Portable Masterpiece Company (1973), 7.5/10
Like A Duck To Water (1976), 6.5/10
Music For Amplified Keyboard Instruments (1981, 6.5/10
Anatidae (1987), 7/10
Migration (1988), 6/10
The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 9-12 (1988), 7/10
The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 5-8 (1990), 7/10
The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 1-4 (1991), 7/10
Cayuga Night Music (1993), 5/10
Places, Times & People (1994), 5/10
The first electronic ensemble was founded upstate New York, not far from where
Robert Moog had invented the synthesizer. David Borden, fresh from his Berlin
studies, learned how to operate Moog's machines and began composing electronic
pieces for ballett. In may 1969 the Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece
Company was born, namely Borden and two friends. Two albums later, Borden was
ready to try other avenues. His solo albums contain long compositions that
recall minimalism but with a peculiar harmonic twist, as much Terry Riley
as Bach, as much Steve Reich as free jazz. Borden's masterpiece,
The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint, surfaced little by little over the
years and was finally premiered in 1989. Borden has also composed the
oratorio Angels: Visions And Apparitions (1990) and countless chamber music for
keyboards. Last summer Borden started performing again as Mother Mallards.
Borden is currently the head of Cornell University's Digital Music Department.
Borden's masterpiece is the The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint, which was completed in 1987 and is documented on three discs: The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 9-12 (Cuneiform, 1988), The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 5-8 (Cuneiform, 1990), e The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 1-4 (Cuneiform, 1991). As a whole, this work for keyboards, horns, guitar and voice is one of the most monumental studies on counterpoint of the century. Borden's "counterpoint" relies on the same basic technique of Terry Riley's In C (a set of independent motifs played in different meters and for different periods of time), but Borden downplays the pulsing effect and employs more than one keys.
The defining feature of the work, introduced in Part 1, is the speed: these are fast moving notes, fast developing blocks, fast changing meters. The effect is achieved by using ordered sequences of sixteenth notes, and then supporting them with a scaffolding of disordered (not quite random) drones. At its core, Part 2 is mostly a piano duo. It increases the role of the voice, and adopts a less linear, most convoluted, dynamics. Part 3 returns to the exuberance of the first part, and actually bumps up the impetus. It evokes baroque court music for trumpets. The voice sings names of composers in an operatic contralto register. The lengthy Part 4 (in three submovements) is a more pensive suite. Its pace is initially both solemn and friendly, as if announcing the kind of storytelling typical of late-romantic orchestral poems. Suddenly, a fast rhythm worthy of dance music changes the shape of the piece, and the voice intones a psalm-like melody. The "dancing" rhythm eventually dies away, and the singing continues against a flute and a harpsichord in a baroque vein.
Part 5 is an exuberant application of the aesthetic principles of Riley's In C, enhanced with the emotional intensity of Michael Nyman's film music. By the same token, Part 6 is frantic, majestic, almost emphatic, interlocking cascading patterns of different keyboards, voice, guitar and horns. Part 7 is almost symphonic, as both the range of voices and the frequency of movement keep increasing. Part 8, divided in three sub-movements, is a more technical exploration of the mechanism that yields this phantasmagoria of sounds. Borden's minimalism is visceral, thundering, extroverted. It has little in common with Riley's Eastern spiritual brand, or with Reich's mathematical processes, or with Glass' decadent nonchalance.
Part 9 revisits the leitmotiv of Part 1 and appears to be one of the most monolithic, awe-inspiring parts. This movement, incidentally, demonstrates one more time Borden's ability in integrating the human voice (in a characteristic medieval/renaissance tone) into the minimalist framework, something that few composers have achieved. Part 10 is rather different from the other 11 parts because it employs a more traditional (and subdued) style, it relies more on the vocals than on the keyboards, and it has a bit of improvisation (the wind player). Part 11 is one of the most intricate structures, evoking baroque harpsichord sonatas and late-romantic symphonies. Like every fourth piece in the series, Part 12 is divided in three submovements, and it is an explicit tribute to Bach and Cage (the pitches are derived from the letters of their last names). As the minimalist extravaganza reaches its climax (the jubilant Part 12B) and ending (the ethereal and vaguely melancholy Part 12C), one is baffled by the ultimate meaning of this musical and existential excursus.
