Interview with David Borden

February 19, 11

I was privileged to get a chance to meet with David Borden, a guiding force in American electronic music.  What follows are a series of questions I hope you’ll find helpful in learning more about early electronic music forms.

1) How did counterpoint work its way so strongly into early minimalism?

I don’t think counterpoint as a whole ever did. The emphasis was on simple, harmonically static repetitive cells. Early pieces like “In C” by Terry Riley and “Piano Phase” by Steve Reich were canons, but I doubt if either composer thought of them in that way. Terry’s was a ‘free’ canon in that every entrance was timed by the performer, not the composer, and Steve’s piece emphasized phasing with one player gradually edging ahead of the other thereby creating a different canon out of the same material. Other pieces like Phil Glass’s “Music in Fifths” was structured along rhythmic cells and the constant open harmonic sounds of perfect fifths. His direction in general has always been in rhythmic and harmonic areas. Later pieces like “Koyaanisqatsi” were more contrapuntal, but basically Phil has never engaged in the more complicated contrapuntal forms.

My own “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint,” (TCSOC) a series of pieces that takes six hours or more to perform in its entirety, came about after reading one sentence by Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s last publication Synergetics (1975) had a definition of synergy, a word not generally known or used at that time, that influenced my whole approach: “Synergy means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.”  That sentence is the catalyst for my approach to counterpoint in general and TCSOC in particular.

Ironically, in counterpoint, traditional contrapuntal forms, especially canons, parts taken separately do predict the behavior of whole systems. For instance, the riddle canons from Bach’s “Musical Offering” composed for Frederick the Great. His majesty was a fan of Bach’s and a music lover, so after an evening of improvising with him, Bach sent him these canons for him to decipher. By supplying only one voice, or just voices with hints on where the next entrances were, by using different clefs, repeat signs etc., one could eventually figure out how the music was supposed to be constructed: 

Crab Canon

Crab Canon
Modulating Spiral Canon


Seek and Find Entrances (Canon)

As for me, I chose to bypass traditional contrapuntal forms (for the most part) and use Fuller’s synergy definition as a starting point.

I combined several distinct lines in repetitive cells. One cell may last for 37 beats, but each player’s part was divided differently according to meter. While each player had 37 beats, one would have 7+7+6+5+5+7 while another may have 4+4+4+4+5+7+9 etc. Also, they were composed from modal scales which implied tonal harmony, but the melodic lines came first. The language avoided chromaticism and atonality. This was note-against-note for the fast moving notes while a much slower counterpoint was going on with long notes that overlapped. All in all, three players played a total of six lines (one for each hand). Four were fast moving and two were slow moving. This formula changed over the course of the twelve sections of TCSOC, but was the starting point and is true of six of the twelve parts. If you take one of the parts out of context, you will know the length and modality of the other parts, but not the specific pitches. In fact I often composed the separate parts without listening to the other ones. Sometimes I composed one person’s part all the way through, and then added the other two parts module by module without first listening to the other part(s). All of this was done before the terms ‘layering’ and ‘minimalism’ were used to describe the process and the genre of this kind of music. This technique is sometimes called ‘successive composition’ and was used in both the Middle Ages and Renaissance. That is why there are more part books than scores from that era. There were no scores for TCSOC until several years after they were composed, only parts.

2) What influenced the founding of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co?

Two things:

1. When I became Composer/Pianist for Dance at Cornell in 1968, I found that there were no concerts of avant garde music. So, I organized Mother Mallard to fill the void. In 1969 Cornell’s Music Library had no music by Morton Feldman. When I pointed this out, the head librarian was so embarrassed that she ordered everything Feldman ever composed. We performed music by Bob Ashley, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Dan Lentz, Jon Hassell, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and some things from MEV. We did Piano Phase with two Moog Synthesizers with Steve’s blessing with the understanding that we would call it “Synthesizer Phase.”

2. After working on my own at the Moog Company’s studio in Trumansburg from 1967-1969 I began to realize that since I was doing so much music using synthesizers that I was not satisfied with tape, but wanted to do my own work with live performers. So I invited Steve Drews to compose for the Moogs, and then later, Linda Fisher. After that, we played our own music and not as in the beginning, music of our contemporaries. Of course, the catalyst of the whole venture was Bob Moog who gave us access to his studio, then lent us equipment to take out to concert halls, and then eventually sold us three modulars and three minimoogs for a little as possible when he had to move to Williamsville in September 1971 in order to save his company from bankruptcy.

3) How did you approach composition for Mother Mallard, was it different than your counterpoint solo work?

I never really did any solo counterpoint stuff.

4) What are you working on now?

My next piece will be a string quartet. It’s a commission from a physicist friend who lives in Cambridge Massachusetts. I’m getting back into writing for acoustic instruments, but mostly in conjunction with electronic ones. I would like to compose a concerto for MalletKat and orchestra and also maybe a concerto for Minimoog Voyager and orchestra or wind ensemble or chamber orchestra.

Mother Mallard has become an ensemble of four keyboardists playing keyboards attached to laptops via USB cables. I’ve been performing using Apple Computers running Reason. This enables me to pre-program exact sounds and also change the mapping of each keyboard in a second or less simply be pushing the down arrow on the computer keyboard (or, depending on the music keyboard and future improvements to Reason, to simply push a button on the keyboard controller). So far, I have composed music for two evening length programs in this new way. Soon, the entire TCSOC will be programmed to be performed with this setup.

I’m also newly engaged in a synthesizer duo improv project with Josh Oxford, a Minimoog virtuoso who is also a member of Mother Mallard.

A very special thank you to David!

Please be sure to check out this recent interview  with David and listen to Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co. 1970-1973 and The Continuing Story of Counterpoint Parts 1-4+8 (Complete)