of the third mind, a way of explaining the result of their experimental and improvisational collaboration. Forma is perhaps similar in that our music is the amalgamation of three minds, three instrumentalists. Our studio approach is improvisation.
John Cage, for example, hated improvisation, stating it makes you re-create what already exists.
J.: I think the opposite of Cage’s sentiment is true in our case. For us, improvisation is a way of getting out of what we already know. We constantly surprise ourselves in terms of what we produce, especially in the studio. Our albums intend to capture the best of these spontaneous moments.
Mark: And yet, John Cage is famous for his Chance Procedures. Improvisation is a broad catchall for a lot of things. We often approach a piece of music or an improvisational recording or rehearsal session with a certain set of limits, often discussing the limits while composing. Improvisation is never doing just whatever comes to mind.
How do you take Forma’s music to the stage?
George: The process of taking our music to the stage is the opposite of an improvisational procedure.
J.: The live version of our music takes its root structure and adds to it in the specific space of a live setting. That is what makes being on stage exciting.
What made you start using acoustic instrumentation?
J: We wanted to push into a realm we hadn’t been into before. Also, we found ourselves in a studio with a grand piano in it.
M.: Having the piano there was a happy coincidence. We had thought about adding acoustic instruments before, but the environment definitely had an influence.
G.: Forma is not fundamentally an electronic band. We’re an improvisational band and we are all multi-instrumentalists. We’re just growing our palette and it feels like a very natural progression to us.
Our albums intend to capture the best of spontaneous moments
How did you enjoy playing live in a club setting?
M.: It was a challenge. There were some aspects to it that made it very appealing to us, one of them being able to play on amazing sound systems. Also playing a 45-minute techno set and creating a certain kind of ‘club tension’ was something that excited us. It is a very different experience to creating a sweeping, listening album.
G.: Some of our most enjoyable moments have been playing in clubs. We haven’t consciously abandoned it, we’ve just moved into something different. Our most recent gigs focus on our new album and have benefited greatly from the often amazing concert hall settings we were able to play in.
How would you describe American electronic music and the influence it has on you?
J.: The classic view of America is that it’s a melting pot. We’re trying to approach our music from an American perspective on electronic music. The New York minimalism school of the ’70s and early ’80s has an obvious influence on us. We also look at the so-called Berlin School of electronic music with a great deal of reverence.
We’re trying to approach our music from an American perspective on electronic music
Given the current political context in the US and worldwide, it’s tempting to ask about the role of alternative music in all this.
J.: There is a lot of political consciousness in the DIY scene and the current political situation seems to be activating communities more than ever.
G.: We never approach anything thinking about what our music should mean. Our music is emergent. We see meaning in retrospect, but it is a spontaneous emergence of meaning.
M.: In regards to that, Forma means ‘form or basic, fundamental structure’.
J.: We have a project coming out called Descent, based on the track on Physicalist. It’s an application that takes over your computer and infests it with a plague of rats, not unlike a Hieronymus Bosch painting. In the end the rats are eliminated by a watchful and awakened eye, so there’s room for optimism.
Forma plays Het Bos, Antwerp on 6 April. The show is free for members. Become a member here.