My 1999 interview with David Borden
Your bios are very detailed after you returned from Germany. But what was going
on before that? I only know that you grew up in Boston...
But, as I look back at important influences, I have to say despite all of the fantastically talented and intelligent peers and teachers I encountered at both schools, the memories that helped shape my musical outlook stemmed in great part from hanging out in Storyville, the Boston Jazz Club, during my late high school years ( I grew up in Brookline, just outside of Boston) and the two years (1956-58) I attended Boston University. When I was at BU, I befriended a young blind pianist, Dave Mackay, who was a graduate student in music, and the intermission pianist at Storyville. Since he didn't know Braille yet, I helped him with his reading and written work. So, almost every night, I would be at Storyville helping Dave. He lived in the Copley Square Hotel, which also housed Storyville. Although I had hung out there during my high school years, it was nothing like the experience of hearing great jazz artists night after night, and after hours, meeting and hanging out with them with Dave Mackay. The only two artists I didn't encounter there during this time were Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. I heard Miles a several times at other places, but I never did get to see and hear Monk live. But I did experience, in person, Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderly, Bobby Timmons, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, etc.
I was also studying classical piano with Margaret Chaloff, Serge Chaloff's mother, one of the greatest baritone saxophone players jazz has ever produced. I was there when he died at the young age of 32 from cancer, but really from a life of alcohol and drug addiction. Mrs. Chaloff was never really the same after this loss.
Although I was studying classical piano, I had, over the years in my late teens, studied with a couple of jazz teachers, and improvised any chance I got. So, my earliest aspirations were connected to jazz playing and arranging/composing. In fact, my first trip to Europe was at the age of 19 in the summer of 1958, playing with a college jazz quintet. We played on the boat over and back for out passage, and ended up giving playing daily concerts in the American Pavilion at the Brussells World's Fair.
Eventually I drifted away from jazz and into modern concert music. I realized that if I wanted to pursue jazz, I would have to give it my full attention, because there were so many outstanding players, and arrangers. You couldn't do it part time. I still miss one of my close friends, Gary McFarland, one of the outstanding arrangers of the 60s and early 70s, who died from complications having to do with drugs and alcohol. Needless to say, drugs have always been anathema to me, although I occasionally have wine or beer."
The "Counterpoint". How did the idea come? Did you have the plan in
your mind from the very beginning? Was it a statement about avant-garde music?
And in retrospect "what" do you think has been the main achievement of
the 'Counterpoint" in the history of late 20th century.
I came from a very poor and uneducated family, and although my father could play the piano (he learned late in life), I just thought, from what he played, that modern music was Duke Ellington and Gershwin, but that classical music was something that no one composed anymore. So, when I discovered the "new" harmonic language, it blew me away. I loved it. I still loved Bach, but I also loved the contrapuntal pieces of Bartok and Hindemith, with the fresh-sounding intervals.
I was also discovering jazz artists like Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck--the idea of improvising--making it up as you go along--this was extremely liberating. Later, when I discovered that these players were actually improvising over pre-arranged chord changes, I was truly disappointed. So, when "free" jazz first happened with Ornette Coleman, it was something I had been doing unknowingly for years, and forming groups in high school to improvise freely also. I stopped when my first jazz teacher told me it just wasn't done. But later, Jaki Byard, my last jazz teacher, although he "played the changes" and expected you to learn them--he encouraged any kind of free improvisation you could think of.
What I remember was improvising by making up more than one melodic line at once, creating two or three lines at once, and dropping the chord idea. It was my early way of improvising with counterpoint, rather than the traditional right hand melodic invention being supported by the left hand chord voicings.
Later, when attending college, from Boston University through Harvard Graduate School, I took as many counterpoint classes as possible, many more than I needed to graduate. I always came away disappointed. Not by the music, but that none of teachers seemed to offer any new insights into what I already knew. In fact, Randall Thompson took me to his office to ask me if I liked Bach (we were studying the Art of =46ugue) because I seemed to be getting nothing out of it. The truth of it was, that I was bored by his classes.
