Sunday, February 10, 2013

Five questions to David Borden

David Borden was born on December 25th, 1938 in Boston, Massachusetts. He took piano lessons during his childhood, but even before that he was involved with music mainly because his father used to practice the piano, so David had the chance to listen to Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and Gershwin at home. Because of this ear training, David developed perfect pitch.

In the late '50s he attended the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester (NY) and it was during this time that he discovered the electronic music of Otto Luening, the man who founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center with Vladimir Ussachevsky. This interest in electronic music eventually led David to meet Robert Moog in 1967 and - two years later - to found the first all synthesizer ensemble, Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co. In the early years, Mother Mallard used monophonic modular Moog synthesizers and was the first live act to take the Minimoog on stage - when it was still being developed - in May, 1970. Mother Mallard recorded some great pieces that still sound fresh and modern nowadays!

In 1973 David was invited to record the soundtrack from the movie "The Exorcist" (he tells us a little bit more about that on the interview below) and, as most of the things related to that movie, mysterious things happened and only a few minutes of the music that David created for it can be heard in the movie. Also in 1973, Mother Mallard released their self-titled first album - in fact a collection of pieces recorded between 1970 and 1973 - and in 1976 their second album was released (Like a Duck to Water). Both albums were originally released by Mother Mallard's own label, Earthquack Recordings, and they are currently available with bonus tracks via Cuneiform Records, as many other Mother Mallard/David Borden albums!

I first contacted David Borden via Facebook and email. As a long time Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company enthusiast and having David Borden as a superhero, I never thought I would have the chance to contact and interview him. But here it is! And I'd like to thank him for the time he kindly spent writing his history to this interview and also for his friendship! Thank you so much, David!!!

ASTRONAUTA - David, how did you discover the music in your life and how/when did you become interested in electronic music and synthesizers (Moog in particular)? And about your period as a student in Berlin, does this period of time influenced somehow the music you are composing and creating since those days?

DAVID - I have written an account of how I came to discover music and take piano lessons, it's called "The Piano Thing". I'll attach a copy:


During my very early years in this incarnation (1939-1943), as I was coming into consciousness one of my earliest memories was hearing my father practice the piano in the next room while I was in my crib. He repeated phrases from various pieces over and over, perfecting the fingering, dynamics, phrasing etc. Among the composers were Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and Gershwin. There were others, including ragtime, but they weren't revisited as often as those four composers. Of course as a child I had no idea what any of it was. But I believe it was this early "ear training" that gave me perfect pitch.

This all occurred on the third floor of a three family house on a street with several other three-decker homes in a working class section of Brookline, Massachusetts. Most of the families were Irish Catholic with 3-5 children in each family. One of the families had 13 children. The neighborhood's unofficial name was "Whiskey Point". My father was a busboy and bouncer at a restaurant & bar in Scolley Square, one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city of Boston (since torn down for a new Government Center). My mother was a "salesgirl" at Woolworth's in Coolidge Corner, Brookline.

My maternal grandparents also lived with us in this 5-room apartment. As an adult, looking back, I wonder how many people could live in harmony in such a small space. The rooms were small, there was no hot water or central heating. To keep food fresh, we had an ice box with a large chunk of ice in it that drained into a large pan on the floor. Mr. Amendola would haul the ice on his leather-protected back up the three flights of stairs every third day or so, along with a bag of coal. We didn't have a refrigerator until after the war (WW II). The only stove was a large iron black monolith in the kitchen that burned coal. To take baths, my mother boiled large pots of water to mix with the cold water in the tub, so of course there was no shower. I remember in the winters I would wake up in my freezing room and make a beeline for the kitchen where my grandmother (Mother Mallard, incidentally, Mallard being my mother's maiden name) would be waiting with orange juice and toast next to the warm stove. All of my childhood friends lived in similar arrangements (except for the grandparents-instead of siblings I had an extra pair of parents), so this way of life was perfectly normal for all concerned. The one thing we had that seemed out of context was the piano. It was an upright, but nonetheless, a piano. Nobody I knew had a piano except one older woman my mother knew, and it was unplayable.

Sometime shortly before I left Brookline to study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, my father told me how we happened to have a piano as I was growing up.

