David Borden, contemporary of 20th century musical giants John Cage, Robert Moog and Phillip Glass, is a lesser known but equally essential figure in modern Classical and Electronic music, and one of the first composers to use a Moog synthesizer. He is perhaps best recognised for his counterpoint work – a musical technique that combines two or more melodies into a single harmonic texture. His multipart piece, ‘The Continuing Story of Counterpoint‘, came to the attention of club goers around the world after being featured in several high profile mixes, most notably Four Tet’s 2011 FABRICLIVE mix.
Although not an obvious figure to associate with contemporary Electronic music, his early experiments with synthesis and what some might describe as Minimalism, have been cited as an indirect influence on Detroit Techno. He has recently collaborated with experimental up-and-comers James Ferraro, Oneohtrix Point Never and Laurel Halo. David was also a founding member of the premier all synthesizer group, Mother Mallard.
While hyperbole and exaggeration are commonplace in music journalism it really is surprising how under the radar his huge discography is, and how criminally few releases have been repressed. As the blurb for one of the rare re-releases explains:
‘David Borden was in the room where the pitch wheel was invented, when it happened. He was one of the first people to beta-test Bob Moog’s Modular Synthesizer systems and MiniMoog instruments.’
David spoke to me from his home in Ithaca, New York about the early days of synthesis, Minimalism issues and his upcoming performance at the Berlin Atonal music festival.
I first came across your music in Four Tet’s FABRICLIVE mix. Electronic music has radically changed since you were first composing. Considering you are a pioneering figure in this field, how did you expect it to change and develop over time?
I really didn’t know, I knew there would be upgrades to various systems because I saw it happening all the time at the Moog company back in the late 60s. As far as technology, science and electronics go I am totally uneducated. I have a very fancy music education but very little science education. My son has a degree in physics so if I have a question I’ll ask him. It took me a long time but I figured out how voltage control works and what I was dealing with because Bob Moog taught me all these things. I was lucky, very lucky.
Speaking of technology, I’ve read that the 4-track tape recorder really changed the game for you. Has any other advancement in technology changed the way you compose or perform?
I had composed for orchestral instruments and orchestras, so I always composed with the piano and imagined everything going on all at once. When I encountered the state-of-the-art electronic studio in the late 60s it did have a multi-track tape recorder, usually a 4-track, sometimes an 8-track one. The early synthesizers were all monophonic, they didn’t play chords, so you had one idea on one track. It changed things because I was always interested in counterpoint; it enabled each part to stand on its own.
You mentioned the limitations of monophonic synthesis. Were those limitations restrictive or creatively liberating?
They were liberating, very liberating. I don’t hear functional harmony, I have perfect pitch so I can hear what you’re playing when you’re playing a chord.
Let’s talk about The Continuing Story of Counterpoint because I feel that’s your magnum opus if you will. Would that be a term you’d accept?
People have called it that…It’s an important part of my musical development no doubt.
What brought you to creating this multipart work?
Well after working in multi tracks I evolved and refined my idea of counterpoint. When I did CSOC (Continuing Story of Counterpoint) I had friends at the time, not well known then but really well known now: Steve Reich and Philip Glass. They were friends of mine back in the 70s, I called it CSOC because Phil had written a piece called Another Look at Harmony. He looked at harmony and I looked at counterpoint. So I made everyone’s parts equally hard to play. They all had to be played at the same time and I made everyone’s part a different metre. No one was playing the same metre at the same time, well hardly ever. I had three people to work with, so six hands. I wrote a series of pieces where four of the hands were doing very fast notes at the same time where the other two hands played very slow notes. Every hand had a different keyboard because of the monophonic nature of the synthesizers. They were all very complicated pieces, it’s hard to talk about it without listening to it. Sorry if this doesn’t make any sense! (laughs).
Photo: Brian Harkin
You’re often lumped in this Minimalist category, for lack of a better term. Not to obsess about it because I know a lot of people get very bogged down…
No, no it’s okay. I never really pay much attention to genres but it’s unavoidable. I’ll tell you what I don’t like about the term Minimal. I got a review once saying I didn’t know how Minimalism works. They were assuming that I was trying to write in a genre, which I really wasn’t.