As for outstanding "counterpoint" pieces of that late twentieth century, I regard Steve Reich's revival of canon techniques in almost all of his work, including PIANO PHASE, to be wonderfully refreshing and beautiful. Listen to the wonderful use of canon and augmentation in his PROVERB. Then there is the "improvised" canon technique used by Terry Riley in IN C. The improvised part is the point of entry and number of repetitions each player chooses--but the whole piece is a freely expanding canon. The other contrapuntal masterwork I recommend for careful listening is Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano solo, available on ECM by Keith Jarrett." Piero-- I have just recently discovered a far better recording of the Schostakovich Preludes & Fugues by Tatiano Nikolayeva--a young pianist (in 1950) whose performance of the complete Bach 48 Preludes & Fugues inspired Shostakovich to compose his 24. The Keith Jarrett is very very good, don't get me wrong, but this recording has that "definitive" sound to it. It's on Hyperion.
Now that you have completed this massive opus, what next? Do you
feel exhausted or do you feel you have built foundations upon which you
can built something else.
One more technical question, about counterpoint and jazz improvisation.
Counterpoint is the quintessence of western classical music, it is the
foundation of our concept of music. Jazz improvisation comes from a completely
different ethnic heritage and concept of music. How do you reconcile the two?
And what happens a musician reconciles them?
As for jazz, the steady beat, the syncopation-qualities I love in good counterpoint, are also present. The big difference is improvisation, at least in the present time. We tend to forget that both Bach and Handel could improvise fugues on the spot. Bach is known to have improvised five-voice fugues whenever he wanted to impress the competition (in those days, there were concerts that could be called "Battle of the Organists"). In western classical music, the true art of improvisation has been lost, with some exceptions. In the 60s Lukas =46oss had an improvisation ensemble, and in Rome, ex-patriot American composer Frederic Rzewski and others including Richard Teitelbaum formed MEV (Musica Electronnica Viva) as an improvisation ensemble. What I noticed, having seen so many master musician jazz improvisers was that the classical musicians who improvised were not a.) improvising in a manner to expand an ongoing tradition, like the jazz players, and b.) were not trying to find their own voice or style like Coltrane or Monk, but approached improvisation as a way to contribute something to a group effort, or more precisely, to collectively contribute in the process of making a piece. In jazz, "the piece" usually already existed. The soloist was expected to take it to places not visited before, and to new heights as well. So when Thelonious Monk plays "Don't Blame Me", one recognizes the "piece" but Monk has made it his own-he might as well include himself as co-composer, just like Bach would make a Lutheran chorale his own by reharmonizing it, and composing a variation on it as well.
=46or counterpoint IN jazz, all you have to do is listen to dixieland to realize that from very early on, jazz used the idea of combining simultaneously improvised voices. Maybe the trumpet tends to have the "lead" voice, but the clarinet and trombone are always active, and mostly EQUAL voices. It's true that most jazz from bebop on tends to be the rhythm section accompanying the soloist, but there are exceptions. In the mid-fifties, around the time that Charlie Parker died, jazz was unofficially divided into East Coast and West Coast Jazz in the USA. As a teenager, I loved the innovative composing and arranging of west coast jazz clarinetist/saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre.=20 His best known groups had no drummers. One trio consisted of trombone (Bobby Brookmeyer), guitar (Jim Hall) and Giuffre. The group was musically outstanding, but very different from most jazz groups in that the arrangements were very contrapuntal. Jimmy was my first composition teacher. I sought him out when he came to Boston to play at Storyville, and he influenced my thinking about composing in a very big way. Although I was already studying counterpoint on my own, having it used in jazz writing, albeit not mainstream, was a great example for me. You can see Jimmy's group at the beginning of the Newport Jazz Festival Documentary "Jazz on a Summer's Day" made in the late fifties. Gerry Mulligan's groups of the mid to late fifties used to have group improvisation sections in many of their arrangements, especially the group with Bobby Brookmeyer on trombone and Zoot Simms on Tenor Saxophone. But also, the Charlie Mingus groups of the late fifties and early sixties used to experiment a lot with group improvisation, with wonderful results. He must have coached his players in developing sympathetic ears. Listen to "Mingus AH UM". The last Bill Evans Trio was also an amazingly contrapuntal group with drummer Joe LaBarbara and bassist Marc Johnson contributing equal voices to the piano, not merely accompanying. Bill was starting to spiral in a new direction just when he died in 1980.
