Bio: David Borden is an American composer, author, and founder of the ensemble Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. Noted for his counterpoint composition The Continuing Story of Counterpoint and collaboration with Robert Moog during the synthesizer’s development. Now retired from his position as founder and Director of the Digital Music Program at Cornell University, David performs with his son Gabe, stepson Sam and ongoing new music ensembles.
Q: David, when you were a music student, what were your expectations of having a career in music?
D: I’ve been a music student since I was 5 when I started piano lessons. My father had a great record collection. He loved music. He took piano lessons when I was an infant and I used to hear him practice Beethoven, Chopin, Gershwin, and Ragtime. He had a whole bunch of stuff. Growing up I didn’t delineate the artistic importance say between Haydn and Duke Ellington, I just thought they were different. One was from an older century and one was more modern.
It wasn’t until my teens that I realized composers were still composing classical music. When I discovered Bartok and Hindemith, I was totally amazed and loved them right away. I equated classical music with 19th and 18th century music. I was always interested in improvisation too. Originally, all I wanted to be was a jazz pianist and a good arranger. I had a very good piano teacher who started assigning Hindemith, Bartok, and Stravinsky pieces among others, and I really got into that. By the time I hit college, I wanted to be a composer and a good arranger, but as time went on I realized that it took so much energy to be both so I just gravitated to concert music.
I played with some great musicians when I was at Eastman. Ron Carter was there and I played a few gigs with him. He would come to my practice room, and say, “let’s jam” and after about five minutes I would say,” I just can’t keep up with you man, you’re so fantastic”. He was amazing. Also at the school was Chuck Mangione, who was in a band with Ron Carter. I jammed with Chuck and played in different clubs with all these great musicians once in a while. They’d call me up and say “I need a piano player”, so I kept my hand in playing. Then I revived my jazz playing in the 90s. A friend and colleague of mine at Cornell and I would give each other tapes of our playing, and we decided to give concerts together. They turned out to be really popular. There are some CD recordings of those concerts, but unfortunately my friend Ed Murray died of cancer about 10 years ago. I haven’t done it since then.
Q: Do you feel a connection exists between early cycles, such as Hindemith's work, and your generation of composers exploring repetition in minimalism?
D: I don’t know so much about Hindemith. Hindemith seemed to be formally connected to early 19th century formal styles – the Sonatas and Fugues of 18th century too. But Stravinsky had a lot of repetitive moments - called ostinatos - and there’s a lot of that in early Stravinsky especially. I was a Stravinsky freak at Eastman and studied all of his work. Then I drifted off into admiring John Cage and others in his circle for a while. Cage’s and David Tudor’s work made it clear to me that live electronic performance was pretty exciting. They showed the way with custom made circuitry. But I was not totally down with all of the sound.
In 1967 when I first discovered the Moog synthesizer I made the strangest sounds you could think of with it, and did a lot of random stuff. But in 1968, when I heard the recording of Terry Riley’s “In C” I just had sort of a flashing moment, an epiphany. I said yes, that’s where it’s really going. Chromaticism was sort of at the end of its road then with twelve tone serial techniques. There’s not much you can find that’s absolutely new and exciting, with either chromaticism or with crazy timbres you get out of acoustic instruments, but the synthesizer was mesmerizing to me. It really influenced me.
Thanks to my friendship with Bob Moog, for the next couple years I really got into it and eventually composed the piece Easter which we played at the Museum for Music Making last April. That was my first piece using repetitive figures and a steady tempo. I love the steady tempo because of my jazz background. Terry Riley was my influence on that. To perfect my ability to play rock-solid tempos, I used to spend long periods of time playing in time with the prototype of the Moog sequencer. While I played with one hand, I used the other to turn the volume off while I kept playing. Then, I turned the volume back on to see if I was still in the tempo. After many many hours, I could do it every time no matter how fast or slow it was.
Q: Is seems the 1960s’ was a groundbreaking period for musicians to experiment with new sounds and break away from some of the older traditions of classical music?
D: Yes, I think you’re right. In academia, everyone hated John Cage. But he was a breath of fresh air. His music is really quite exciting and I especially love the prepared piano pieces. But I also heard John do things with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company which were great.
