Homage to Moog and Mallards

Drive north from Ithaca, New York up the west side of Lake Cayuga for seven or eight miles and you’ll come to Taughannock State Park, which encloses the spectacular falls of the same name, said to be the highest east of the Rockies, higher even than Niagara Falls. After passing by the entrance to the park, take the gorge road climbing steeply up the bluffs heading west and after you stop at the lookout above the falls and have a look at the cataract—iced and silent in winter, thunderous in spring, a trickle in the driest stretches of summer unrelieved by thunders storms — you’ll come to the town of Trumansburg.

Trumansburg has a wide and graceful main street of stately clapboard houses with porches, pillared churches and library, and finishes its protocols of decorum with an ensemble of terraced brick shops.  But for the incipient sprawl to the south and the derelict supermarket and parking lot to the north, the town looks much like it did in the 19th century, and much like it did in the 1960s when the New York City native, Robert Moog, developed his epoch-making synthesizer, hailed by many to be the most important keyboard instrument invented in the 20th century. Moog had come Ithaca to do a Ph.D. in engineering physics at Cornell and after completing his degree settled  his company in Trumansburg to develop his musical instruments.

The impact of the Moog synthesizer on the sound of the late 1960s and 1970s is hard to overestimate. Wendy Carlos (then still Walter Carlos) brought out Switched-On Bach in 1968 using Moog’s synthesizers. The LP went platinum and broke into the Billboard top ten. Carlos’ strutting, space-age reading of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 gave that piece a new day-glo grandeur, in whose vibrant reflection all subsequent performances either bask or wilt. Carlos’ version of that over-worked classic-hit Air on the G String demonstrated that underneath the sickly-sweet frosting of too-many wedding performances there was a freshly honed file. Aided and abetted by Moog, Bach made his jailbreak.

A year earlier the Doors had used a Moog for their Strange Days album, and in 1969 the instrument adorned the Beatles’ studio swansong, Abbey Road. Hollywood, too, came calling. In Carlos’s score for Stanley Kubrick’s  1971 A Clockwork Orange the urgent electric energy of Moog’s sound even in, or perhaps especially in, slow moving musical textures captured the artful psychopathy of the film’s violence-loving anti-hero, Alex. The soundtrack exploited that strange something in the Moog’s sound, the siren-song way it rides the knife-edge between ambrosial sweetness and terror.

Of the many other pop and concert music applications of Moog’s creation, however, none equals that of David Borden, whose 12-part Continuing Story of Counterpoint is one of the great works of late 20th-century art music—an ambitious, yet welcoming masterpiece composed between 1976 and 1987, and one which offers its players and listeners perpetually new perspectives on what it means to play and to listen. Borden’s Continuing Story realizes the promise of music both to mark time’s progress and to cleave ecstatically to the moment. Moog gave Borden, then a neophyte on synthesizers, the keys to his Trumansburg studio in 1967. Two years later Moog received his first major patent and that same year Borden formed Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, the first all-synthesizer ensemble. The group gave its first concert in Barnes Hall on the Cornell University campus in May of 1969.

This past Sunday the Mallards returned to Barnes Hall to celebrate the group’s fortieth anniversary.  It’s been a period of commemorations for Borden, who marked his 70th birthday this past Christmas Day. His once-black hair is now gray, but his witty and oracular stage presence is as engaging as ever. Barnes Hall was full even on a wet late-Winter-Early Spring night, the proceedings introduced by Trevor Pinch, who, along with Frank Trocco, has written an excellent book on Robert Moog and others, called Analog Days. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/PINANA.html. Pinch asked who among the audience had been at the first MMPMC  concert forty years ago. Many hands, attached to witnesses of and contributors to Ithaca’s counter-culture and avant-gardist past, went up.

At this point I should probably acknowledge that I have been in the group for most the last decade. Now we use laptops and keyboards instead of the weighty and sometimes irascilbe analog synthesizers. David Borden brought along two of his classic Moogs and set them off to the side of the stage as tributes to the inventor and to the group’s past.

Borden talked about Bob Moog with real affection and charm, and used the last last synthesizer Moog conceived—a combination of both analog and digital synthesizer and a beautifully fashioned tool that put one in mind of the controls of a jet plane as conceived by Bang and Olufsen—designed shortly before his death from a brain tumor in 2005. Borden used it in dialogue with a vintage mini-Moog for his bluesy tribute to another friend, saxonphone and clarinet player, Jimmy Giuffre who died last year. Giuffre, too, was heard in sampled excerpts commented on by Borden at the last Moog, with keyboard savant Josh Oxford on the mini-Moog, and Borden’s electric-guitar virtuoso of a son Gabriel on an instrument he’d personally assembled from spare parts. Borden offered subsequent ancedotes about Jasper Johns and modern dance legend Viola Farber; Borden’s tribute to her, which featured live video footage of her choreography, closed the program.

