By: Jorge Munnshe

borden01.jpg (14055 bytes)David Borden has been active on the electronic music scene for more than three decades. In 1967, he first made contact with Robert Moog and his synthesizers. After a couple of years experimenting in the Moog Studio, changing his methods of composing and learning the outer limits of what was possible on these new instruments, he founded the band Mother Mallard (the first all-Moog ensemble), together with Steve Drews and Linda Fisher. Mother Mallard became a pioneer band of Space Music, minimalism and other innovative trends.

How did your musical vocation begin?

"Jorge, if you really want to know the answer to that question, I'll have to go back to the Second World War. In September of 1944, during the first weeks of school (this was First Grade), the teacher asked if anyone in the class was interested in taking piano lessons through the school. Our Public School System in Brookline, Massachusetts was among the top public school systems in the USA (the lessons were only $1 because the school subsidized them). I immediately raised my hand and Miss Clifford took down my name. A few days later I received news that I was too young to start lessons. I was 5 but the guidelines stipulated that the student must be at least 6. That day when I walked home from school, I started crying when I reached my street. My mother (unknown to me) always looked out for me through the window (the third floor of a three family walk-up) and rushed down to greet me, asking me what was wrong. The next day, my father went to the school and convinced the principal that they should give me a chance and start me on a trial basis. And of course, the rest is history, as they say. My father learned to play the piano late in life (really starting at age 33) and so we had an upright piano in the house when I was born. As I was coming into consciousness as an infant, I heard my father practising whenever he came home. His job before the war was as a bouncer at a restaurant and bar in a very rough section of Boston. He had been a champion gymnast in high school, and was very muscular. There's a lot I could say about the circumstances, but suffice to say, he practised Chopin, Lizst, Grieg, Gershwin, and various popular ragtime pieces of the day like Nola, Dizzy Fingers, and Wabash Blues. I can still hear him pounding out sections of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue over and over again for hours (maybe that's why I took to repetition so easily?!) That, I think, was really my beginning as a musician, just listening to him practise in the next room. We lived in a five room apartment with my grandparents and had no central heating. My bedroom was next to the living room where the piano was. I think that this close proximity to constant piano practising routines subconsciously trained my ears so that I developed perfect pitch, because as soon as I started taking piano lessons myself, learning the letter names of the notes, I instantly recognized the pitches on the piano without looking at them. There's a lot more I could say about this environment that was very positive to my development, but basically it was this early beginning, and the always-present and constant parental support that were the things that made my vocation possible."


borden02.jpg (17866 bytes)How did you discover the electronic instruments for the first time and when did you realize that they were necessary to develop your music?

"My first encounter with electronic instruments, and electronic methods of composing (with tapes and tape manipulation) were through recordings of Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky in the late fifties. But it was the work of John Cage that I grew to love. It was when I was studying with Boris Blacher at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in 1965-66 that I saw my first electronic studio. He was showing me how he had completed an opera which included synthesized sounds. But it wasn't until 1967 in Ithaca NY, where I was Composer-in-Residence in the School District due to a Ford Foundation Grant, that I first made contact with Robert Moog and his synthesizers. Bob showed me his studio which was located at his company site in Trumansburg NY, just a short distance from Ithaca. He gave me access to the place and a basic introductory lecture on how all the stuff worked. But since I am such a slow learner (and continue to be!), it wasn't until 1968 that I felt I had full command over the Moog Synthesizer as a studio instrument. Remember, this was before live performances on synthesizers, and it was just a studio recording medium at that time. And also, even though these early synthesizers were controlled by keyboards, they were monophonic; i. e. no more than one note at a time was recognized by the instruments. After a couple of years experimenting in the Moog Studio, changing my methods of composing, learning how to be a recording engineer on state-of-the-art four track tape recorders and learning the outer limits of what was possible on these new instruments, I was ready to try live performances using these studio-bound instruments. Richard Teitelbaum had already been performing live on a Moog in Rome as part of Musica Eletronnica Viva. But no one had ever tried using several Moogs in an ensemble, mainly because they were so expensive. But with Moog's help Mother Mallard (my new music group) and the First Moog Quartet began doing just that. The First Moog Quartet played arrangements of pieces from the classical repetoire--and I'm not certain of the dates of their existence, but it was short-lived. Mother Mallard started doing music especially created for the Moogs in 1969. The first all-Moog Mother Mallard ensemble consisted of composer/keyboardists Steve Drews, Linda Fisher and me."

borden03.jpg (37764 bytes)Which synthesizers, electronic instruments and equipment do you use in your music? And in 1970-73?

"I started accumulating post-Moog stuff in the mid-eighties. I now have a bunch of rackmounted synths controlled by a Yamaha KX-88 for live performance and recording. Included are the following: Oberheim Matrix 1000, Yamaha FB01s, TX81Z, TX802, TX816, E-Mu Proteus-2, Alesis QuadraSynth + Piano, QS7, Korg X5DR, Wavestation, M1Rex, Roland Juno 60, MiniMoog (MIDI), Digidesign SampleCell, and most recently, a Novation Supernova. Whew! That's a lot of stuff. I also have a Unity DS-1 Sampler, but haven't used it yet. I'm thinking of adding a really good E-Mu Sampler, and then I can own the world. At the Cornell Studio, I have more stuff and also access to ProTools. I also have an S-Video Player with a video capture card and monitor for film work. Add to that a Tascam D-88 and a Panasonic stereo DAT recorder, a couple of effects boxes, and that rounds it out. And, I almost forgot-running the whole thing is a Macintosh G3 with MOTU software and a couple of MOTU MTP AV Midi Timpieces."

