David Borden: Continuous Counterpoint
A conversation at the The Cornell Club: June 30, 2011—4:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
In the lists of pioneers of live electronic music, important American minimalists, progressive rockers, genre-bending musicians, and composers born in the year 1938, one name that often gets omitted is David Borden. But Borden shrugs his shoulders and chalks it up to his being a perennial outsider:
I know that no one’s clearly one thing or another […] I enjoy doing my own things and going my own way, and if nobody notices that much, I’m lucky in that for some reason I always get great players who like my music. And we can go and do a few concerts once in a while. And that’s fine with me these days.
David Borden’s neglect is somewhat surprising, though, considering his formidable category-defying musical accomplishments which are a direct precedent to today’s largely DIY contemporary music landscape. Borden’s path is so related to the current scene that when The New York Times ran an article about the indie-classical movement in December 2011, the photo they chose to illustrate it with was not of any of the many 30-something composers cited therein, but rather an image of the septuagenarian Borden during a concert appearance at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room back in June.
The day after Borden came down to New York City from Ithaca for that filled-way-beyond-capacity summer concert, we took the opportunity to finally sit down with him for an hour to talk about his composing and performing activities over the past half century. The story of how he wound up being one of the first people to use a Moog synthesizer in live performance—and how he broke a lot of the equipment in Robert Moog’s studio along the way—is a fascinating journey back to a time it is difficult to fathom now that almost all music-making involves electronics in some way. And the story of how Mother Mallard evolved from a new music group into a composer’s collective, then almost became a rock band before finally morphing into Borden’s own ensemble, is an abject lesson in how artistic sensibilities evolve and transform over time.
Yet Borden is hardly engaged in a nostalgia trip when he continues to play some of his early music decades later. Rather than trying to get older keyboards to function, he is content to adapt the music to work on newer equipment, even if the result sounds considerably different.
I am more interested in the actual notes than the actual timbre. I don’t say that I don’t care what the timbre is, but I mean, not to the extent where I have to have the actual original instruments. That would be fine if someone did it, but it’s not one of the primary concerns to me.
Some other people are starting to tackle this music. He was even invited to Tanglewood a couple of years ago when they devoted the annual festival of contemporary music there to music by composers born in the year 1938, although the only music of Borden’s that was played were his “Happy Birthday” arrangements for some of the other 1938 composers—John Harbison, Paul Chihara, and Alvin Curran. But there’s now a group in California called Brother Mallard that has been gradually tackling the twelve parts of Borden’s magnum opus, The Continuing Story of Counterpoint, a series of inter-related compositions lasting over three hours. Borden’s love of skewed counterpoint and unexpected harmonic progressions in that signature work, which he began composing 35 years ago, make it sound vibrant and fresh to this day, whatever instruments are ultimately used for its performance. While originally composed for just a handful of deft players, it could even be effective if arranged for a much larger ensemble, perhaps even a full orchestra. David Borden is certainly open to the idea. Hopefully an orchestra might step up to the plate at some point.
Frank J. Oteri: Nowadays, electronic music is everywhere. But when you started doing it, electronic music was music that existed almost exclusively in the studio. Since you were a pioneer of electronic music in live performance, I’m interested in your thoughts about studio versus live electronic music, then and now. I’m also curious about what drew you to the idea of performing electronic music live, given that it was a studio medium up to that point.
David Borden: I used to play jazz a lot. A live jazz performance, as you know, is much more exciting than just listening to recordings. So I’ve always been a proponent of live performance. After I got to know [Robert] Moog, I asked him if we could do this live, but he told me that synthesizers weren’t designed to exist in changing environments. I asked him originally because I’d gotten to know David Tudor and Gordon Mumma and David Behrman and, a little bit, John Cage. They were doing electronic stuff live with Merce Cunningham. I thought that was exciting, although I knew the stuff that we were going to be doing was quite different. Just a few years before that, everyone was criticizing Dylan for going electric. Amplified instruments being manipulated live by human beings was just not done very often, if at all. People would play tapes, which I thought was always a deadly thing. An audience sitting back and listening to a tape recording is kind of stupid, actually; I still think so. So anyway, Moog said, “Yes, you can try it, but I’ll tell you, you’ll be up against a lot of stuff. I mean, don’t let the sun on it. Don’t let the temperature vary that much. But yeah, I can let you use some of these things.” So we started trying it, and the first piece we did was Easter. It was only for two synthesizers plus a prepared tape at the time. We expanded on that and eventually I trained other people to play the synthesizers, and Bob was very generous. We had as much time during the day and night as we wanted to. After the Carlos recording [Switched-On Bach] came out, everyone thought you could go to a concert and hear an orchestral kind of synthesizer live. But that wasn’t true.