Then you have the Moog synthesizer being developed which was an entirely new instrument and the Buchla synthesizer too which was also very exciting. And Buchla just didn’t like the idea of putting a keyboard on it because he didn’t like having the new technology do the work of the old. But Moog didn’t care one way or the other. You could be as crazy or as conventional as you wanted. He liked the spectrum. He wanted to have his instrument cover as many things as possible. He loved the silly commercial stuff, as well as, the headier experimental stuff. One of his favorite composers was an unknown young guy named Jon Weiss, who’s still around but no longer composing.
Then you have that wonderful piece by Steve Reich around that time called, “Come Out,” which was just a manipulation of someone’s voice, and he did it all with tape recorders. It’s an amazing piece. That led to his Piano Phase piece. It was an exciting period for me to discover all this stuff - the period between 1968 and 1970 which is when I turned 30. I discovered my own language. It was an exciting time.
Q: It's interesting that the composers of your generation have influenced today's electronic artists with your early compositions and experimenting with the synthesizer’s sonic possibilities.
D: I don’t think of music as electronic music. Electronic music to me is a genre that is connected with early tape pieces – more sound oriented. There are people who are still working with wonderful sounds, such as sounds from the earth - natural sounds - and manipulate them. I think of that as electronic music. Mine is more traditional. It uses notes and pitches. It uses some non-pitched sounds once in awhile, but it’s still basically a pitch-oriented music.
Some famous friends of mine like Philip Glass and Steve Reich–––we all sort of came to fruition around the same time. We’re more pitch-oriented, although we use electronic devices. Steve Reich uses mostly acoustic instruments, but he always amplifies them. Philip Glass has always used amplified keyboards. He didn’t use synthesizers at first for practical reasons because they were monophonic. He needed keyboards that were polyphonic. That didn’t happen with synthesizers until the mid to late ‘70s.
But they were very expensive when they first came out, and it wasn’t until the DX-7 arrived that you had a viable, cheap polyphonic instrument. Steve never really liked the sound of synthesizers. He always loved the acoustic instruments better. Nonetheless, we’re sort of all lumped under the term minimalism. That term wasn’t really used until the mid-70s when Tom Johnson of the Village Voice used it to describe this music. But it had already been used to describe certain works of painting and sculpture from the ‘60s. He just took the term and applied it to music.
Q: The music term minimalism seems to work for print, but is not very descriptive of a genre of music.
D: The problem is that you have to learn to live with these terms, but I get very uneasy because you realize these terms are sort of coined by historians, critics or the music marketers. It’s an easy way to establish a certain genre, but it doesn’t necessarily take in all the individual idiosyncrasies of various composers’ music. That’s why I don’t like it that much. I don’t like to be put in a box that is limited. One feels very uneasy referring to oneself as a minimalist or as a serialist or whatever. You think you’re just a composer who writes your own kind of music. Ascribing a term to it takes away from your work and institutionalizes it.
Q: It seems that we are starting to get beyond the absolute categorization of music now. People want to explore what the music has to offer, but the defined origins of it are not as important.
D: I think you are right. It’s very disconcerting that when you’re going to look for certain kinds of music, the music marketers have it all figured out. There must be five dozen genres of pop music alone. It’s very weird. It must have something to do with computer technology and the Internet. But I think serious listeners of music have always been open to new things and not necessarily trying to pigeon hole people or musical languages.
Q: How did your long lasting and fruitful relationship with Robert Moog that created so much music begin?
D: I’ve been involved with the Moog synthesizer since 1967. I was living in Ithaca, New York and Moog was in Trumansburg, New York, about twenty minutes away. Someone just told me about it. He said they were looking for people to use their studio because no one much knew about it. So I went there and met Bob Moog.
He gave me a tour of the whole factory and brought me into the studio. I thought it looked like the cockpit of a 747. I had no background in anything remotely like this. He gave me his introductory hour lecture on how it all worked, and would ask me if I understood from time to time, and I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t, so I didn’t. But eventually I did learn. Moog gave me access to the studio. I started actually ruining the modules and the engineers would come down and try to figure out what I had done to ruin this particular filter or whatever. And Moog came down and looked at it and said “Holy shit, my God, what the hell is going on here?”
He was very proud of his designs and had no idea that someone could be this stupid about hooking it up after he had explained how it worked. So I thought that was it for me in the studio, but no, he gave me a key and told me to come in at night and just explore anything, and that if anything went wrong or whatever, don’t worry about it, leave it hooked up the way I had it. So I did that for a few months and I finally understood how the whole thing worked. He took me aside one day and said “we’ve changed the design on several of the modules, and they’re really improved now. We were using you to idiot-proof the whole thing.” So that’s how I got involved with the Moog synthesizer.