My parents were married during the summer of 1935. Neither of them had any education beyond high school. Neither had any money. My father had been an orphan since he was 14. My mother's parents had been servants with no education beyond the eighth grade. When they got married my mother's father was ill, so they agreed to live altogether until he got better. It turned into a lifelong arrangement. Since they had no money and lived in cramped quarters, they naturally wanted children (?). After several months of trying but not getting anywhere on the pregnancy front, my parents sought help from doctors, wondering if there was some medical problem that prevented them from having children. After countless tests and trying intercourse at times my mother's temperature was slightly higher and other methods of natural impregnating, nothing happened. This went on for almost three years. They then assumed that theirs would be a childless marriage.

During this time they had saved $300 toward the expense of childbirth. There were no healthcare plans available then like there are now. $300 was a lot of money in the Great Depression. My father made only $13 a week. My mother made less. Everyday on his way to Scolley Square, my father passed by several music stores. He had had a few piano lessons as a young boy and knew how to read music. He loved music, but the 50 cents for lessons had proved too much for his parents to afford. He noticed that one store had an offer that appealed to him: if you bought a piano with cash from a certain group of pianos, you would get a year's free piano lessons. The piano teacher was also an employee of the store and demonstrated various classical pieces on the pianos. My dad-to-be talked this over with my mother. Since they had $300, the exact amount for one of the pianos, he could use this to fulfill his dream of really learning the piano, and since they couldn't have children, it would be another way to accomplish something positive. Since my mother was already involved in artistic pursuits of her own with oil painting and water colors, she was sympathetic and agreed.

So the upright piano was delivered to the tiny apartment, my father got the lessons. He was so good, that the store used him as an example of what one could do in a short time, starting late in life. He and his teacher agreed to play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue at the store on two pianos with my father playing the solo piano part and his teacher the orchestral accompaniment. He kept getting free lessons for as long as he helped demonstrate the pianos. He also kept his job as a busboy/bouncer.

Three weeks after the piano was delivered my mother got pregnant with me. I always tell the people that I refused to come back to earth until they got the piano. Karmically I think I knew these were going to be my parents, but they just had to get that piano. It must have been a deal we worked out before we all incarnated.

By the time I started piano lessons in the 1st grade ($1 a lesson) I recognized pitches by name even when I wasn't the one playing them. I thought everyone could do this. This was in 1944 and by that time, my father had been working in a machine shop that fabricated parts for munitions. He ended up having a lot of minute metallic particles in his hands that became painful when he tried to play the piano. So after I started he would only occasionally play himself, but would always be eager to help me with my lessons.

After the war he earned his living as a janitor. When it was obvious that I needed a better piano teacher to make progress towards a professional career, he returned to the same Boston music stores he used to pass on the way to work during the Great Depression. He asked each sheet music department which piano teacher bought the highest quality music. He got the same answer at four of the five stores. This teacher charged $10 an hour which is like $150 an hour these days. Instead of compromising on the piano teacher, he took on an extra cleaning job (in addition to his several other part-time janitorial jobs) on his night off. He cleaned out a Doughnut shop for $5. He talked the piano teacher into giving me 45 minute lessons for $7.50. Albion Metcalf was one of the very best piano teachers in Boston. He also taught at Phillips Andover Academy and had gone to Harvard. I was in blue-blood territory. My father never told my mother how much the lessons cost because he knew she would veto the idea. He didn't even tell me until after I had received my first college degree.

When my parents retired to sunny Florida, my father pursued his horticultural interests. He grew the strangest trees and plants I ever saw, and created a fancy landscape design around their house. He would only occasionally try out Gershwin at the piano. The same piano.

He died in 1982 and when my mother recently passed away, I had the piano delivered to my nephew in Tampa who is receiving lessons on it as I write this. When preparing their Florida house for sale, the realtor hired a landscape company to keep up the lawn etc. to help with the sale of the house. When I met the landscape guy at the door he peered around the front of the house and said "This is the most interesting collection of plants I've seen yet, very rare stuff". Very rare indeed!

