The Three Bs: Borden, Burney, and Baseball

New York State Route 13 runs south out of Ithaca and is still known by some old-timers as the Elmira Road since, after thirty miles, it arrives at the city of that name. In the later nineteenth century, Mark Twain summered in Elmira, where he wrote Huckleberry Finn.  Twain’s grave there is a destination for another day.

On this rainy Sunday afternoon, the last in April, I’m motoring a few miles down Route 13 to visit the composer and keyboardist David Borden in whose pathbreaking synthesizer trio, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, I played over the final two decades of the group’s existence, until its valedictory series of concerts in 2019.

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David Borden (right) directing placement of his Minimoog synthesizer at the Mother Mallard 50th-anniversary concerts, Cornell University, November, 2019. Photo: David Yearsley.

That year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of Borden’s founding of the ensemble. Back in the 1960s he was the first tester of Robert Moog’s epoch-making synthesizers, which he developed just north of Ithaca in a town called Trumansburg. Borden’s association with the visionary inventor was, he would inform me later that afternoon, the most important in his musical life. “I broke many synths,” Borden told me. “And that’s exactly what Bob wanted.”

Like Twain, Borden is an American wit and wonder, a storyteller in music and words. In addition to putting his musical catalog in order over the last several years, he has been writing a quirkily engrossing musical memoir in short installments that he calls Sound Bites. Borden embraces chance encounters in sound and cosmic connections across time and space, but these aleatoric and ethereal impulses flourish even while, or perhaps because, he exerts rigorous composerly control over his work, much of it demanding virtuosic technique and intense concentration from performers.

There were many moments during my years in the band, including in the very last piece we played together in those 2019 concerts, when I drifted from the exacting coordinates of Borden’s musical itineraries, yet somehow swam myself back into the flow, or perhaps was pulled to safety but its currents. To survive in his soundspace you must believe in yourself and in the music. The fright of failure was always followed by the euphoria of somehow hanging on, of being carried through by the dazzling momentum of the music—whether the concert was for an audience of a few dozen in the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell University in Ithaca, or for thousands in the giant repurposed powerplant called Kraftwerk at Berlin Atonal—a massive techno conclave we played in 2015, our performance hailed by the Guardian reviewer as “one of the festival’s biggest pleasure surges.”

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Mother Mallard oustide at the Johnson Art Museum, Cornell University, summer, 1975. David Borden far right.

Fastidious in notating his scores and curating his performances, Borden nonetheless knows that his music evades specific meaning. The continuing story of his Continuing Story of Counterpoint, his most ambitious and best-known work begun in American’s bicentennial year and finished eleven years later in 1987, suggests that the legacy of this eighty-five-year-old genius’s masterpiece will keep evolving and enthralling.

Paradoxically perhaps, the fantasy of his music takes flight through that rigor that is evident in the meticulously beautiful autograph scores. Along with many of his priceless Moog synthesizers and other personal papers, these compositional materials are now archived in the rare books library at Cornell University, where Borden taught for thirty-seven years and founded the Electroacoustic Music Program.

It is this piece—the ninth of the twelve numbers that make up the Continuing Story—that I’ve got on my car speakers as I drive out to Borden’s house. Part Nine is itself a maximalist Minimalist epic set in the larger epic that is the collection from which it is taken. At fifteen minutes duration, Part Nine lasts just long enough to get me from my place near downtown Ithaca to Borden’s house outside of town. There is no better road music than this—and that statement counts neither as faint nor minimal praise.

As the interlocking, phase-shifting modules of Part Nine unspool, Route 13 leads me by giant box stores, fast food places, and gas stations before the remnants of the rural countryside begin at last to emerge along the roadside: a picnic area at the foot of one of the most magnificent of the region’s many waterfalls; a cemetery with its tilting monuments; an empty farmstand waits patiently for summer; a recently tilled field stretches towards the greening hills.

Two miles beyond the city limits comes another of the area’s abundant parks set at the foot of yet another ravine—the Enfield Gorge evoked in Borden’s Enfield in Winter of 1978.

It is on the wooded shoulder along the lower reaches of this canyon that Borden lives in a modest clapboard house. He bought the place in the 1990s, the down payment made possible thanks to a big payout from BMI after his Continuing Story got hours of airtime from a radio station out in California. These proceeds reflect a very different scale of reward than the micro-cents that might drip into musicians’ accounts from Spotify these days.

I’ve owed Borden a visit for a couple of months, but the immediate reason for calling on him this Sunday afternoon is that I’m leading a Cornell seminar on musical travel writing. Our group has recently enjoyed Charles Burney’s Present State of Music in France and Italy, published in London in 1771. These travel diaries include encounters with and profiles of many continental celebrities of the age.