After that came out, Chris Swanson decided to come to Trumansburg, New York, and visit Bob. He convinced Bob to let him be the composer-in-residence. I had no aspirations to be a composer-in-residence. I was making money in other ways. I think Bob paid him a little salary. Chris wanted to make the synthesizer into a Tonight Show band kind of thing with jazz soloists, because he was a big band composer. I just wanted it to sound like it sounded, find the different kinds of sound you could on the synthesizer. But it was tonal. Anyway, it was a different thing. But the thing about Chris was he wanted to do it live, too. So then Bob really got into trying to make synthesizers into more of a live performance thing. He even developed a little memory chip—that was for Chris, so that he didn’t have to worry about re-patching all the time. And it slowly evolved.
The Minimoog was the perfect on-stage instrument because it was not heavy and you didn’t have to put a lot of patch cords into it. It didn’t start out with that idea. It started out with the head engineer, Bill Hemsath, putting together old oscillators into one box to show clients what the synthesizer sounded like without scaring them to death by having to plug in dozens of patch cords. So he said, “Here, I’ll show you what it sounds like.” Bob actually didn’t like the idea. He didn’t see how cool that would be for someone, because it cut off a lot of possibilities. It’s pre-wired in many ways, and Bob wanted an open system for people to do crazy things if they wanted to. Eventually he was convinced. The engineers had to convince him, and then people loved the idea.
He got one huge order a few months before he had to almost declare bankruptcy. They were so borrowed out that they could not order the parts to make the Minimoogs for this huge order they got. It was just bad timing, and it was tragic. Bob left to go to Buffalo, and worked with this other guy. He could have gone bankrupt and forgotten the whole thing, but he decided that he would rather sell the business to this guy and keep the name going. Anyone who had bought his products in the years before could still get them repaired and tweaked. That’s why he did it. So he sold himself into slavery, more or less, for five years.
FJO: I want to go back to what you said about hearing a tape recorder concert and how that really didn’t do it for you. That wasn’t the kind of music that you were into. You were doing jazz stuff, so what got you interested in wanting to use electronic instruments in the first place?
DB: I had listened to a lot of Stockhausen on recordings. I found them very interesting, and actually, during my conservatory years, I was a Stravinsky nut. I love Stravinsky. He had nothing to do with any of this stuff. But when I got a Fulbright and went to Berlin, my teacher took me down to the basement of the Hochschule für Musik and he said, “I’m working on an opera and there’s a lot of electronic stuff. Would you like to see it?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” So he showed me around, and he said, “This is a synthesizer I made.” They were all specially made things by this engineer, and I found that very interesting. Then I saw a live performance by Stockhausen with all of these strange instruments, and that I found interesting. And that was about it really.
Then when I had this grant as a composer in public schools after my Fulbright, someone where I was in Ithaca, New York, told me that there was this guy in Trumansburg [named Bog Moog] who had an electronic studio that he made himself and that he had a whole business doing this. So that’s when Bob showed me the studio. I walked in and—as I’ve said to many people—it looked like the inside of a cockpit of a 727, which was the Boeing airplane of the day. You look into those and you figure how the hell do these people figure out where they’re going and what they’re doing. So, he calmly told me how it works and what to do. But he was using engineering terms. I had barely any science or engineering background; all of my education had been mostly in music. But rather than embarrass myself, I told him, “Oh yes, I understand.” Then when I started messing around in the studio, after I actually got sound out of it, I found it fascinating. Tudor and Mumma would bring in wired-up contraptions that only they knew how to work; I thought this would be a more standardized way of doing things. It appealed to me, because I had trouble hooking up my stereo at the time. It took me such a long time; it took me six months to actually learn the synthesizer and really be good at it. Bob said that I took longer than anyone else. And in the process, I ruined a lot of the modules and I’d be very embarrassed. When I ruined my first module, engineers came down and looked at it; they were like, “Oh, God.” They were talking all this engineering talk, and said they should call Bob down to look at this. They did, and Bob actually came down and looked at it just for about three seconds, and he said, “Holy shit!” And I thought, “Uh-oh. I’m out of here.” I kept apologizing. He’s not a shoulder-grabbing person, but he grabbed me around the shoulder and said, “Oh, that’s fine, Dave. Don’t worry about it. In fact I’ll take you up to my office and my secretary will give you a key and you can just come in here anytime. And in fact at night, no one’s here. You can use it all night. But just leave it set up, and don’t worry about a thing.”
He was using me to idiot proof the equipment! I reviewed the booklet he gave me in the first meeting; then I broke it down to its simple components. It looks complicated, but there were only three or four things you had to learn. But they took many different shapes and sizes in that module. So in that piece Easter, for instance, that’s a very sophisticated kind of sequencer setup. I mean, it’s very strange and idiosyncratic, but I knew what I was actually doing for most of it.
FJO: So basically you got into electronic music by working in a studio as a tester of equipment rather than through any kind of apprenticeship in any of the big electronic music studios. You were coming at it from a completely different place.
DB: Exactly. Yes.
