Forbes Graham and the Perception of Sound

Photo by Lillian Graham

Multidisciplinary artist Forbes Graham works across mediums, exploring ideas of simultaneity, perceptibility, transformation, and collage. He often works with trumpet and electronics to create thought-provoking works that challenge listeners to dig deeper. Albums like Lagos Playground and Neighborhoods of x, y, z utilize sound collage and field recordings to build unique listening environments where expectations get subverted and possibilities seem endless. These pieces often have a narrative aspect to them as well that invites repeated listens. Graham’s trumpet technique and style show new sides of the instrument while his compositional work, whether played himself or by other ensembles, ignored boundaries to find its own voice. His work in various ensembles, like the recent, stellar Scar’s the Limit, shows his talent and ability to absolutely shred. This interview with Forbes was conducted throughout June. He can be reached through his website and you can hear much of his work on bandcamp.

First, how has the past year been for you?

It has been an endurance test. Thankfully, I have fared well because I’ve been fortunate to maintain my employment, although I was furloughed for a couple of months. I am married with three children so I have company. I’m very busy between work, music, and family life. I’ve tried to work hard on music, both to maintain my sanity and because I’m in my 40s and I don’t want to keep limiting myself. If I don’t develop the music, no one will ever hear it, so I have to plug away at developing myself and my work.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or memories from your childhood that stand out where you heard something – some environmental sound, a song, anything – where something in your brain kind of clicked and sparked your interest in sound?

I started playing music when I was 9, but it wasn’t until I was about 12 that I started to develop my own “taste” in music. I made mixtapes from the radio. The first song I remember really liking was “Right Hype” by Abstract. Regarding sound itself, it was when I heard Napalm Death “Scum” at the age of 14 that I realized any sound was possible.

What drew you to the trumpet? Was it the first instrument you learned or did you start elsewhere?

Nothing drew me to the trumpet. I started on cornet at age 9. I don’t remember why I started on cornet. I definitely did not know anything about musical instruments at the time. Neither of my parents are musicians. I got a trumpet at 14, it seemed like the correct evolution. The original plan that my teacher had hatched was for me to learn French Horn, but that never happened. I wanted to play the flute when I was 7. We went to the music store and they gave me a flute to play with. I took it home, but since I couldn’t figure out how to play it, I was not interested in it anymore.

You’ve worn a lot of hats over the years and been involved in projects across so many genres and styles. Have you always been interested in exploring and playing music that’s all over the place?

Yes, absolutely. I often attribute this to growing up in a racially integrated environment with a lot of different types of people. As a teen I studied concert music, I played in the jazz band, marching band, and pit orchestra, and I got into hardcore and metal, so I was listening to a variety of music as a young person. I also played some orchestral music towards the end of high school. In college, I discovered Stockhausen, etc. After I left the hardcore scene I learned more about free improvisation. I try to stay interested in music and sound. Sometimes that is very easy, there is so much out there. Sometimes it’s hard, as you get older you can get stuck in your habits.

What you said about how sometimes it can be hard as you get older to not get stuck in your habits definitely resonates with me and something I work against. Are there certain things you do to keep pushing yourself or processes you have to try and keep your ideas from getting stuck in the same zones?

I do not worry too much about my ideas being stuck in the same zones. I have a lot of ideas, and I haven’t explored most of them in depth. That being said, I do turn to other disciplines to keep me stimulated and keep the ideas flowing. Those tend to be literature, mathematics, landscape, and visual art.

One of your recent-ish albums that I keep returning to is Lagos Playground. It feels like such a distinct album in your discography (I kept waiting to hear your trumpet, but it never came – ha! Although if you told me it’s in there, but heavily processed I’d believe it…) and I hear new ideas or get new imagery in my head any time I listen to it. Can you talk a little about the background of that album and what inspired the ideas behind it?

I’d describe that album as a collage experience. I have all these different field recordings and I just would jam on and off over the years with them. I finally started assembling the whole thing to create the album. But it was really based around jamming in the real sense of the word. I wanted to sit on the edge of noise. I didn’t want to go full hardcore ultra aggro, but I wanted to have sounds that had bite to them. I wanted the grit, scratch, and glitch that is part of life. There are a lot of recordings of trains and train stations. I’m very interested in transit.

When you say you’re very interested in transit – do you mean from a sonic standpoint, from a practical perspective… all of the above? I’m really curious about this!

Both. When I was a child, about three years old, my father used to take me to downtown Silver Spring and we would ride the Metro. That was so long ago that I have few concrete impressions from then, but the thought leaves me with much happiness. As a teen, I took the bus to record stores on the weekends. I wish that in America we had a more developed public transit system. I love buses and trains and other communal modes of transit that allow people who do not have cars to move about. From a sonic perspective, the collection of sounds one hears on trains and in train stations are of a great variety and are quite astounding to me.