None was bigger than the opera star Farinelli, whom Burney visited at his villa outside of Bologna. Farinelli’s singing master in Naples was the famous opera composer Nicola Porpora, whom Burney never met but rated as a “one of the great luminaries of vocal composition.” In the 1750s while living in Vienna, Porpora employed the young and struggling Joseph Haydn as a valet and accompanist.

After a psychic reading in the 1981, Borden learned that he was the reincarnation of Porpora. Fifteen years ago, Borden visited the Viennese street where Haydn lived with Porpora. Borden could see in the window of their apartment and sense the musical history in the place and feel a resonance in himself.

As described in Burney’s Present State the visit with Farinelli in Italy is a touching encounter, the aged singer nostalgic and isolated. Farinelli no longer sang, but played for Burney, “for a considerable time on … with great judgment and delicacy on his Raphael”—a pianoforte among his many lavishly decorated harpsichords named after celebrated Italian painters (Titian, Correggio, Guido).

Borden welcomed me in the house’s basement where so many of our Mother Mallard rehearsals had taken place. The basement is filled with books on music—and many other subjects—as well as his computer station, a printer for his large-format scores, and a keyboard draped with hats and bits of electronic paraphernalia. I asked him if he would play his Oxygen 88 keyboard for me, as Farinelli had played his Raphael for Burney, but he demurred. I wondered if he still composed. He said that didn’t, that his muse had left him, just as Haydn’s muse had left him in his last years.

I asked Borden if he had inter-life memories through Porpora of Farinelli. Borden said the phenomenon wasn’t that specific. It was more Porpora’s compositional discipline and personal crustiness that he could sometimes sense in himself. In spite of being bullied and even beaten by Porpora, Haydn acknowledged that he learned “the true fundamentals of composition” from the Italian. These lessons included, crucially, tuition in counterpoint. Borden’s Continuing Story represents another, though not unrelated, kind of counterpoint whose conception had benefited, if indirectly, from these past life lessons.

During his long and varied career, Borden composed and performed some of the music heard in William Friedkin’s 1973 movie, The Exorcist. Before the film director’s death last year, Borden sent Friedkin his Variations on a Theme by Philip Glass—Glass a friend and Minimalist colleague of Borden’s. These Variations end after three-quarters of an hour with a coda of a sampled sound that might sound like a man urinating, but is instead an aural pun on “Phil ([i.e., Fill] Glass.” Friedkin wrote back warmly to Borden with thoughts of further collaboration. I asked Bordon if Friedkin might already have been reincarnated and whether these collaborations might occur across subsequent lifetimes. Borden smiled and took a sip of red wine. “Possibly,” he said after reflecting for a few seconds.

I asked Borden where he had honed his calligraphic talents, skills also cultivated by Porpora. Borden allowed that the inclination might have been partially transferred across time and space, but that he had been inspired more directly by his friend, John Cage, who also wrote out beautiful scores with the same type of pen.

An associate of some of the most important 20th-century modernist dancers and visual artists, including Ruth St. Denis and Jasper Johns, Borden then reminded himself that he had done much artwork as a boy growing up in Boston as part of a singular project that extended over several years and that this training had prepared him for his calligraphic work.

In the early 1950s, he sent carefully created baseball cards of his own design (these made use of photos cut out from commercial cards) along with notes asking players (among them Bobby Thompson, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson) to sign the artworks and send them back to him in the self-addressed envelopes that he supplied. Borden’s collection grew to number 150 items and is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, two hours to the east of Ithaca.

As our visit tipped towards its conclusion, Borden turned away from his musical keyboard to his computer keyboard and pulled up images of his collection.

Here’s his card for Bobby Thompson from 1952, the year after his famous walk-off homerun—“The Shot Heard Round the World”—beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a one-game playoff that sent the New York Giants to the World Series.

Thompson hit that homerun off of Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, also in Borden’s collection:

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Jackie Robinson’s script appears on his card twice, since he rightly understands that he should also sign the image of the ball just as he would have a real one presented to him for his signature at the ballpark:

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The Elmira Daily Advertiser of July 2nd, 1887 announced that Mark Twain would umpire a baseball game in town. The next day, however, the Washington Post reported that in the event, Twain had balked, as it were, refusing “to make a martyr of himself, notwithstanding the fact that he would be glad to perish in a good cause.”

Had Borden ever thought about doing some baseball-themed music? He shook his head. Should he be in one Music Hall of Fame or another, perhaps alongside Porpora? He grinned. And was there something of Borden’s features in the portrait of Porpora by an anonymous painter now in the International Museum and Library of Music in Bologna hanging not far from the faces of Burney and Farinelli?

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I thought there might be.

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