FJO: But you’d heard that music. And so, to spiral back to something we didn’t completely resolve, I’m still curious about what was possible live versus what was possible in the studio. You mentioned hearing Stockhausen’s music. Pieces like Gesang der Jünglinge, Hymnen, or Telemusik could probably never be done live.
DB: Yeah. For the live things I actually ended up making simplified sounds that didn’t take as many patch cords. For our first Mother Mallard concerts, it was not so. Especially Steve Drews would make some beautiful sounds and—he could still do it—change the patch cords pretty quickly. But for the first few concerts we gave, we had rehearsals where we did not play any music. What we did was we’d patch and we’d get it so, if it took us ten minutes to patch this piece, then we got it down to like four minutes. And as long as we knew what the basic pitch was, that the main fine-tuning was going to be C or whatever, then the test would be after four minutes. You’d just hit the note and if it was the right sound, we did it! But still, it was so many minutes between pieces, we used to show cartoons between them. We used to get these really classic Disney things from the ‘30s. One was about mirrors in a crazy house, one was a great one about Pluto, and the audience loved them. One had Rudy Vallee in it, which was ridiculously stupid, but it was very funny. It was campy.
FJO: There wasn’t Donald Duck?
DB: I don’t know if we got any Donald Duck.
FJO: The reason I ask is because I’m curious about the whole evolution of the name Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company and all of the duck references everywhere in your music. What’s that about?
DB: Well, when we started this group, we didn’t want it to have an academic-sounding name. We wanted it to be more in the ballpark of what rock groups were calling themselves, rather than, like, The New Music Synthesizer Ensemble or something like that. I didn’t want to call it my name like the Philip Glass Ensemble because it was not exactly mine. All three members invested the same money to buy the equipment; we were equal partners. I was in the grocery store, and I saw Mrs. Smith’s Pies, and there was this picture of this friendly old lady on the thing. So I said, “I’ll name it after my grandmother.” My grandmother’s maiden name is Mallard—Mother Mallard, that was what people used to call her. So then we added the Portable Masterpiece Company. It was in tongue in cheek so that people would know we were actually serious, but we weren’t going to be terribly formal about it. That’s how the name evolved.
FJO: So what about all the duck stuff? I remember the first time we ever met. There was a piece of yours done at Merkin Concert Hall. I was an undergrad at Columbia, and I wanted to play some of your music on the university radio station, WKCR, where I had a program. So I said, “Please send me something.” And you sent me this cassette with a little duck sticker on it, which seemed odd, but since mallards are ducks I originally assumed there was a connection between ducks and the band’s name.
DB: This is weird. We lived on the lake, and the house that we rented came with a little private dock, which was great. It sounds very fancy, but it was cheap. The day after we decided the name, I went out on my private dock, and someone had left a duck decoy there. I thought it was one of those synchronicity kinds of things; yes, the universe was telling me that was the right name. I usually bring it [to concerts]; I didn’t bring it this time. There were so many things to bring, I just forgot. But we usually have it sitting there, the same decoy. I’ve kept it all these years. Then people in the audience would come and bring ducks and give them to us. Little tiny duck items you know. Little schlocky duck things, and I have several of them at home. People would actually mail me things with ducks on them. At first I used to say, “No, no, it’s just named after my grandmother.” But then I said, “O.K., great, thank you.”
FJO: You said something else when you just told this story that I want to explore more. This whole question of naming yourself the way rock bands name themselves. It’s interesting because Mother Mallard went through an evolution. It started as a new music ensemble that played all different music. You played Robert Ashley; you played Philip Glass. In fact, you were the first group besides his own group to play Glass’s early minimalist pieces.
FJO: Then since you were all composers, you evolved into something of a composers’ collective, playing each other’s stuff. But in terms of the direction that your various musical muses took you, you weren’t that far away from what was going on in prog rock at the time. And eventually it evolved into your ensemble.
FJO: So how did those identities coalesce?
DB: When we first started, Steve Drews was a grad student at Cornell in music composition and I was the composer-pianist for dance. We both lamented the fact that at Cornell, there didn’t seem to be any cutting edge music being played. It was all academic stuff. So we learned the synthesizers. We hadn’t started doing them live yet. I had just done a few pieces on my own that I would play on tapes for the dance concerts that I would be responsible for. I had known Gordon Mumma and had met Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Alvin Lucier. They had that group called the Sonic Arts Union. We decided to do music by people like that. And I’d known Dan Lentz; I’d met him at Tanglewood in 1966.
Our first concert had music by Dan Lentz and also Allen Bryant from the Musica Elettronica Viva. We did his piece Pitch Out. One of our friends made the instruments you needed for that. The second half of the concert was called music for artists. We did John Cage’s Music for Marcel Duchamp, we did Morton Feldman’s Franz Kline [piece], de Kooning, and another one—I forget. And it was a big success. Dan Lentz had a piece about the birth of the baby grand and slides of grand pianos up and going boom, boom, boom, boom—it was a silly piece, but it was fun.
