Photography: Bill Nash
The sun’s rays have just begun to peek over the canyons, a pale blue bleeding into the folds of night, as we leave the Arizona desert behind. I’m running on empty, drained from a weekend of little sleep and way too many stimulants. A dub beat thumps in my head and I let it wash over me, striking a bittersweet pulse in my veins. The past three days at FORM Arcosanti have been some of the best of my life, a surreal blend of innovative music, surreal landscape, and community; a one-of-a-kind musical gathering that’s rewriting the function of the modern music festival.
FORM festival takes places miles from Phoenix but light years from normality; it’s set at Arcosanti, an architectural gem in the center of the sun-soaked Arizona desert. Constructed by philosopher and architect Paolo Soleri in the 70s, construction continues today on the surreal project, an arcological community of artists and progressive thinkers. FORM, for the 3rd year, occupies the space as a gathering for experimental art, music, and industry. The event fits perfectly into Arcosanti’s concentric circles, sweeping curves, and rust-colored landscape; the two main stages occupy concrete amphitheaters and the late night sets take place about a mile’s walk down a dirt path in the basin of a nearby Canyon.
The festival is also unique in format, offering a 3-day desert immersion: food truck meals, outdoor showers, a campsite among cacti, and no in-and-outs. Curated and founded by Florida-via-LA four-piece Hundred Waters, FORM is comprised of artists who push boundaries and embrace the experimental. It’s also 21+, a relief to much of the crowd, who prefer DSLRs to selfie sticks, and cocktails on draft to water bottles full of vodka. Most importantly, the festival embraces attendees, musicians, and crew as the same breed: all good people, here to show love and respect to each other under archways of safety and community. That means there is no backstage, no artist area; all are encouraged to interact as peers, and connect as friends or collaborators.
FORM attendees, the most diverse and beautiful mesh of artists, thinkers, and good humans, came from around the US by coveted invitation. The event functions as a by-application event free for those accepted; you apply online by answering essay questions like “What Role Does Collaboration Play in Your Process?”. About 1 in 8 applications were accepted this year, and 1000 lucky participants were joined by a few hundred patrons, festival goers that chose to buy ticket packages to skip the application and receive upgraded amenities. Because of the combing of participants, those selected were humbled and honored, invited to enjoy not just music, not just the architecture, but each other. It’s not a networking event, but if you participate in FORM the way the founders intended, you’ll be leaving with some new contacts.
Waking up among the planes of red rock was surreal and invigorating, and there was much to experience during the scorching desert days at Arcosanti. While winds rip through curved walkways, chiming bells and swirling up dust, FORM offered yoga and meditation classes, virtual reality demos, pool parties, and slotted performances starting at noon. While it tempting to spend all day absorbed in the music, attendees were encouraged to take a step back and engage with their environment by hiking across the valley, getting a tour of Arcosanti, or trying various blends of tea at a small pop-up tea area clad with pillows and art supplies.
And then there is the music, the real reason for the pilgrimage. The bill this year was stacked with music’s top experimental acts, each a pioneer of their own sound. Every set, performed by a standout of our generation, was special. I cherished solo performances from bring-down-the-house soulful Moses Sumney and minimal electronic act Tyondai Braxton, the ethereal vocalist Juliana Barwick, and of course, the brain-shaking offerings from Skrillex. Rumored to be the underwriter of the festival and its reigning party king, Skrillex played three separate sets through the weekend including a custom back to back with textural electro artist Four Tet. The groups that defined my experience need no introduction; Hundred Waters’ hypnotizing electro-pop shimmered amongst smoke and mirrors, Braids’ thoughtful, rhythmic rock songs echoed powerfully through the amphitheater, and Tortoise reminded us why they’re (still) legends, the only band of the weekend granted an encore.
All of these elements combined to form an ideal, ephemeral experience not unlike summer camp for musicians and music lovers. Finding an empty seat at the amphitheater every day felt like showing up to class, except this time it was to witness our peers, who happen to be the best musical minds of our generation, show us what they’ve been working on. Music, poetry, and speeches never fell on deaf ears; for the first time at a festival, everyone was listening and holding on tight. Wandering through the halls of epic proportion was visually entrancing, as was camping amongst teepees and handmade yurts, expressions of creativity of those all around me. Hugs were the greeting of the festival and business cards the currency. So while for most of us, the days of summer camp are behind us, we were able to relive the giddy feeling of making new friends, learning new things, and having profoundly moving sensory experiences. There is no festival like it.
Those of us lucky enough to be in attendance last weekend are still riding high. While the magic of the weekend continues to swirl around in my consciousness, there are a few lessons I’m taking with me. If anything is clear, it’s that Hundred Waters and their team are redefining what it means to create a festival, and what it means to be a fan. The bottom line: if you love music, you’ll want to be at FORM Arcosanti next year, so get ready to write a killer application essay. The key to a damn good application? Be passionate. Be open. Be a good listener. Be a standout member of your community. And take a note from this years’ attendees, and be a damn good person. Maybe that last one the most.