Q: What drew you to the Moog synthesizer sound? Was it the sound, or the new sonic options the instrument offered?
D: Yeah, I was just really intrigued with the whole thing. About how you could actually set up musical sounds. There were no names to sounds then, and they had no memory, so every time you were in the studio it was like a new invention. That’s what attracted me to it. Then I decided that I could write music, not just for tape but for a live performance. Like in the jazz groups I played in we could now have like a trio or duo and actually take it on the road.
So I started writing pieces that were designed for live performance. I got that idea from the musicians around Merce Cunningham: John Cage, David Tudor, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma - they had done this for years with electronic equipment, but this was a little different. So I got into it that way.
Moog very generously would lend me equipment and different synthesizers. Bob was a very generous, straightforward, honest and wonderful man. He himself, not just his synthesizer, changed my whole life and the way I looked at the whole concept of music.
Q: Many musicians who worked with Robert Moog speak of his generosity and openness to musicians’ feedback and input on his inventions.
D: Yes, I didn’t realize how true that was. Herb Deutsch was the first person who wanted something you could control from a keyboard, like a piano, but it could be electronic. That’s how Bob first got a keyboard attached. He put oscillators together with voltage controlled filters and that’s how it started. But Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening had an electronic studio at Columbia. Ussachevsky, a composer, told him he wanted to be able to shape the sound, with a beginning, a decay, and a sustained note that would last for awhile when the key was let up. That’s how the envelope generator was born - not from Moog but from Ussachevsky.
Maybe younger people who are experimenting with electronic music should know this was in a period when you couldn’t call on, at least even from a software level, a bank of pre-recorded sounds that you could manipulate through MIDI and a keyboard. This was during a time when you shaped and created your own sounds from scratch. And this is the first synthesizer that gave musicians the option of shaping that sound, which is a different process than working with tape.
Q: Everyone seems to say that it was a very liberating moment for using that tool and exploring new vistas of sound.
D: That’s right. It was almost like when you went into the studio to write a piece you were also writing your own orchestration book, because you weren’t calling on known instruments, you were making them up as you went along. There were no known sounds. That’s another reason I thought an ensemble, just two to three people playing synthesizers, was doing more with less, like Bucky Fuller used to say. It had such a wide range of sonic possibilities, rather than say a string trio.
Many times we rehearsed just learning how to set up the patches without playing a note, except the first note to make sure the sound was what we wanted. We would blindly set up patches and know just what they would sound like. You couldn’t call your music store and order one of these because music stores did not carry them – not even the MiniMoog which came out a little later, in 1970-71. It wasn’t until after 1972 or ‘73 when you could actually buy one from the store. You had to go to the company itself.
Q: What do you think the legacy of Bob Moog’s inventions is today in the increasingly software synthesizers, synth-based environment?
D: I think his particular invention was so influential and had a big impact on music-making because of the Wendy Carlos recording of “Switched-on-Bach”, which became a mega-hit and it was classical. Although all of Bob’s synthesizers were wonderful, I don’t think he would have had such a big influence if it weren’t for that hit. After that, the Moog became more or less the standard for many people. Rock musicians like Keith Emerson, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones all had early Moogs. A keyboard attached to all of these different modules... a keyboard attached to the cockpit of a 747 changed a lot of things.
It has become obvious now, after 40 years, that this is the greatest keyboard instrument invention since the piano. There’s no doubt about it. And it’s ubiquitous now. Everybody takes synthesizers for granted. That wasn’t so back when we were starting out. Everyone was afraid that this would put musicians out of work because they assumed that the synthesizer was going to be a substitute for music instruments. It can do that to a point, but if you want a trumpet, hire a trumpet player.
Q: The great jazz drummer, Mel Lewis, said in the 70’s they should blow up the Lynn drum machine because it would put drummers out of work. Not all musicians embraced the technology.
D: I know. But it really didn’t put great drummers out of work. There’s no substitute for great musicians. There will always be people performing.
Q: It seems the ‘modern musician’ is finding the balance of using the tools of technology, but not being dominated by them.