- David Borden

As for the electronic part, I first became interested in it after discovering some recordings of Otto Luening in 1958-59 during my student days at the Eastman School of Music. He, together with Vladimir Ussachevsky, founded the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music. I probably listened to his "Concerted Piece" for tape and orchestra, but I'm not entirely sure. In any case I mentioned how interesting I thought it sounded to my girlfriend who was a few years older than I and spent the previous year traveling around Europe. She told me that she had made out with Otto Luening in a taxi in Rome the previous year. Wow, just two degrees of separation. It wasn't until thirty years later (circa 1988 or '89) that I saw Luening in person. It was at a rehearsal at Lincoln Center. The American Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing Les Thimmig's "Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra" and Luening's piece was up next. I almost went over to him and told him the above story but I didn't. Les was in Mother Mallard at the time, playing different wind instruments. After his rehearsal was over, Milton Babbitt walked past me and said Les's piece was so lyrical that he should get Mitchell Parrish to write lyrics for it.

When I got to Berlin as a Fulbright student in 1965, it started with meeting Boris Blacher, who was both my composition teacher and the Director of the Hochschule für Musik. The first thing he told me was that I was already a composer (I had one undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees in music by then) and didn't need to take any classes unless I really wanted to. So, I more or less enjoyed a paid vacation in Berlin (West Berlin then) with occasional visits with Blacher at his bidding. At one of our meetings he took me to the basement of the school and introduced me to an engineer who had made a special electronic device that emitted sounds designed for Blacher's opera that was about to have it's world premier somewhere in Italy. It was a synthesizer of sorts and made some interesting sounds which could be varied by twisting knobs. Having no background in electronics, I had no idea how it worked. I have no aptitude for anything mechanical either, so these kinds of things are still a mystery to me. It wasn't until I met Bob Moog a year later that I became immersed in the details of how to control electronic synthesizers. I tried to understand how the circuit boards worked, but soon gave up in frustration. Mastering the surface of the modules was all I could manage.

ASTRONAUTA - You and Robert Moog became friends in the early days of the invention of the Moog Synthesizer. And you were the first artist to play with a Minimoog in a live show, correct? How did you meet Robert Moog? And what is Robert's greatest legacy, in your point of view?

DAVID - Bob and I met in the fall of 1967. I lived in Ithaca, New York, where I still reside, and Bob lived in Trumansburg, a town about twenty minutes north of Ithaca. At the time, I was composer-in-residence for the Ithaca City School District as a result being awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation. Someone (I forget who) suggested I call the Moog Company and make an appointment to see their state-of-art electronic studio. I did, and Bob greeted me at the door and from then on my life was never the same. Despite the fact that I had a very fancy music education, my background in science was practically nil. Bob taught me the basics about sound waves, filters, modulation, envelope generators, voltage control and mixing. Nonetheless, I was terribly slow in understanding how Bob's modular system worked and how to patch the modules together to make it all work. At that time, I had trouble hooking up my home stereo. So, it was no surprise to me when my patches (remember, in those days one had to connect the modules by means of cables that carried both audio and control voltage signals) were so far off the intended path that some modules were ruined in the process. I thought Bob was going to kick me out off his studio but instead he took me aside and told me not to worry about it. In fact he gave me a key to the company and told me to come in at night and not to bother cleaning up, just leave it set up.

Over the next several months, I worked in the studio every night, finally figuring out how the whole system worked. After six months, Bob came to me and thanked me for spending so much time in the studio. He said I took longer to master the synthesizer than anyone before me, but in the process had been the perfect person to idiot proof the system. Although I had ruined several of their modules, they had redesigned them so that no matter how they were hooked up in the future, they could not be damaged. More importantly, through this learning experience, we became lifelong friends.

David Borden (1971)
When the Minimoog was being developed in 1969-70, I had worked with the prototype. I had also by that time founded Mother Mallard, the world's first synthesizer ensemble with my friend Steve Drews. The Moog Company got a request from Trinity Church in NYC for a noontime concert featuring the Moog Synthesizer in live performance. So, in May of 1970, Steve Drews and I traveled to New York and gave a performance of my piece, Easter, for tape and two synthesists. We performed on the Minimoog prototype and the Modular Synth X, which was actually a modular version of the Minimoog. Soon after, we recorded the piece for Earthquack Records, our own label, but it wasn't released until 1973. It was re-released as a CD on the Cuneiform label in 2000. It's selling in Ebay for $60.00 and the original LP is selling for hundreds of dollars. Back in the early 1970s no record companies would take us. That's why we started our own label, and the delay in releasing it was due to lack of money until Judy Borsher, who eventually joined the band, put up the needed remaining cash and helped run the business.

