When a performer walks on stage, no one in the audience, least of all a music critic, really cares, or even wants to know, what may have happened to that performer in the days and hours before the applause begins and the performance starts. The player could have been kept up all night by a screaming baby or could have won the lottery?or both. None of that matters. The musician has still got to play the right notes at the right time, throwing in the requisite amount of feeling in exactly the right spots.
The recent surgical strike on Brooklyn made by Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, the synthesizer group founded some four decades years ago outside of Ithaca, New York where Robert Moog first developed his legendary keyboards, is a case in point. From almost every conceivable point it is foolhardy to undertake the following twenty-four hour itinerary: load the band’s considerable musical hardware into the bed of an F-150 pickup before the long drive down to the city the next morning; then schlep said hardware up to a third floor performance space called the Issue Project Room in the old American Can Company building in the Redhook district and somehow get all the keyboards and computers and wires and mixing boards and speakers to do what they are supposed to do and then play the set beginning after nine at night, then schmooze with the slackers who packed the place, and then re-schlep the stuff back down to the truck, before piloting the F-150 back upstate to return home as the birds begin singing the following morning.
Yet that was precisely the scheme of the group’s founder and leader, David Borden, who should be held to be one of most gifted and creative of the so-called Minimalist composers of 1960s. Borden counts the more famous Steve Reich and Philip Glass as friends, and unkind and ill-informed critics have sometimes claimed that the Mother Mallard founder’s music is derivative of his more celebrated colleagues. While superficially sharing Minimalism’s penchant for repetition and its distrust of conventional harmonic progress, Borden’s best music is richly textured, painstakingly wrought, exuberantly virtuosic, accessible to untrained ears, and full of fantasy. His most demanding and rewarding work is the monumental Continuing Story of Counterpoint, whose twelve parts were composed between 1976 and 1987 and whose industrious individual keyboard parts entwine with one another in complex layers that allow, indeed encourage, the listener’s ear to move throughout the texture, exploring melodies, rhythms, and harmonies that emerge sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly as the Mother Mallard musicians themselves concentrate intensely on the daunting task of playing the right notes at the right time.
Borden’s music can be whimsical yet controlled, willful yet gracious, often funny even when pursuing its purpose with utmost seriousness. That might even be a pretty good description of the composer himself.
There may be many paths that the ear can take through Borden’s music but only one way for him to get to New York: Route 17, across Harriman State Park, and onto the Palisades Parkway, with a required stop at the Sunoco Station right before the George Washington Bridge and then down the Westside Highway, and, for this most recent concert, into the Battery Tunnel and to Brooklyn. Suggest the Tappan Zee Bridge and quakes and he blanches as if you’ve condemned him to the firing squad. And that the quicker way to the GWB is by way of Pennsylvania and by way of the appalling government pork of Joe Biden’s Scranton, before passing through Stroudsburg, Delaware Water Gap, and the endless New Jersey burbs, is of no interest to Borden. He prefers the more picturesque route along the Willowemoc and Beaverkill Creeks and the West Branch of the Delaware River through the Catskill Mountains, even if the view is far less important to him than the familiarity. The king duck is a creature of habit.
Route 17 now also feeds greedily on federal pork, hoping to fatten itself up to become an Interstate, as signs advertising “Future 86” promise: a bow in the river is a chance to clear cut a totally unnecessary four-lane swath through an untouched peninsula of Catskill forest and to build two bridges to boot. Borden regales me with stories of the Minimalists, of Harvard grad school and of playing piano in strip clubs in Boston’s combat zone, but he indulges me my polemics against the American Autobahns as I guide the pick-up through the curves of the present day Route 17. Blaise Bryski, a brilliant fortepianist with command of huge swaths of repertoire classical and beyond, is the third member of the core Mother Mallard trio, emits occasional blasts of skepticism from the backseat.
The traffic backs up on the Westside highway and we get momentarily lost in Brooklyn. Borden was raised in Boston and his music has an urban edge, but he’s spent most of his life in the countryside of upstate New York, and the city seems to make him nervous. He is quick to panic?not the best trait in a bandleader.
Eventually the brick can factory comes into view and the long set-up commences. The Mallard trio is to be joined for this concert by Borden’s step-son, Sam Godin, making his way from Manhattan by taxi with a Minimoog synthesizer from the 1970s in tow. Borden and Godin will play the former’s Easter from 1970, a structured, twenty-minute improvisation of funky sequences and bluesy flights that astonishes and enthralls the Brooklyn slackers and the other members of the band.
The concert includes newer compositions that pay tribute to pioneers of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Borden having working with St. Denis in her later years. And then there are three of the movements from the Continuing story of Counterpoint. Number 7 is unrelenting in its coruscating complexity, and there are more misadventures in this than in our route-finding across the tip of Manhattan and into Brooklyn. So exacting is the synchronization of this music that the slightest misstep can lead to chaos that must be clawed out of with patience and nerve. By the final third of the piece we have worked our way back into alignment and we make it to the end exactly together?a moral and musical victory.
The only slightly more relaxed Counterpoint 8 finds its locomotive groove, and after the above-mentioned Easter, we’ve come to the last piece on the program, the pedal-to-the-metal Counterpoint 5, with its seething pace and patterns and outbursts of up-tempo funk. For this number we’re joined by Borden’s son, Gabe, now in his early forties. A Cornell physics major who also did a year at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, Gabe has just the day before stepped off a plane from Zagreb with two of his four kids, the eldest of whom is a promising twelve-year-old soccer prospect who’d just spent the year in Croatia in the youth program of the Dinamo Football Club. Aside from keeping his kids in line and practicing the cruelly difficult guitar, Gabe had also used his trip to wing a place at the University of Zagreb’s medical school and is plotting a possible move of the entire family to Croatia or nearby Slovenia.
He must be jet-lagged and otherwise parentally exhausted. On top of that he has to sit through the lengthy improvised explorations of guitarist David First and drummer Kid Millions and then the Mother Mallard set, before stepping up cold and bolting right into the sprinting fingerwork of Counterpoint 5.
What ensues is one of the greatest performances I have ever heard or been a part of. After all these years of doing Counterpoint 5, I know the part pretty well, though not as thoroughly as Gabe, who plays by heart the thirty-some modules with their utterly irregular number of individual repetitions?an astounding feat of memory. Writing in the New York Times of July 1 , Allan Kozinn praised Gabe’s playing for its “energy and fluidity.” But there was much more to it than startling dexterity and expressive power. Riveting was the majesty with which he sometimes pushes the pulse forward and other times glides slightly behind the beat in passages of more expansive melody. As he ripped through this epic performance of his part, accompanied by the vibrating colors of the three keyboardists, there were no excuses for jet lag or time to worry about Borden grandkids sacked out on the Project Room floor nearby, or contemplate a Balkan future. It was just thrilling and unforgettable succession of non-stop musical moments.
And after that the long drive, with Gabe at the helm, back to Ithaca.
David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org