D: Yeah, maybe. I’ve never really been involved in the day-to-day commercial pressures of the music business. I’ve always been a little outside of it. I don’t think of myself as an academic but I was attached to Cornell University for a long time, until I retired a few years ago. I never got tenure. I was always like an add-on, because I knew stuff that other people didn’t and they needed that. But now, it’s part of the mainstream of academic departments. It didn’t always used to be that way.
Q: How did you come to Cornell and what was your focus in your teaching output with students?
D: Before Cornell, I got a grant to move to Ithaca that was given by the Ford Foundation, but administered by the Music Educators National Conference, and it was a wonderful program of putting composers in public schools so they would compose for the student ensembles.
Phil Glass had one of those in Pittsburgh, and I had one here in Ithaca. In my graduate school days I supplemented my income by accompanying modern dance classes. I substituted for some of the people who were doing that program at Cornell so I went and applied for that job. At first they said I was over-qualified, but I said, “I really want to stay here, I love Ithaca, New York”. I still do. So that’s how I got in.
For the first 18 years, I was a composer pianist for dance. I’ve accompanied some of the great dancers and choreographers of the 20th Century. I was about to leave to go to Ann Arbor to become director of music for dance there but Cornell asked me to stay to establish a new electronic studio. They had tried before but it wasn’t very successful. I told them what I wanted and they agreed, and so I stayed.
Q: Attending university, did you find most students wanted to become composers as you did?
D: Cornell is one of those all-inclusive schools. One of the founding principles is that someone can learn anything for any reason. There was a wide variety of wonderful students. Very few music majors, though. I think I had one or two in all of the 18 years of being director of that program. My main focus was that they had to perform live. They couldn’t just plug in. They had to use the sequencer live. They had to be able to have live musicians playing with their computer driven pieces on any instrument.
We’d have dancers, people reciting poems, people doing Rap, people playing highly technical things on the violin. That’s what I liked about that place — it had a great variety. The shows were called “MIDI Madness” and were very popular.
Q: Sounds like a wonderful environment for experimenting and invention.
D: I didn’t have graduate students until the last two years I was there. I taught the first two-thirds of the semester with very stringent rules, so that they really knew what they were doing with the software. For the final assignment they were allowed to do anything they wanted as long as it wasn’t over five minutes and they had a live performance and a sequencer.
Q: David, you were commissioned for and scored a piece of music for the film, “The Exorcist,” but ironically only a small part of it was used. What was that experience like for you?
Q: Billy Friedkin, the director, called me at home. I didn’t know who he was at the time. He said he was doing a horror movie, and he’d heard some of Mother Mallard’s music on WBAI in New York, and he thought it would be appropriate for this new film — was I interested? I said, “Sure.” He said, “Great, I’ll call you back and we’ll work it out.”
A friend of mine was the director of the film program here at Cornell and I said, “You know this guy called me and his name is Billy Friedkin, do you know anything about him?” He said, “Are you kidding me?” He knew who he was with the “French Connection” and “The Night they Raided Minsky’s”.
He did say he wanted me to do the whole thing. He had someone send me the dialogue so I could get into the mood of it. He wasn’t ready to add the music, but every time I called him he talked to me.
He invited us to The Exorcist cast wrap party at the end and the whole cast was there. We had a great time. But he called about a week after that, after he had watched all the final rushes, and said, “It’s too melodramatic. The movie’s more melodramatic than I want it to be. It’s not going to work with music than can stand on its own.”
He liked the music I sent him. He used everything I sent him which was only a few things. He said that he had to take music from a variety of different places and cut certain scenes to the music from these other sources. He apologized. He asked us if we’d be willing to move to Hollywood because he would like to work with us, but we didn’t go. It was a disappointment, but it wasn’t like he didn’t like our stuff.
Q: When you say “we” are you referring to a musical partner that you work with?
D: Well, he had asked me to compose it, but he wanted the band “Mother Mallard” to go to the cast party, which we all did. This was Steve Drews and Linda Fisher in addition to me. Currently, Friedkin is directing operas. Eventually the films he directed weren’t successful at the box office. Now he’s directing operas in Europe.
Q: How did you center upon this series which focuses really on the theme of “Counterpoint” in so many different ways. How did this body of work come to be?