Bob is remembered of course, for his synthesizer innovations. But I also remember him for his uncommon generosity of spirit. He was a remarkable human being: totally honest, hard-working, and open minded. His laugh lit up whatever space he occupied. I really miss his presence.

ASTRONAUTA - What were the best things and what were the most problematic things in the early days of playing live with the analog modular synthesizer systems? Do you still play live shows with some of the old analog gear you used to play in the '60s and the '70s? Do you still have some of your old equipment?

DAVID - I define the early days as 1969-75. By 1975 many bands and ensembles had small synthesizers. Also, in 1975, synthesizers became polyphonic with the release of the Polymoog. There were no stored sounds, or sounds with names, until the release of the Prophet-5 by Sequential Circuits in 1978.

Mother Mallard in August, 1975 performing at the Johnson Museum,
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
(Judy Borsher, Steve Drews and David Borden)
The best thing about giving concerts in the early 1970s using three modular systems and two Minimoogs plus an RMI Electric Piano, our only polyphonic instrument, was the audience reaction to the music and the sight of all that gear onstage. Audience members were often mesmerized, because our particular music did not emulate other instruments as so many synthesizer artists did at first. Our stuff was repetitive, hypnotic, and full of changing rhythmic patterns. It was dubbed "electronic minimalism" by some. Some of the pieces we composed would be called "ambient" today. But back then these genres did not exist. This was an entirely new experience for the audiences back then, and of course, for us. Technically, everything was new. We had to invent how to set up the sound system, the mixing, the cables on stage; in short, everything, because there were no standard procedures yet. We did everything ourselves without the help of sound technicians or roadies.

The problems of performing in this era were many. First of all, the Moogs were sensitive to any changes in temperature, so we had to fine tune the oscillators as we played. In New York City, the AC current was not always at the standard level due to constant overload, so many times the power fluctuated which caused many problems. We finally got one of those very heavy regulators to put in line between our equipment and the wall socket. Also, each piece (now always called "song") we performed called for different patch cord configurations, so consequently the time between pieces was too long. To remedy this, we rented cartoons to play between pieces. We had to do this in the dark with small red flashlights. But we were very good at it, because much of our rehearsal time was spent changing setups in the dark as quickly as possible.

David Borden playing his Moog Voyager at the
Issue Room Project Room (June, 2011)
I still have a 1970s era Minimoog which I occasionally use. I had Bob update it to MIDI capability in the late 1990s when his company was still called Big Briar. It wasn't until the new millennium that the courts finally granted him the right to use his own name again on his products. What I love using in live concerts is the Moog Voyager which I got a few months after Bob died. I still have his portable modular demo unit he used in the 1960s. It was part of our performance setup. I sold one of the early Minimoogs, I donated the prototype to the Audities Foundation with Bob's blessing, and I returned one of the modular synths to Bob at his request and it is now part of the Bob Moog Foundation's instrument collection. The modular Moog X was lost in a fire.

ASTRONAUTA - In 1973 you were invited to record the soundtrack to the movie "The Exorcist", directed by William Friedkin. And it's not a secret that many mysterious and strange things happened during the making of that movie. And how about the soundtrack you've recorded, any strange story you'd think is worthy to mention?

DAVID - Billy Friedkin's film THE EXORCIST was a great success for him and a missed opportunity for me. Although I have a few minutes of music in the film, I was originally asked to compose the entire soundtrack. Billy had heard a Mother Mallard concert on a WBAI broadcast and called me up. And you're right, the making of the film was wrought with difficulties. The original film with everything in the can ready to go -- all of it -- was lost in a fire and they had to reshoot the entire movie. As he was editing the film, Billy wrote to me that the film was turning out to be more melodramatic than he had envisioned. As a result he said that he couldn't use music that stood on its own like the cuts he had of Mother Mallard. He really apologized. So the next morning I went into our farmhouse studio and quickly composed a few different things I thought maybe he could use (I hadn't seen any of the footage) and mailed them off. He called and said he could use all of it, and that's the stuff you hear far in the background of a few scenes. Mother Mallard was invited to the cast party after the shooting for THE EXORCIST was completed. We met all of the actors, and Billy showed me around the set and showed me how the mechanical bed worked. I have never again come so close to doing a Hollywood film.