As for me, when I play "tunes" for the few piano concert dates I do, I like to play with another pianist, and make two-piano arrangements of standard tunes. I have evolved a routine with my pianist partner, Edward Murray (also a fine conductor) in which we alternate playing two-piano duos with each of us doing a solo. When I improvise in this context, my playing tends to be much more contrapuntal than Ed's because he thinks in terms of harmonic function much more than I do. I always think in terms of groove time, and contrapuntal forward motion, so our styles are almost totally different which makes for good concerts (I think). In my Mother Mallard concerts, I prefer to hire players who also play jazz and who have a feel for groove time. I also leave spots open for improvisation in some of my "concert" pieces with Mother Mallard. Just listen to the Continuing Story of Counterpoint, Part Ten. There are many other examples of improvisation featuring my son Gabriel, a virtuoso electric guitarist, but these pieces have so far, not been released. On the Cuneiform CD of mine called PLACES, TIMES & PEOPLE, Gabe does some improvising as well as jazz cellist Hank Roberts. So, I have never held the view that counterpoint and jazz improvisation, despite their different historical beginnings, have been separate, but that they compliment each other in the hands of great musicians like Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Jaki Byard (one of my teachers also) and many others. For an early example (1970) of jazz-influenced improvisation in a non-jazz piece, and the earliest example of a synthesizer ensemble (all Moogs) listen to my EASTER on the recently released CD, MOTHER MALLARD'S PORTABLE MASTERPIECE CO. 1970-1973. So, combining counterpoint and jazz elements has been with me for a very long time.
As for the last part of your question, " . . . what happens when a musician reconciles them?"- I think the musician becomes a better musician, but not necessarily a richer one.
Now that I have listened to your entire opus, one question comes to mind:
why electronic instruments? What is intriguing about synthesizers, the range of
sounds or the "programmability"? In your case, the curiosity doubles because, in
my opinion,... you never truly exploited the timbric capabilities of
Finally, why did you decide to resuscitate the name Mother Mallards last summer?
And I forgot one question in between: why so many years elapsed between Mother
Mallards' albums and your first solo album?
Il primo ensemble elettronico della musica popolare venne fondato
a Ithaca, nella campagna dello stato di New York. In quella zona (per
l'esattezza a Trumansburg) viveva e lavorava Robert Moog, che aveva appena
inventato il primo sintetizzatore commerciale.
Era il 1966. David Borden (Boston, 1938), che si era fatto le
ossa nel mondo del jazz di Boston, era appena tornato
da Berlino, dove aveva studiato composizione, e aveva preso il posto di
compositore residente ("composer in residence") alla scuola locale.
Borden non sapeva nulla di macchine elettroniche e Moog aveva bisogno di un
volontario che provasse a usare le sue senza conoscerne i principi di
funzionamento. Borden funse di fatto da "prova scimmia" per l'invenzione
di Moog. Nel 1968 Borden ottenne un posto di compositore-pianista alla
prestigiosa Cornell University, ma la ricerca all'universita` gli lasciava
abbastanza tempo libero da poter lavorare al sintetizzatore.
Borden uso` i primi, complessi modelli di Moog per tutte le sue composizioni.
Componeva principalmente per la compagnia di danza dell'universita`. Ai loro
spettacoli conobbe altri musicisti d'avanguardia, da John Cage a David Tudor.
Borden rimase affascinato dall'idea di eseguire musica elettronica dal vivo
(a quei tempi era piu` diffusa la prassi di registrare musica elettronica
su nastro) e formo` il suo primo ensemble. Una delle prime composizioni,
ancora concepita per uno spettacolo di danza, fu
Cloudscape For Peggy (1970), una suite ancora molto astratta,
immersa in lunghi droni che palesano influenze psichedeliche e che predatano
gli affreschi della musica cosmica.