D: Ever since I was a kid I loved counterpoint. One of the reasons I called up Jimmy Giuffre a jazz composer, who was appearing at Storyville in Boston while I was in high school, was that much of his work as a jazz musician was based on counterpoint, which was different than other jazz musicians. He gave me my first composition lesson, which was absolutely fantastic. In later years, I was influenced by Bucky Fuller’s book written in 1975 which defined and discussed synergy. Synergy was a word that wasn’t used that often back in the 70s. Now, it’s sort of used by businesses to mean that they multi-task well. But the Bucky Fuller definition is the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by any of their parts taken separately. That hit a chord with me. And I thought “WOW!” It reminded me of how medieval composers used to work. They would write a whole melody, from beginning to end, and then add another one, and another one.
So that’s what I did with this. Rather than taking counterpoint forms like canon, I decided that I would write a whole person’s part all the way through and then add another person’s part, and sometimes not even listen to the first part. But I knew they were in sections, so I knew the number of beats for each section and the modality of each section.
Maybe there are 38 or 39 beats broken up in certain ways for one person’s part, but broken up in different ways on another person’s part. I wanted to keep them in the same modal scale though. I would play the parts together, and if something I didn’t like happened, I would just change a note or two in the music.
It was a whole new way of composing for me. Multi-track tape recorders made it possible. Now it’s called layering. This was a much more radical way of composing in that I had continual notes playing all the time and in the same note value.
There were continual 16th notes in 3 or 4 lines, and the other two lines were longer notes. It was all composed for three people, six hands —five mono-phonic synthesizers going on at the same time and one RMI polyphonic electric keyboard. So there’d be four parts that were continual 16th notes all the time - very hard to play. Then the left hand would play these longer notes on two of the parts.
So we had two overlapping, long note counterpoints going on, and four constant/against note counterpoint. It got to be pretty intense and I really loved it. It’s less like a whole sentence structure and more like a constant, almost like, “In C” by Terry Riley - it’s a constant thing going on at all times. That’s what creates tension. It’s more mesmerizing than early pop music in a way. Certainly more complicated.
Coincidentally I met John Marr at Saddleback College in Orange County. He has a group he calls “Brother Mallard”. They’re very good. They play parts of my Continuing Story of Counterpoint. Most pieces are designed so that you don’t need the original synthesizers to play them. They can be played by any kind of ensemble you put together, as long as all the notes can be heard. They have a violin, a piano, a synthesizer, an electric guitar, possibly a cellist? And a wonderful singer, Marilissa Cram.
Q: So they’re transposing and transcribing your music for different voices into separate individual parts.
D: Yeah, with my blessing. I realized that I didn’t have the score and parts written down in a conventional way, and that if I weren’t there they wouldn’t know what to do. It hit me that I had to make the counterpoint pieces in editions that anyone can read, so when I’m no longer around, people will know how to play them. It’s been a blessing for me, not only to hear them play, but to be able to have editions of both my old and new music that anyone can play.
Q: The ideas of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and yourself have really seeped into many different genres of music. Does that mean then that ideas of John Cage, Xenakis, and Stockhausen were not a success in what they were experimenting with? Because we don’t necessarily hear some of those sound experiments and ideas performed very much, except in universities.
D: I think these things tend to run in cycles. Of course, those composers were hard to understand for the general listener’s musical language expectations. That was a real complaint at some point. In the early 70s all the money was going to commission these pieces that the general public didn’t like.
It’s not that we’re dumbing down anything. Except that academia in general is usually — in music at least — Euro-central. They’re much more involved with the European composers, but it doesn’t mean that they’re any better or any worse. Some great stuff is going on. The popularity of what became labeled as minimalism was very disconcerting for academia. You don’t find many students in academia doing minimalism, at least in the Ivy League schools.
It seems that aesthetics in music departments and art departments in universities have trouble keeping current in certain ways. They’re usually 30 to 40 years behind us, as opposed to say the physics, electric engineering and computer science departments that are on the cutting edge. But there’s room for everybody as Philip Glass used to say. Philip Glass faced a lot of the same kind of arrogant disdain that John Cage did in academia. They were both very graceful in the way they dealt with it. They’re both very important composers. When the dust settles and an era is marked by certain composers, you’ll still have Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez, as being the real groundbreakers in the late ’40s to mid-60s.
You’ll have Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass from the mid-60s until the present. We’re sort of old now. We’re waiting for the next young people to come in. But they seem to be coming into the pop culture more than the classical culture. But I’m sure that’ll change too. There’s work by David Lang - that composer’s very good.