People loved that, so we decided to do another one, and I finally wrote a piece. I forget what it was. I think it was called Technique, Good Taste, and Hard Work because one of my teachers at Harvard, Billy Jim Layton, had just recently written a really critical review of a John Cage piece saying what John Cage really needed to do was sit down and get some technique, good taste, and do some hard work. I thought, “Oh, that’s so stupid.” So I named my piece that. And we did Terry Riley’s In C, we did a piece of Jon Hassell, and we did Music in Fifths by Philip Glass. We also did Piano Phase. Well, we did it on synthesizers. I talked to Steve [Reich] about it, and he said, “Fine. Just call it Synthesizer Phase.” And I did.
Then we said, “O.K., this can work live. We can do that.” And so I did Easter, and then Steve Drews started doing his early pieces. Linda Fisher did a couple of pieces, but she was so self-critical, she didn’t continue doing them and then later she got more confidence and she moved.
Although we had started the band in ’69, we gave our first all-original synthesizer music [concert] in 1970. Then Linda wanted to leave. She got to know David Tudor and Rzewski and those people pretty well and she decided she wanted to move to New York [City] and work with them. So that’s when Judy Borsher joined the band unexpectedly. She had been a fan. I had no idea she had any keyboard technique or anything. We auditioned her, and she showed up and played one of the most difficult of our pieces note-perfect. We said great, Steve and I welcomed her, and she had a good time. We were together for about a year, and then Steve decided he wanted to move on and do something else. Steve was always almost finishing something and moving onto another thing. He now earns his living as a photographer in St. Louis. He’s very successful. We’re great friends still.
Steve and I had bought out Linda’s share when she left, then I bought out Steve’s share. It was very expensive, so I actually went back into playing jazz in nightclubs around Ithaca—solo. I really practiced, and I re-immersed myself a little bit more in the jazz world and made friends with Dave McKenna. He just died a couple of years ago, but he was really one of the great solo jazz saloon players. And I studied my Thelonious Monk. I had studied with Jaki Byard, but I don’t have that kind of great harmonic jazz ear. I really have to practice it. If you listen to Keith Jarrett play any of those standards, he’s a master. I’m nowhere like that, but I’m not bad. So I worked in the nightclubs for a couple of years and made enough money and bought out Steve. So I had all these synthesizers and that’s when Chip Smith joined the band. He could read, and he did really well. He was great.
FJO: So the rock question. You know, around the time that all of this was happening with Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were happening in Germany and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band was happening in England. Obviously more mainstream groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer were doing a lot of live synthesizer stuff, too, but more in a song-oriented context. But those other groups were doing long repetitive instrumental synthesizer music, with unusual electronic timbres that each of them composed. And all those German guys had studied composition, too. Some prominent German rock musicians had even studied with Stockhausen. And ultimately the music they were doing wasn’t all that different from what you were doing. So I wonder, were you aware of that stuff? Were they aware of you? Were the audiences crossing over? What was the relationship?
DB: What I remember is that we had a recording and no one would put it out. We made a recording in 1970. We didn’t get to release it until 1973 (we did it ourselves), but that original vinyl recording only had things that we did from 1970. In the meantime, Tangerine Dream made a recording a year or so before and I remember playing it for Steve Drews, because I said, “These guys have scooped us, and I don’t think they’re as interesting.” And they’re not all really synthesizers; there’s guitar. One piece was kind of naïve, what you could tell they thought was far out really wasn’t. But we got to know each other after that because when our recording came out, and then especially when I did a little music for The Exorcist, they started paying attention. I would get these phone calls from either Franke or Froese. I didn’t ever talk to Klaus Schulze, but the other two would call, and we would talk about the synthesizer and the business. They came to New York once. I didn’t hear them, but their audience was different. There was a real pop audience there. And they had real guitars and their stuff was a lot simpler than ours, but it was in the same ballpark. I’ve known their stuff off and on, and they’re very commercially successful. For some reason, none of us in the band were interested in being that commercially successful. Except for one period. Right before Bob left to go to Buffalo, we thought maybe if we did some rock and roll songs, and used all of our expertise, we could make some money to fund our real work, you know. So we did, but no one was interested in that either.
FJO: So all your original recordings were self-released on, of course, Earth Quack Records.
DB: Right. Exactly.
FJO: But eventually Cuneiform found you. I know they have a broad range. They record folks like Wadada Leo Smith and John Hollenbeck. But primarily what they release is adventurous progressive rock, so there is yet another connection between what you do and prog.