ASTRONAUTA - Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company changed considerably its sound, its personnel and its equipment during more than 40 years since you founded the ensemble. For you, what's the main differences between the band in its early days and nowadays, with the new personnel, new equipment and the new music you play?

DAVID - You're right, the band changed as technology evolved. We've gone from being an entirely Moog analog band to a small Laptop orchestra. In any case, I've been blessed with great people to work with throughout the band's history. The original two bands, the ones who played on the Moogs, were fantastically dedicated to making the music sound as best as it could. We had a farmhouse studio from 1971 until 1978. I eventually lived there for the last few years of that period. We rehearsed the music almost every night for a few hours whether we had gigs or not. So, anytime anyone called us for an appearance, we were always ready. Except for Steve Drews and me, the other performers from that era (Linda Fisher, Chip Smith and Judy Borsher) were not trained professionals, but were nonetheless up to the task because they loved the music and were all hard workings individuals. Steve and I taught them how to set up the synthesizers and how to control them.

In the 1980s, the Moogs were gradually replaced by rack mounted synths like the Yamaha FM synthesis modules with a MIDI controller, and other polyphonic keyboards from Korg, and other manufacturers. Lynn Purse brought her own setup with her. I added Les Timmig to play an array of wind instruments, and female soprano, Ellen Hargis. This time, everyone in the band was a professional musician of the highest caliber. Eventually my son Gabriel was added as the virtuoso electric guitarrist. You can hear them all on the CONTINUING STORY OF COUNTERPOINT series of CDs we did for Cuneiform in the late 1980s. This band made it's final appearances in 1990 at Town Hall in New York, and at the Miller Theater at Columbia University 1991. In between, we toured Europe.

From the late 1980s until 2005 I established the Digital Music Program at Cornell University. Computers changed everything! During the 1990s the band gave mostly local concerts with a few forays out of town. For these concerts I put together various different musicians from Ithaca with occasional appearances by Lynn Purse and Les Thimmig. In 1999 we presented a 30 year reunion concert. Every musician from the past groups except for Ellen Hargis who was on tour singing early opera. We got out some of the original instruments with different groups playing from the repertoire. It was a great evening with a packed house in the new Cornell Theater, Film and Dance Department auditorium. Afterwards we had a reunion party for ourselves at a local restaurant.

Mother Mallard in Brooklyn, NY (June, 2011)
(photo: Brian Harkin for the New York Times)
The band: David Borden, Gabriel Borden, Blaise Yearsley and
Sam Godin (not shown in these photo).
In 2001 I put together my current group. The keyboardists Blaise Bryski and David Yearsley are beyond good. These two are the best keyboardists I've ever performed with, and they are many notches above me in keyboard technique. So, it's a real honor to perform with them. Blaise has a PhD in early music practice, and David Yearsley, also a PhD in music, is a world class award winning organist, and a musicologist whose book BACH AND THE MEANINGS OF COUNTERPOINT (Oxford University Press) has received glowing reviews. In 2009 for our 40th anniversary concerts, I added one more keyboard -- Josh Oxford, a young synthesizer specialist -- and started to include live video. I composed some pieces to celebrate my many years of composing for modern dance. These are the pieces and the online urls to watch on YouTube:

Tribute to Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn
(Third Sunset is an anagram of Ruth St. Denis)
(The Dawns in an anagram of Ted Shawn)

Third Sunset.01

The Dawns.01

Third Sunset.02

The Dawns.02


(The shorter videos were removed from YouTube and replaced recently by the full versions)

Viola Farber in 7 Movements

01. Be/Fore

02. Alive

03. Love/Fear

04. Brief

05. Love/Fable

06. Verbal

07. Voilà

(The titles of the movements are formed by letters taken from "Viola Farber")

I hope I've answered all your questions in full. Good luck with all of your endeavors.


Mother Mallard in August, 1975 performing at the Johnson Museum,
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
(Judy Borsher, Steve Drews and David Borden)

David & Gabriel Borden
(photo by Brian Harkin for the New York Times)
David is playing the keyboard controller connected to the laptop via a USB cable.
Gabriel (David's son) is playing his own seven string guitar,
which he designed and built!

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