Q: You mentioned resistance that both John Cage and Philip Glass faced. Was it that they encountered an older generation that was steeped in the more romantic traditions of classical music of the past?
D: No, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s more like an intellectual affront to these people. They think, ‘oh, if someone thinks like this and does this, how can anyone take them seriously? I watched as a member of one academic music department stood up and gave an obvious tauntingly insincere, raving ‘bravo’ to John Cage. It was an affront - a ‘bravo’ in a putting-down way. It was really bad.
Then I saw an article by an established, wonderful violinist saying you should never play Philip Glass because it’s very bad for your hands. And I was with Phil once when he got this horrible review of one of his new operas in the New York Times, and I said, “How do you deal with this crap?” He just looked up very cheerfully, and said, “I have a whole drawer full of those.” It was really quite wonderful how he dealt with it.
Q: It seems the classical community itself is split on the innovations of more recent composers and then those who wish to hear another Beethoven sonata or Bach piece. It really kind of touches upon that divide. What are your thoughts, that the other side would say that you’re experiments have diluted the traditional base of classical music.
D: Diluted, you mean like when you put a drop of ink in some pure water and the whole thing turns gray? I’m interested in hearing a new performance of Bach, myself. I love Bach and Beethoven. I don’t think that holds up so well. Sometimes you decry the fact that young people at, say, Cornell or at other institutions of higher learning - really brilliant kids - don’t even know who Mozart was. Whereas in my generation the intelligent kids usually knew who Mozart and even Samuel Barber was, but that’s no longer the case.
I think the whole cultural shift is what maybe bothers people. It bothers me that many young people just don’t have the appreciation for the great composers of the 19th and 18th Century and earlier. But as far as diluting it I don’t think so. If you want to hear a new recording of Beethoven by a young pianist or violinist, you can hear it now more so than you could in the ‘50s. You can hear anything you want anytime. That’s the great thing.
It seems you have to be a specialist now to really appreciate classical music. One of my favorite composers is the 14th Century composer Guillaume de Machaut and I just love Haydn. I play Haydn every other day practically, but I love to hear all the new things as well. I think diversity is a strength, I don’t think it’s diluting anything.
Q: I think you really kind of got to the heart of it - that young people don’t explore this tradition as much. And maybe in some way, it’s easy to blame popular culture, as David Dubal said stated popular culture is our enemy.
D: I don’t think that’s true. I come from a very working class background. I discovered classical music through my father, but not many kids on the block knew about Mozart. Still, I don’t think pop culture is the enemy at all. We had the Andrew Sisters, Fats Waller and Glen Miller too. There’s a lot of innovation in pop culture, it’s wonderful. There are parts of every kind of culture, high and low, that I think is ugly. But everyone has their own personal view on it. I don’t think pop culture as a whole should be condemned in that way.
Q: The community that supports classical music is undergoing tremendous change from a prior generation to the next. The looming question seems how will that be taken up and who will fill the concert seats of the halls around the world?
D: I don’t know if there are fewer, but people in academia decry the fact that major orchestras now no longer have major recording contracts. They used to have high-end well paid contracts - RCA-Victor, Columbia. But not anymore. Most of those companies have been bought out by European and Asian companies that no longer have the desire, impetus or financial resources to do that anymore. But they do have all the old recordings that they continue to sell.
Do you feel that’s a significant cultural loss? The resource that was there may not be there as much anymore? I can’t tell. Things in history shift - sometimes for the best and sometimes for the worst. In the 19th Century, orchestras were so large and unwieldy, but had more sonic possibilities. When you get those early 20th Century, large Stravinsky pieces with mammoth orchestras, you really can’t do that anymore. It’s very expensive to bring so many highly qualified musicians together in one place, and it’s becoming unsustainable.
Q: What are your thoughts about the changes happening in the recording industry today?
D: I don’t know, I’ve been out of touch. I just make my own CDs and send them to friends, through Cuneiform, Arbiter and Lameduck recordings, which are alternative labels. They do a great job. Otherwise I haven’t been paying attention. With so many downloadable options – iTunes, etc - record stores are not going to probably do the business they used to do. Symphony orchestras in Europe are part of the government structure. They get a lot of help from taxpayer money. If you do that here, they would call whoever was responsible a socialist and probably elect him out of office.
Q: Paul Horn agreed very much on this point that Quincy Jones has called for the President to elect a Secretary of Ministry of Arts and Culture, which has maybe been long, long overdue in this country.