DB: I didn’t think about it too much, and I don’t pay that much attention to genres, you know. But Steve Feigenbaum lived in Ithaca for a while, and he knew some of our early concerts. So he asked me to send him any new stuff I was doing. I did, and he said, “Well, we’ve got to record this.” He wanted to record the entire Continuing Story of Counterpoint, which he did. And it’s good. I’d like to re-record some of them now because I can do them a lot better, but I’m always very grateful for that. Steve and his wife Joyce [are among] the few people in the record business who are pretty straightforward. They don’t want to take advantage of you or use your rights for your compositions; they won’t license it to anyone without your approval. It’s great working with them. Then, when the era started where people were getting back into analog after so much digital stuff, that’s when they re-released the early Earth Quack recordings, but we also put stuff on there that had never been released before.
FJO: I’ve heard all the Cuneiform recordings many times and have also heard an older recording of just a couple of the 12 parts of the piece, which was actually released on another label, Arbiter. I also heard all 12 parts live back in 1990 at Town Hall and then a couple of the parts last night at ISSUE Project Room. In every performance, this music sounds somewhat different; part of the reason is that you’re always using different instruments.
FJO: There’s really no Mother Mallard period instrument sensibility. If you’re playing a piece from 1976, you don’t feel compelled to play it on the keyboard you played it on back in 1976. You don’t think that way at all.
DB: No, I don’t.
FJO: But playing the music on a different instrument actually changes it.
DB: I am more interested in the actual notes than the actual timbre. I don’t say that I don’t care what the timbre is, but not to the extent where I have to have the actual original instruments. That would be fine if someone did it, but it’s not one of the primary concerns to me.
FJO: Well, it’s interesting because parts two and eleven of The Continuing Story of Counterpoint exist in versions for synthesizers as well as in versions for piano duo.
DB: They were written for two pianos. They were written for Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann. Part Two is dedicated to Nurit; Part Eleven is dedicated to Edmund.
FJO: When you performed the entire cycle live at Town Hall those parts were done that way, but on the Cuneiform recordings they’re done with synthesizers.
DB: I know. We didn’t have enough money to actually have a studio with two pianos, and have them do it. So that’s why it’s not that way.
FJO: Another thing about how The Continuing Story of Counterpoint has evolved over time is that it doesn’t seem to have been composed in order. Parts One and Three are both from 1976, but Part Two came later, etc.
DB: Yeah, well, the original Part Two, I thought, “Oh, this sucks. I’m throwing it out.” The same with Part Four. There was another Part Four, I said, “No, this isn’t good enough for this.” I was very serious about that series. I wanted it to be really good and I was just starting to get into habits. I was discovering a whole new process; the four-track tape recorder changed the way I composed. I had always loved the art of counterpoint. I took extra courses and I kept thinking I’d get an epiphany, but I never got the epiphany beyond what I would hear in Bach. I thought they’d tell me the secret of why this is happening, doing what it’s doing, but no one could. You have to figure that out on your own, and have your own sort of inner voice, or inner intelligence direct you to what you think is important. And sometimes you get to it; you get to the piece and you say this is just working so well, and you look at it, and you figure out what’s going on in a descriptive way. Music theory doesn’t exist, you know. I mean, it isn’t theory; it’s description. There is no music theory. I didn’t realize that until this brilliant physicist friend of mine, who’s also a musician, told me that he was really excited to learn about music theory until he discovered it was just description. And I thought, you know, he’s really right.
The basic point was writing lines that could stand on their own, and be combined, and when they were combined, they’d be more than the sum of their parts. Besides that, they would be interesting to listen to in almost a spiritual way, or a powerful way that you couldn’t predict by just figuring out what goes with what. So I started writing single lines. Actually I started playing two lines at the same time, right hand and left hand, and would write those down, and play them, and repeat them a number of times. I’d go onto the next thing, and the next thing, and I did this maybe for 20 or 30 modules. Then I would add another part. I knew if this module was 27 beats long, I could divide it into five fives and one two, or four fives and a seven; then I would take the other person’s part and divide it differently. That’s why, when we’re playing, everybody is in a different meter. I would actually record one person’s part almost, if not all the way through, and then the other person’s part all the way through, listening to the other part. Then I would turn off the original part to do the third person’s and just listen to the second person’s part. I would know the mode and would change scales. Then at a certain point, for some reason that has no planning or anything, I would think, “This needs to be different.” So I would go from C Dorian to E Mixolydian, with no break, no transition. I remember when I first started playing this, I got a review in The Village Voice from Gregory Sandow saying, “O.K., this is minimalism, but he doesn’t understand what minimalism is. Minimalism isn’t jumping from one thing to another. It’s gradually going.” And he would explain how Philip Glass adds a beat at a time and Steve Reich would add a different pitch a little bit carefully. But I just cut it off. And I was thinking, “I understand minimalism, and that that’s what it does, but I’m not doing that.” I never wrote back to him. I think he’s a really good writer and a very intelligent man, and I don’t mean to criticize him, but I’m doing something different than other people. I wasn’t thinking of trying to be different; I was just evolving my voice.