Borden is categorized as a minimalist along with  his colleagues Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like any such designation, this one is as misleading as it is useful.  The Counterpoints of Borden’s Continuing Story are composed in modules, units repeated from two to as many as eight or even sixteen times each.  Repetition is a fundamental principle of construction in these pieces. Borden also draws frequently on arpeggiated lines familiar to us from the music of Philip Glass, and these recur in shifting patterns. Generally all of the three keyboard parts of Mother Mallard trio are moving, at least on the surface level, at the same brisk pace: several notes per second, with one or two of the players occasionally adopting a more spectatorly pace, allowing the music to sweep them along.

Though the compositions are notated with utter elegance and specificity, there is no governing time signature. Each of the three keyboard parts pursues its own metrical path through the modules, a typical piece having between thirty or forty of these in total. In each module a single harmonic aura tends to prevail: never has pure diatonicism been so alive. Encompassing consonance is the rule.

The notes race along with metronomic precision, but the lockstep surface does not draw the attention, or only does so intermittently. Instead the three keyboard parts seem to move in and  out of phase according to the perceptions of the listener.  One hears different things in the music with each performance: different rhythmic and melodic profiles emerge momentarily then merge with others or are suddenly eclipsed; a line sheers off into the distant background, only to reassert itself in a new guise moments later or after a lengthier interval. The more things stay the same, the more things change.

In some cases individual keyboards part may be carried over to a different Counterpoint entirely. Yet their contexts change. We might recognize the lineaments of the transferred part, but be astonished by the recasting, perhaps against type. The frenetically alternating open fifths that open Counterpoint 5 in the Player One part ultimately usher in the jubilant funkiness of Module 23, one of my all-time favorite musical passages, that makes me smile just thinking about it.  In Counterpoint 7, Player One plays the identical part, but the new surroundings give it a slightly darker cast, a meditative quality that defies its high speed.

A string of modules may take up residence in a given key area, and then suddenly move house between heartbeats over the bar-line to the next module.  If this is vivifying for the listener, it can be both bracing and utterly terrifying for the player. Indeed, if one player gets seduced by the rushing beauty, quirky eccentricities, or momentary glint of another part, and notices for the first time a suddenly different scansion, the trace of new and fascinating musical shape, the whisper of ghostly voice, or a the witty chiding of a musical memory coming from the music, one risks loosing the slip stream of the music.  Finding your way back into its rush is one of the most difficult tasks in the history of chamber music.

This integrity of the individual parts and the permutations of perceptual combination that each module fosters, allows Borden to experiment with peeling off one keyboard, leaving new shapes to emerge from the two that remain.  I joined Blaise Bryski, one of the widest ranging and expressive keyboard players there is, a master of the bravura and even more of cantabile style from Mozart to yesterday, for  a two-piano rendition of Counterpoint 8, written in 1979. With the two concert grands nested into one another I heard many new things in this classic and always-compelling work, though I didn’t relax for a slit-second.  There is nothing harder than making the synchronic precision of this music release its larger diachronic message.  Even resisting the mesmeric beckonings of some of the modules one can begin to doubt one’s memory: “Is this the seventh or eighth time I’ve played this module.” In such moments one must revert to a deeper level of memory, and draw on the larger cycles that you have been unconsciously perceiving, even while attending frantically to each individual beat. In the event, Blaise and I did land on that last glinting sixteenth note—one of thousands in the piece—precisely together, and then suddenly gone like a drop of water on a duck’s back.

For Borden, then, counterpoint is the way the sonorities and rhythms of each part cooperate but retain their identity, contributing to the larger musical goals yet retaining their integrity. The paradox exploited by Borden’s genius for energizing a piece that in other hands might succumb to its own inertia is this: each Counterpoint is instantly recognizable yet always yields a different piece, a unique hearing.

In this sense the comparison to Bach and his counterpoint is an apt one, for in that music, too, both player and listener can always hear something new, the elegant course of a contrapuntal voice, the suddenly bold gesture of a countersubject somehow never noticed before. Counterpoint in Borden and Bach—and I hope neither blushes at the comparison—is a way of reveling in the nowness of life while recognizing the ever-changing beauty of the way it passes by.

Forty years on Mother Mallard is as new as the day she first ruffled her wings.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com