D: Quincy Jones is a very intelligent and musically wonderful guy. They should listen to Quincy Jones.
Q: It’s been noted that peers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich have received much more success and attention for their work. And some call your music under recognized? Is this a fault of publicity or are there other factors here?
D: It used to matter more than it does now. But they’ve done some great work and deserve all that recognition. I knew Philip when he was still working as a plumber to make ends meet. He’s worked very hard, and so he should have all that recognition. Both Steve and Phil told me early on that if I moved to New York City I would have a much better chance at being recognized than if I stayed up here in Ithaca. Maybe that has something to do with it. But staying up here in Ithaca enabled me to meet Bob Moog and get all this stuff done. And I’m still working.
Time takes care of these things eventually. I’ll probably never be as well-known as either as those guys. But when someone like John Marr and his Brother Mallard ensemble perform pieces from The Continuing Story of Counterpoint --- those pieces are very hard to play --- it shows me that I will probably be performed at least now and then.
All of my pieces tend to be really hard to play and they were not composed for traditional instruments. They take knowledge of synthesizers to play, usually. With my new stuff you have to have certain software on laptops, whereas with some of the other composers you don’t need such specialized equipment. I’m pretty confident that my counterpoint and several other pieces are going to eventually find their niche and continue to be performed. So I’m not that worried about it.
Q: David, you are not someone who is obsessed with career, or maybe obsessed with legacy.
D: Oh, yes, I know. I have suffered some personal setbacks in doing these things, especially early on. Another composer who did some really wonderful pieces early on for synthesizers who also goes unrecognized is Steve Drews, my partner in the early Mother Mallard days. He should be remembered too.
Q: What is the current line-up of the Mother Mallard group and what are you working on with your composing, now you’re working on computer-based software?
D: The current Mother Mallard group is four keyboardists and one percussionist who plays the MalletKat — Conrad Alexander, who teaches percussion at Ithaca College. A MalletKat is simply a marimba that’s a MIDI controller, like a keyboard. What’s great about that is that you see this guy on stage with a marimba in front of him, and he hits a note and out comes this strange, strange sound not associated with marimbas. That’s what I like about it, it’s good theater.
The keyboardists are Blaise Bryski who is one of the best sight-reading musicians I’ve ever had in my band. His technique is flawless, he’s great, and recently got his Ph.D. early music practice. He knows a lot about early pianos. He’s a scholar and a great pianist, and he’s also a great vocal coach and works around here at both colleges.
Another keyboardist is Cornell Professor David Yearsley, an extremely gifted musician and musicologist. He’s written a book on Bach which is brilliant. He’s also a recipient of several awards for his organ playing worldwide. He’s a world-class musician. I’m very lucky to have both of them. The newest member is young Josh Oxford. He is one of the most complete musicians I’ve ever met. He can sight-read anything and absorbs things at an enormous rate. It’s amazing. Also he’s a Mini-Moog virtuoso, so I’m very lucky. In this band, I’m the least fluent virtuoso on my instrument, whereas in the early bands, I was the most fluent and had to teach the other people how to do it. But these people are teaching me. It’s great.
Q: Sounds like a very exciting formation of a group.
D: Yeah. So now we just bring our laptops and a lightweight keyboard, or we can rent a MIDI controller, USB controller, where you just plug it in and you’re ready to go. The sound is available in a second. It’s amazing from what it used to be. But my next piece is actually going to be a string quartet. I got a commission from a physicist friend of mine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I’m listening to a lot of Beethoven string quartets.
Between Google, iTunes and YouTube, you can practically have anything you want in the next two seconds. It’s a wonderful development. My grandchildren are growing up in this environment, and they’re what we call digital natives, but I’m an old guy who just happened to buy a Macintosh in 1985. When I first started teaching the digital music program courses at Cornell in 1987, none of these kids were digital natives either. We were all learning the stuff together. But when I left a few years ago they were way ahead of me in all of this. We complain something isn’t split-second enough. It’s totally different. The new technology is a great help.
Q: Is the experience of a composer’s life to write and create music till the end?
D: Well, no. Haydn told people, “The muse is no longer there. I’m done.” So apparently, you do know. That hasn’t hit me yet. It never hit Stravinsky either. I don’t know how that works, but that’s a good question. I’ll call you when I’m at the end. We can get a beer.