There’s also been a handful of live performances released through your Bandcamp in the past year that I keep going back to. I especially dig that Chicago session with Ava Mendoza, Tyler Damon, and Joshua Abrams – Ava just shreds on there, damn! But sort of a larger question related to all that – how much of your live sessions/performances are composed vs. improvised? And maybe more generally, what role does improvisation play in your work?

It was a great privilege to play with Tyler, Ava, and Joshua. I’d like to thank Elastic Arts and Dave Rempis for making that possible. My live performances are almost entirely improvised. I rarely present compositions or play them live. I tend to want to hand that off to others. I do have pieces that are graphic scores or even heads in more of the jazz/free jazz sense that have been played here and there. Improvisation is a very big part of my work. For me, it is about communication and the idea of creating and synthesizing ideas in real time. I want to dissolve some of those distinctions in my practice at least some of the time, but that is a process that takes quite a bit of time. As we supposedly “open up” and there are more performances and recordings in my future, I want to get more of these creations documented so folks can listen to them.

One thing I always notice in your bio is the mention of the Rock Flint Artists Retreat, but I can never find much information about it. What can you tell me about it and how it got started?

We only did the retreat one time, ten years ago. I put out a call for visual artists and musicians to converge in Pittsfield, MA. Unfortunately my wife Lillian was the only visual artist to participate, but I was joined on the musician side by Junko Fujiwara, Luther Gray, Andrea Pensado, and Todd Brunel. We played together over a weekend and it was a very magical experience. I think I’ve just held onto that moment even though the retreat only happened once. I am thinking about trying to reconvene in 2022 or 2023. If that happens, I’m hoping it can be another open experience for all involved. The group we formed from that weekend, Rock Flint Contemporary Ensemble, has performed a handful of times over the years.

Can you talk a little about your process when it comes to composing graphic scores and how you learned and got into that? Does your work in visual arts come into play at all? It’s something I’ve been exploring over recent years, though haven’t shared with anybody as of yet, so I’m really interested in hearing about other musician’s experiences. 

The majority of my graphic scores (of which there are not that many) are based around mark-making. Some were based around situating lines and circles in two-dimensional space based on magic squares, but most are intuitively created. These compositions don’t really relate to my paintings and digital art. Those are more about maps and boundaries.

An original digital art piece from Forbes Graham

Also with your visual art, what kind of overlap is there, if any, in how you approach playing and writing music compared to conceptualizing and creating visual art? The painting you used for the release of that Chicago session is fantastic!

There is an overarching overlap between all of these, and that is to create work that I find aesthetically beautiful, as old school as that is. In terms of playing music, when I am playing with others the main thing that I aim to do is to increase communication and comity between musicians. It is important to me that we work together to enhance the sound. When I am writing music I am trying to build things. The amount of detail involved depends on what I’m doing, but in most cases, I’m trying to create a structure that sound can inhabit. With visual art, my process usually revolves around a collection of actions. Those actions are usually rapid, but there may be a series of layers in the work, which means that it takes time to assemble those layers and create the work. The thing that relates to all these activities is that they help me maintain my sanity.

Speaking of documenting recordings so other people can hear them, the most recent work of yours I’ve heard is the excellent Scar’s The Limit on Triptick Tapes. How did that performance come about? I know you’ve worked with Nakatani and Victoria Shen before – did you all do any rehearsals or anything or is that recording just completely off the cuff? The energy in that performance is incredible. The recording really blew me away.

Thank you for your appreciation of Scar’s The Limit. Jim and I used to play together all the time. Tatsuya and I did a duo record together many years ago, and we did a trio with Jim some time ago as well. Tatsuya brought Victoria on board for the concert that is documented on Scar’s The Limit. The concert was completely off the cuff. Tatsuya can match anyone’s energy and he can bring a lot of energy to any situation. For this reason, as well as the fact that he is a master percussionist, he is very easy to play with. What is really cool about this group is the contrasts and connections between the musicians. Victoria has a high octane approach, an art approach, and a craft approach. Jim is criminally underrated, he’s a soulful player who has always been true to himself. I dabble in a lot of things and I can be a physical player or a nerd. Tatsuya also covers a lot of bases and like Jim his playing is full of heart. So we can use all these things and more in service to the music.

What are you currently working on and what’s coming out soon?

I am working on several releases concurrently. Also now that the pandemic is somewhat loosening in the United States I am trying to schedule recording sessions for duos and trios that got postponed, as well as new projects. As I said earlier, I want to get more documented. I can’t get into the specifics until things are done, but when I’m not exhausted I am excited about it.

Is there anything you want to talk about or mention that I didn’t ask about?

Hmm..not off the top of my head. Everyone reading this I hope you can take the best care of yourself and keep on keeping on.

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