One thing I do hear with you and Terry Riley, Glass and Reich and all the others is a call back to Baroque music. Counterpoint is very much a central focus of that. Could you explain your love of counterpoint and early classical composers?
I was always drawn to it, ever since I was a kid having piano lessons. When I played my first Bach piece I knew it was different but didn’t understand why. There were always 2 or 3 lines at the same time, a melody and an accompaniment. I then looked more into Bach, I really love most of his work. I started out with Jazz and loved improvisation. I always had a hard time, I could memorise the chord changes but I couldn’t transpose quickly.
I read Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia. It’s about people whose musical perceptions change because of an accident for instance. I came across a woman who could no longer hear harmony but only individual voices at the same time – it drove her crazy! I thought wow, that’s the way I’ve always heard it. My love of counterpoint came from how my ears actually heard things. So when I hear music from the 19th century with lovely rich chords and harmonic changes, I don’t hear them and it leaves me cold. Someone like Wagner or Chopin leaves no impression on me…but don’t get me wrong, I know they are great composers. When I was in my teens I begged not to have to play another Chopin piece, that’s what lead me onto contemporary music at such an early age.
I’m surprised with something like your piece ‘Easter’ because it’s very ambient and sprawling. Something that drew me to Wagner is the opening of Das Rhiengold – those lush, droney sounds. Would you be able to discuss the more ambient and meditative influences in your music?
Ambient is a word that came into being after I’d been in the biz for quite some time. I was never quite sure what it meant. It always brought up images of John Cage’s piece ‘4 33’ – it was intended for the audience to listen to the ambient sounds around them, rather than the performer. That’s how I always use the word ‘ambient’, I just get a general feeling that ambient means some kind of atmosphere. It came into usage with Brian Eno.
It seems to me the sounds around us that aren’t specifically constructed to be listened to in a certain way is what Ambient music is. ‘Easter’ was influenced by Terry Riley, the actual sounds were influenced by the Moog synthesizer. Sometimes I would turn the knobs and have no idea what was going to come out. It all worked out well. The basic sequence for it was done in a day but I had to stay there all morning because I looked at all the patch chords and knew I wouldn’t be able to put it together again quite like that.
Mother Mallard, summer 1975, performing at the Johnson Museum. Ithaca, New York.
Photo: Jon Rels
I’ve noticed in one of your releases there are several different instrumentations of the same piece. 8, 8A, 8B and 8C. Were you quite happy to play around with the instrumentation?
With that particular recording on Cuneiform Records, although it was originally conceived as a piece for three performers, the recording had a band with wind instruments and an alto. The producer found it hard to mix it so you hear everything – he would mix 2 of the players’ parts together. He noticed that it sounded very much like a different piece and it stands on its own. So he’d mix A and B together, A and C, B and C etc. I had no idea it could be done like that, so I said let’s make this into four different pieces (one full and three two part pieces). It wasn’t actually something I found. Another thing about these CSOC pieces is that they can be done almost like the ‘Art of Fugue‘ can be done – in many instrumentations. They can be done with orchestras or chamber groups or indeed with synthesizers. I haven’t done much about that.
Let’s talk about your Jazz days.
I fell in love with Jazz through Dave Brubeck. I should have been listening to Miles Davies, but eventually did… I have a really deep background in Jazz. Jazz is a form and a process, it’s unmatched in its creativity and spontaneity. I always think of Bach adapting the Martin Luther simple tunes and making the more complicated chorales out of them. We think of them as Bach chorales but all of the melodies were written by Martin Luther. They became sort of standards in themselves, in this re-harmonisation of them like they’re not really those tunes anymore.
Music is totally changing, reforming and metamorphosing materials all the time and we all do it in various ways. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to call things by specific genres because it’s a beautiful process that happens in creative people. It can be done spontaneously on the spot, or it can be well thought out and still non-mechanical sounding and fresh when you play it again. Reich is especially good at this in ‘Music for 18 Musicians‘, or even ‘Piano Phase‘. In 1977 Steve showed the first pressing of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ from ECM to me. I was one of the first people to hear it besides him.
I find it really encouraging that so many people of my generation who love contemporary electronic music have fallen in love with composers such as Reich. It does seem hard to put my finger on what exactly it is that draws these people back to the sort of music you and your contemporaries were and still are making.