FJO: Minimalism is a term that both Glass and Reich rejected at the time, although they now say that maybe it applies to their very earliest music, but certainly not what they’ve done since. What are your feelings about that?
DB: Well, I sort of took a humorous tack on it. No one likes to be put into a box. But what I think is the best thing about calling this stuff minimalist, was it made Milton Babbitt go tell everyone he was a maximalist, which I thought was the stupidest, stupidest thing. Nothing against Milton Babbitt; he was a great guy. But just having someone take notice and take that tack on it is sort of an academic kind of—I can’t even think of the word. I’m not sure what academic music means, but certain times people like to have this clarity of what you are. I think that’s what he was looking for. Whereas, I know that no one’s clearly one thing or another, you know what I mean.
FJO: This ties back to something you were saying before about genres.
DB: They spill into each other all the time. But I think it’s there for marketing purposes and for also critical ones; it’s good to have a point of departure when you’re talking with someone. I know it really helps to have labels. You can’t do away with them.
FJO: Well, now we’re living in this era where if you go to Amazon and you just bought Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, Amazon will suggest that maybe you should buy The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.
FJO: So you’d like that?
DB: Well, there’s a certain logic to it.
FJO: And perhaps Amazon would suggest you should buy a Tangerine Dream recording, too.
DB: But I never think of that when I sit down to do a piece.
FJO: There’s a comment that you made that I think I read in a program note somewhere years ago. You mentioned that you had perfect pitch, but you could never understand or hear functional tonality.
DB: I have a hard time with it. The composer Stanley Silverman is an old friend of mine. We used to play together a lot. We were accompanying some singer, so he said, “Oh Dave, this is really simple, just a few chords.” And I said, “Alright. O.K., great.” And I could not. He went from I, IV to VI or something, and I could not hear that it was IV. You know, he said, “It’s IV.” I said, “Just tell me the name.” So that’s my jazz problem right there. I can’t suddenly transpose everything from E-flat to G like so many great players can do.
FJO: The Greg Sandow review you mentioned, where he says that what you were doing wasn’t quite minimalism, is interesting to me because one of the aspects that I love and really relate to about the pieces in The Continuing Story of Counterpoint is how anything can lead to anything else. That’s what makes that music so exciting for me; I don’t know where it’s going from one chord to the next.
DB: Harmony is always very daunting to me. I would kind of cheat on those exams they gave in harmony class at Eastman, where a person would play a chorale all the way through four times and you’d take dictation. You’re supposed to be able to figure it out because you hear the functions of the chords. I would just zone in on the bass line, zone in on the soprano line, then the tenor, and then the alto line, and just write those, because I could hear them. I also can zone in if you’re playing a four-note chord; I can zone in on any note I want to. That’s how I do it. I don’t do it by the function.
I’m not doing the “I’m a poor person made good” thing, but I come from a poor family. My father was musical, but he didn’t have much education. He was a janitor for a living, but he had an appreciation for music. He read the children’s versions of the biographies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to me when I was like four or five. He was looking for a really good teacher for me, and he finally found one. He went to the best music stores in Boston and asked the people at the sheet music counter which music teacher bought the best quality music for their students. Four out of five gave him this name, and it turned out, this guy taught at Phillips Exeter Academy, and took all of Boston’s Brahmin kids and taught them. He said he would consider taking me, and he gave me an ear test. He wanted to see if I could play scales, and I did. Then he told me to go to the other side of the room, and he’d play some chords, and he wanted to know what they were. And he meant major, minor, augmented. So he hit a chord and I said, D-minor, D-minor triad, you know. Then he said, what? I said D-minor triad. And he took one on the low register it was B-flat minor. I said B-flat minor, and then he would hit G-major, then he had a long conversation with my father, and that’s when I found out I had perfect pitch. I thought everybody could do that. That’s how I got to be a student of this really good piano teacher.
FJO: I’m curious about the vocal lines in the Continuing Story of Counterpoint pieces.
DB: They’re only there when I have a singer, but there are some that have singer parts.
FJO: On different recordings I’ve heard of those pieces, the lines are actually different. But something that I find so weird about the words is that they’re just names of theorists and counterpoint techniques.
DB: Oh, yes. Ellen Hargis had such a great voice. She still does. She’s a great singer. Part Ten, which we hardly ever do, calls for a jazz saxophone player and a soprano. The soprano just says the names of counterpoint theorists. I thought, we’ve got to give them a little credit; so say their names and give them little beautiful things. In Part Three, which is almost impossible to sing, they’re the names of contrapuntal composers. And then Part Four has contrapuntal devices, I think parallel fifths is one of them—things you should avoid.
FJO: You don’t really write much vocal music, or at least I haven’t really heard much of your vocal music. But what’s so funny about it is that so much vocal music is out there that doesn’t have good prosody in terms of how the music works with the text. You can’t really hear the words, or it doesn’t fall naturally. But I understand every word in your vocal music, even though it’s sort of this tongue-in-cheek stuff like names of people and techniques.