Nel maggio del 1969 Borden e due amici suonarono dal vivo con il nome Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company. Era nato il primo ensemble di sintetizzatori della storia della musica. Lo stile delle composizioni di Borden cambio` radicalmente durante le prime esibizioni. Rinnegando il suo bagaglio accademico di musica atonale, Borden riscopri` le sue radici jazz e si innamoro` dei droni mistici di Terry Riley.
Nell'aprile del 1970 nacque Easter, una delle composizioni piu` importanti del gruppo. La suite si sviluppa a partire da una cadenza robotica (un anticipo dei Kraftwerk) alla quale si sovrappone un loop di vorticose frasi suonate in un timbro petulante (forse reminescenti di Morton Subotnick). Fu proprio Easter il primo pezzo eseguito al Minimoog (alla Trinity Church di New York). A quel punto c'erano soltanto tre musicisti che suonavano il Moog: Walter Carlos, che lo aveva appena reso celebre, Richard Teitlebaum, e Borden.
Durante quell'intensa estate Borden conobbe e divenne amico di Steve Reich, Philip Glass e soprattutto Gordon Mumma. Il suo trio intanto si era stabilizzato con Steve Drews e Linda Fisher. Nonostante il generale entusiasmo, il 1971 vide il fallimento dell'azienda di Robert Moog (i diritti vennero acquisiti da un'altra societa` e a tutt'oggi Moog non puo` usare il suo cognome per fini commerciali). L'ensemble di Borden ebbe comunque diverse occasioni di eseguirsi a New York, grazie alle importanti amicizie contratte nell'ambiente della danza.
Borden apri` la propria compagnia discografica con l'aiuto di una studentessa, Judy Borsher, e pubblico` il primo album dei Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company (nota per i nozionisti paranoici: la data sul disco dice 1973 ma il disco usci` nel gennaio 1974).
Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company (Earthquake, 1973), riedito con inediti come 1970-1973 (Cuneiform, 1999), fu un disco rivoluzionario, in quanto conteneva soltanto lunghe suite elettroniche. Ceres Motion (1973), composta da Steve Drews, e` ancorata a un tape loop che viene suonato anche alla rovescia. I suoi droni sono organizzati in un lento crescendo che porta a un tripudio di pulsanti sfarfallii nel segno del Terry Riley di Rainbow In Curved Air. Music (1972) e` invece una tumultuosa e frenetica sinfonia urbana, condotta a un ritmo travolgente, siglata da contrappunti swinganti, resa via via piu` complessa dalla ripetizione minimalista di frasi e dalla sovrapposizione di partiture (compresa una partitura per voce femminile che ripete soltanto la parola "music").
Like A Duck To Water (Earthquake, 1976) fu il secondo e ultimo album della formazione. La composizione piu` importante su questo disco e` C-A-G-E, l'unica testimonianza rimasta di questi brani. Si trattava di suite costruite su "do", "la", "sol" e "mi" (in inglese "C", "A", "G", "E") e influenzate dal minimalismo di Terry Riley. Borden ne improvviso` molte ma ne registro` una sola. Sul disco figurano anche alcune composizioni austere di Steve Drews (Oleo Strut, la gioiosa, Riley-iana Waterwheel, Downtown) e un paio di scherzi leggeri (All Set e soprattutto Harpsichord Truck).
Music By David Borden (World Arbiter, 2003) collects more 1976-77 recordings by the ensemble.
Borden, laureato in composizione ad Harvard, si mise in proprio a partire dalla Music For Amplified Keyboard Instruments (Red, 1981), un lavoro programmatico come il suo titolo. I quattro lunghi brani per pianoforte e sintetizzatori che lo compongono salpano dalle intuizioni di Kraftwerk e Tangerine Dream ma abbracciano un canone armonico che parte in realtà da Bach (la "toccata e fuga" barocca di Esty Point) e arriva fino a Terry Riley (l'intenso mantra in chiave minimalista di Enfield In Winter). Il disco comprende anche due parti della Continuing Story Of Counterpoint, la nona e la sesta, due lunghi excursus di iteratività, sfarfallii e crescendo che superano il minimalismo o quantomeno lo riformulano in termini più popolari.