There was a real Zeitgeist that transformed from one person to another, no matter where they were. We all started doing this thing not really aware of each other but by the late 60s everybody knew everybody else.
I know you have a real passion for dance, as seen in your tribute to Denis and Shawn. Do you write music specifically for dance or are you just inspired by it?
I’ve always been mystified by it. I can’t dance (laughs), so luckily I had to play for it and not dance myself. In a weird way it seems very physic. I first started accompanying ballroom dance classes and I did it very well. I somehow came to modern dance when I went to Eastman (School of Music) and had a girlfriend there who took dance classes and asked me to improvise and be comfortable with it. At grad school in Harvard I earned my extra money by being the dance accompanist at Radcliff, Boston and a couple of other places. Ruth St Denis was a visiting dancer at Radcliff who I then didn’t know, so I performed one of her pieces with her. She’d hand me the music and say ‘Ted and I did this in Paris’. So I was drawn into this world not knowing anything about it and through these wonderful people I got to accompany, I got to see some of the great 20th century dancers right up close. I got roped into it and they really influenced me, they were not technical, not aesthetically closed like when you go to a graduate school of music and get these closed systems. I got to meet John Cage that way and the people around him like David Tudor who premiered ‘4, 33’.
What was John Cage like?
I was always very intimidated around John, he had a reverent coterie around him. But he himself was a very down to earth, friendly person. I remember one conversation we had on the roof above his apartment. I asked if he was OK with his pieces being done on stage at the same time as someone else’s piece. He said ‘Oh yes that’s fine, that’s just something that happens to them.’ He thought of his pieces as living things, just like humans that lived out in the world. But another aspect was that if you didn’t do the piece exactly the way he instructed, he got very disappointed. He was a control freak in one way and the opposite in another way. One of the pieces I loved of his was ‘Perilous Night’, so I wrote a piece called ‘Perilous Night Companion’ which was to be played the same time as his piece (laughs).
You collaborated with Laurel Halo, Oneotrix Point Never and others recently. How was that experience?
I had fun doing that, I was learning from them. They do that sort of Ambient stuff you mention. They showed up with a Juno 60, I have one myself, I showed up with a Minimoog and a laptop. We had fun improvising, it was a great experience.
You are closely associated with Bob Moog. What was it like to be one of the first people to really put his creations to the test?
He was an extremely busy guy then, always preoccupied because his business was never really kicking off. He was always on the verge of bankruptcy, then something would happen. But if you got him in a place and a time where he could relax, which was hardly ever, he’d be wonderfully silly and laugh really loudly and be refreshingly funny. He was always totally honest and upfront – just a wonderful person. I’d like being around him and we became life-long friends. Never pretentious, he was just himself. He was great to be around – he changed my whole life. He wasn’t easy to know though. There was a long period where he couldn’t use his own name on his own instruments because someone had bought his name. To avoid bankruptcy he sold his name, so he couldn’t get it back even though no one was actually using it. It took him almost 20 years to get it back.
What drew you to synthesis?
Nothing! I had no idea what I was getting into, it was through meeting Bob. It took 6-7 months learning how to control this thing that looked like the cockpit of an airplane – if we were coming in for landing I would have crashed! Bob was very patient with me, he really wanted to know why it would take someone so long to learn. I went through a period where I didn’t use the keyboard, I only wanted to use the sequencer and the oscillators as I didn’t want to be tied down to anything vaguely resembling scales. I did that for a year and a half, Cage and co. were doing stuff like that. However when I discovered Terry Riley it changed my mind. I went back to tonality but I was never trying to emulate other instruments.
Finally, you’re playing at Atonal festival this year. What will you be performing?
I’m beginning the concert with my new piece ‘Selections’ on my ‘Variations on a Theme on Philip Glass’ which I like. Afterwards we’ll do ‘Counterpoint Part 9’, and after that my guitar playing son will come out and we’ll do ‘Easter’. Then we’ll do ‘Enfield in Winter’ (recently re-reissued) and we’ll end with ‘Part 5’.
I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much for your time David.
David Borden plays Berlin Atonal August 19. More info here.
Words: William Warren
Featured image: Steve Drews