DB: Well, that’s a lot because of my jazz background. I always loved jazz singers, and I’ve loved beautiful standards. So I try to make them clear. I don’t try to make them avant-garde, strange, weird, or anything. I like to hear what Alec Wilder used to say was just the natural voice. I picked it up from jazz singers, that way of doing it, rather than the typical avant-garde thing of stretching all the intervals and guttural sounds, or anything like that.
FJO: Those lyrics about counterpoint, though, connect your music to much older classical music. Another thing that connects you is the music you’ve done that’s actually based on previously existing pieces, like that giant piece that you did for Kathleen Supové where you mirrored the exact structure of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
DB: One of my favorite pieces.
FJO: And you re-wrote one of the Mozart Violin Concertos.
DB: Well, not exactly. I didn’t touch the violin part.
FJO: Right, you kept that. But the music that gets played with the solo is entire new and yours; it’s somewhat disorienting.
DB: That’s from the influence of Buckminster Fuller. Synergy is a word that hardly anyone used back in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Then businesses hijacked the word to mean multi-tasking: the synergy of the thing where everyone’s working together. But Bucky Fuller’s definition of it is behavior of whole systems unpredicted by their parts taken separately. So I took the violin part separately, and now, it’s outside of the whole system that it was intended for. I just sort of moved it into a new apartment. That’s how I think of it. It’s now a new whole system.
FJO: I’m curious about how those pieces happened. Both of them were created outside of the context of Mother Mallard. There’s another one also, which I still haven’t heard—a piece for two fortepianos and chamber orchestra. I thought that it was a strange piece for you to write, considering that you’ve devoted your life to writing for instruments that were originally touted as being the instruments of the future—synthesizers. But here you’re going in the opposite direction, writing for instruments from the past and doing something new with them.
FJO: So I’m curious how those things arise, if your approach is different when you’re writing for somebody other than yourself or your own group.
DB: Well, when I was a student, I was a good orchestrator. In fact, I had the graduate assistantship in orchestration at Eastman. But ever since my synthesizer days, I have not looked at the instruments any more. This piece you mentioned is called Infinity Variations, and it follows the same harmonic path as Counterpoint Part 8, actually, or a lot of it. My friend Penny Crawford, who’s a fortepianist, asked me to do this. So I said, “I’m not so good at writing for one piano.” I don’t know why. I would do it for one piano now. I asked her about two pianos, and she said two would be fine. But I was never satisfied with the orchestration. I basically approached it the same way, but the big difference is it’s not as hands on as I want it to be. When I write for the synthesizers, I know that this is the exact way it’s going to sound if I tell it to sound this way. I’ll just program it for the other players to play it that way. My group has been the only one performing what I do, except now there’s a group formed in California called Brother Mallard that meets once in a while. It’s great. They performed Counterpoint Part 8 for me with these acoustic instruments mixed in with the electronic ones. It sounded differently than I would ever imagine, but it was good.
FJO: Were they playing it by ear?
DB: No. About two years ago, John Marr [who put together Brother Mallard] got in touch with me and I said, “You know, it’s great ‘cause you’re forcing me now to look at the scores and make it so that it can be performed by other ensembles.” I’ve known this, but I’ve been too busy doing other things. But now I’ve finished about half of them. Now I can have the scores and they have notes to them, and they have some history in the notes, and they tell you what you have to do and what you can’t do. When you look at the score, you think, “Oh, I’ll get a keyboard and play this.” But then you realize that each staff is for two different keyboards. So it’s trickier than it might seem. One of the reasons that I like doing this with laptops is I can program Reason, which is a program everyone has and it’ll probably be around for a long time, so the people know exactly what I had in mind.
FJO: Well, as far as other people doing your pieces go, I imagine that the pieces for two pianos would be relatively easy for other groups to do.
DB: Yes, they have been done. One was just done in Kansas this past year. A guy was getting his Ph.D. in music and wrote about Double Portrait, so he did Double Portrait.
FJO: Now, the big Goldberg-inspired piece, whose title is an anagram for Kathleen Supové.
DB: Heaven-Kept Soul.
FJO: That piece only exists as piano and pre-recorded sounds. Could that be fleshed out and turned into a piece for multiple keyboard players?
DB: That’s all done with Reason, and that’s in a score form. It’s there.
FJO: Some recent music of yours that you performed last night actually reminded me of Easter. Your music has come full circle back to the very beginning in terms of it playing with timbre more and a bit less with counterpoint and harmony, pitch and rhythm. For lack of a better term, it sounds less like minimalism and more like electronic music. I know that you don’t like labels and terminology per se, since the danger is that such things force you into a box. If you reject the label, you can write whatever you want.