Il Continuing Story of Counterpoint richiederà in tutto undici anni di raffinamento, dal 1979 al 1987.
Nel frattempo Borden ha scritto numerosi pezzi di altra natura. Little Ruins (1984), uno dei primi Anagram Portraits (brani composti per amici i cui titoli sono anagrammi dei loro nomi) e` uno dei brani piu` accessibili di Borden. Vermeer Variations (1985), per clavicembalo e piccolo ensemble da camera,e` uno dei piu` sofisticati.
Ignorando la degenerazione romantica del minimalismo dovuta all'opera di Glass ed esaltando la propria sensibilità rock, Borden e il suo ensemble (sassofoni, tastiere, percussioni, chitarra e canto) producono una musica propulsa da una pulsazione costante e possente, e costruita attorno a cicli armonici elementari. L'album Anatidae (Cuneiform, 1987) contiene le parti seconda, terza (con Rebecca Armstrong al canto) e quinta (con David Van Tieghem alle percussioni) del Counterpoint. Se la seconda, per sole tastiere, è legata a schemi geometrici un po' freddi, la terza approda a una forma di mottetto minimalista che è soave ed emotivo pur nella sua predeterminazione, e la quinta è persino esuberante. La suite Anatidae, invece, impiega linee melodiche ed effetti sonori in direzione new age.
Migration (Cuneiform, 1988) ripropone la quarta parte del Counterpoint (composta nel 1983), forse la più ardua e complessa, reminescente della musica sacra rinascimentale, mentre il concerto elettronico di Enfield In Summer del 1984 (parte della serie Places, Times) e la world-music di Trains (secondo movimento di una suite intitolata Edward Hopper) trapiantano il minimalismo sul tessuto new age. Il disco contiene anche una delle Boston Elegies, brani dedicati a musicisti jazz di Boston: Dick Twardzil.
L'opera magna di Borden e` stata infine riassunta su The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 9-12 (Cuneiform, 1988), The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 5-8 (Cuneiform, 1990), e The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint 1-4 (Cuneiform, 1991). Vista nel suo insieme, quest'opera per tastiere, fiati, chitarra e voce e` uno degli studi piu` monumentali del contrappunto nell'intera storia della musica occidentale. Per quanto paragonato ripetutamente alle tecniche di Philip Glass, Terry Riley e Steve Reich, il "contrappunto" di Borden vive di una dinamica molto piu` nervosa. Anche la In C di Riley era costruita su un insieme di motivi indipendenti suonati in metri diversi e per periodi di tempo diversi, ma il "contrappunto di Borden non ha pulsazione e non e` in una chiave sola. (Vedi la recensione dettagliata nella colonna di fianco).
La "prima" del Counterpoint completo si è tenuta a New York nella primavera del 1989. L'anno dopo è stata la volta del suo esordio all'opera, con l'oratorio Angels: Visions And Apparitions.
Cayuga Night Music (Linden, 1993), una collezione di pezzi impressionisti tanto eleganti quanto futili, sembra denunciare una crisi di confidenza.
Places, Times & People (Cuneiform, 1994), oltre a riassumere Places, Times, raccoglie alcuni degli Anagram Portraits e delle Birthday Variations, due serie di musiche occasionali dedicate ad amici vari. La sua calligrafia elettronica è sempre suggestiva, anche se in questo caso è messa al servizio di spunti mediocri. E' come se Borden avesse esaurito con il Counterpoint tutta la sua energia creativa.
Austero e rigoroso nei suoi studi sul contrappunto elettronico e sulla musique concrete, Borden è stato uno dei pionieri elettronici più influenti sulla new age.
Nell'estate del 1998 David Borden ha resuscitato la sigla Mother Mallards per un concerto eseguito con un ensemble di sette performer (quattro sintetizzatori), un soprano, un chitarrista e un suonatore di strumenti a fiato. Il gruppo ha eseguito Part Nine del Continuing Story Of Counterpoint di Borden e la "prima" delle Birthday Variations sempre di Borden.
Borden e` oggi direttore del Dipartimento di Musica Digitale alla Cornell University.