"In 1970-73 we used three modular Moog systems and two MiniMoogs plus an RMI Piano. We had two Scully tape recorders, a four-track and a two-track, plus a Revox two-track. I forget the kind of mixer we had, but it was very good for its day. Although this setup sounds simpler, it was much more difficult to record due both to the limitation of separate tracks and the lack of any synchronizing technology save for the ever-present click tracks. One had to keep playing for an entire take, sometimes lasting twenty minutes or more, with no mistakes."

Has Terry Riley or other musicians been a big influence for your musical career, especially at the beginning??

borden04.jpg (10176 bytes)"I first heard the Columbia recording of Terry's In C in 1968 and it jolted me into recognition: YES, this is the direction I want to take. It was such an iconoclastic statement against the hegemony of academic music of the time, that it had a great influence on other younger composers, especially Steve Reich who had attended the first performance of the piece in 1964 at Mills College. On the liner notes of the album, I noticed that an old friend of mine, Jon Hassell, was playing trumpet. I knew he was in Buffalo as a Rockefeller Creative Fellow so I called him. He told me that Terry was there also, and so I visited Buffalo and met Terry Riley. We didn't talk about anything of importance, but he and his wife talked about Zap Comix, so I acquired a complete collection."

"Later, in the early days of Mother Mallard when we played in New York City at various avant garde venues, we always made a point to get the equipment out of the city after the performance for fear of theft. Helping us in this endeavor was composer David Behrman who put us up at his rural house near Bear Mountain about an hour outside the city. David had produced the In C recording, and was also associated with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. David Behrman, along with Gordon Mumma, was the first composer I knew who used a computer in live performance. David and Gordon both made their own. But getting back to Terry, yes he had a positive influence at the same time that I was discovering synthesizers. Eventually my music became less European influenced, and began using repetitive figures, tonality and a steady pulse. These are all things I had used in my jazz musician days, but which I hadn't used in my concert music. Terry and to some extent, John Cage, influenced my thinking into including everything into one technique. My first attempt at a holistic approach. Buckminster Fuller was also a very big influence with his ideas on synergy."

How is the process you follow to compose / record a piece?

borden05.jpg (25980 bytes)"My musical ideas come from both abstract musical material and extra-musical items such as a person's name. For instance the anagram of your name is "He runs, men jog". I have a series of pieces called Anagram Portraits, so I could do yours on a running theme. I also have composed a series of variations on a theme of Philip Glass. One set within the variations is a mirror fugue set- -entirely arrived at non-verbally with musical ideas only. But there is an intellectual idea behind including a mirror fugue, after all mirrors are made of glass. Almost all of my music is contrapuntal, that is, each line has its own important identity. There's not much melody and accompaniment, although this occasionally happens."

"I usually begin by recording one line into Performer (the MOTU sequencer) and then add various other lines to it. Sometimes I compose one person's part all the way through before adding another part, something I have done since the early Moog Synthesizer days. With sequencing, I can try out various permutations of any line or section by inverting it, playing it backwards (retrograde) or changing the mode, all very quickly so that I can hear what it sounds like almost instantly. That's what computer technology has given us--more options to work with in a very short time. Before, working things out may have taken much longer. Both ways of working have their good points and bad. When I'm not satisfied with the result I will often go back and work "the old-fashioned way" at a piano with a pencil."

"When recording, I usually make a recording as soon after completing a piece as I can. This may not be the master for what is eventually released on a CD, but it is a pretty good idea of what I want the piece to sound like."

Can you tell us about your activity in the Digital Music Program at the Cornell University?

borden06.jpg (41045 bytes)"I am the Director of the Digital Music Program at Cornell, and have developed all of the courses connected with it. These courses range from complete beginners at the undergraduate level to graduate student composers who want to know how to design and work in a MIDI-based digital audio environment. It's very difficult for composers to find positions in universities these days without any knowledge of electronic media, especially computer software used for composing, performing and publishing scores."

What's your opinion about the evolution of the world electronic music scene during 1970-1999? What do you think the musical scene will be in the next 30 years?

"When I first started in electronic music in 1967, Robert Moog couldn't convince one music store in the USA to carry his synthesizers. Now, of course, every music store has several synthesizer systems to choose from, and not only that, digital pianos have replaced acoustic pianos as an entry level keyboard for many piano students and homes. That is something no one foresaw thirty years ago. What is disappointing is that most "classical" composers view the synthesizer as some kind of "add- on" in special situations instead of a "serious" instrument. Whereas pop music is permeated with all types of electronic keyboard instruments. I'm hoping that the day soon comes when electronic keyboards are more than novelty items in the classical arena. I realize that many serious composers work in the electronic medium, it's just that it is still not integrated into the mainstream classical paradigm."

If you wish to purchase any recordings by David Borden you only have to use this link.

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