DB: Yeah. I always thought I could write whatever the hell I wanted. I was so taken with In C when I heard it because I was coming from all those composers wanting you to write nothing but serial music. Gunther Schuller wouldn’t even let me play an octave. I mean, it was ridiculous. You know, “That’s an octave, we don’t do that anymore.” That whole coterie around Milton was all like that. You had to do rows and all the hexachords and stuff. I did that for a while, but I did it through the window of late Stravinsky. He did that, but everyone would say, “That’s not really it.” So I hated all that stuff. In C is great in that, when you listen to Steve Reich and Philip Glass, those are intellectually thought out as well as being inspired and it’s a great balance. With In C all the air is let in and it’s like we’re gonna let a flat in over here and we’re just gonna do the sharp over here. But it’s all gonna be cool and you can go at your own pace. It’s O.K. We don’t care. Just play it as many times as you like, and that’s so liberating. I just love that. It was John Cage-ian in that way, but John Cage doesn’t like you taking that much liberty. If he tells you to do something with how to prepare the piano, and he tells you what to do in the music, he wants you to do that. But In C was just wonderful at the time when it hit. That’s what aesthetically turned me around, that’s what influenced the Easter kind of droning and staying on the same thing, and the technological influence was just Bob Moog, his great generosity and his friendship.
FJO: It’s funny your mentioning Cage in this context since you have a piece C.A.G.E. based on the letters of his name.
DB: I turned C, A, G, E into a tone row, more or less in a certain free way combining the Uncle Miltie and the John Cage folks. Same place.
FJO: But it sounds nothing like John Cage.
DB: It wasn’t meant to sound like John Cage. I did not know him well, but I hung out with him a few times and had several conversations with him. He was always very nice to me, and I think he appreciated that I did that. For a performance of one of his pieces, he wrote to me and asked if I could send him a big tape of it and they would loop it during the performance.
FJO: We’re going to end by me trying to put you in another box: this whole outsider tradition of American mavericks. It’s a tradition of non-tradition, as it were, that spirals back from William Billings and Charles Ives to Nancarrow and Harry Partch through to John Cage, all the minimalists and even outsider rock people. All of these people do it their own way. So do you. You were based at Cornell, but you never became an influential composition teacher there.
DB: Oh, not at all.
FJO: You stayed out of that. You’ve now got records on a respected independent label, but your earliest records were self-produced. All your music is still self-published. You finally got invited to Tanglewood, but that was a bit of a fluke. You were lucky to be born in the year 1938. So you’re not part of the official music establishment in any way, and in a way that’s really great. But in another way, it has left you out of a history that you really deserve to be more a part of.
DB: And don’t forget, no Guggenheims. I used to complain about that kind of thing. Now I sort of enjoy it. I’m not even going to apply for another Guggenheim. I enjoy doing my own things and going my own way, and if nobody notices that much, I’m lucky in that for some reason I always get great players who like my music. We can go and do a few concerts once in a while, and that’s fine with me these days. It wasn’t always like that, but I don’t know how the cosmic thing works. It seems that all so-called serious music is eventually taken over by larger institutions in some way. I think the real art starts somewhere outside the box and eventually as time goes on, you get included more, like when I was invited to Tanglewood. Musica Eletrronica Viva was there, too. They were so out of it; they told Alvin Curran and Dick Teitelbaum and Rzewski that their rehearsal was that afternoon, but they were going to do it without any electronics. [laughs] And Richard Teitelbaum said, “Can you believe it?” I mean, they had no idea. You know what pieces they played of mine there? They told me they couldn’t perform any of my pieces, but I do these variations on “Happy Birthday,” which hardly anyone knows about because they’re only meant for the people who have the birthdays. I usually just record them for the people that they’re intended for. But I had done one for Paul Chihara, I had done one for John Harbison, and I had done one for Alvin Curran, and sent them to them. So that’s what they played. And, actually, they were very well received. Everyone loved them, but you know, that was what they did. They didn’t do any of the heavy pieces.
FJO: So things that you wish, if you were given the keys to say, the Metropolitan Opera, or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or any other big musical institution in this country? Since this music eventually gets taken over by the big institutions, as you said, what would you want to see happen? What would you want to hear?
DB: Well, I’ve done some pieces that I think I would like to hear other people do. I’ve thought of making a chamber orchestra version of the piece I did for Kathy Supové, just for piano and chamber orchestra. I don’t know. I think electronic ensembles will become standardized in some way, especially with all the computer technology around. And people could do any of my pieces if they really looked at it and wanted to figure it out. I don’t know if they will.
Maybe some of the piano pieces will be more performed than the other pieces. But I think eventually though, there are going to be ensembles that are made up of just keyboards and laptops and other controllers. What I find now is when you say you have a laptop ensemble, most people think you’re just fooling around and that you don’t have any keyboard technique. There’s hardly anyone that has really great keyboard technique who knows a lot about computer software and music for live performances. The people who can do it better than anyone are probably the rock and roll bands, but they tend to play more simple things than what we were doing last night, you know what I mean? So, it’s kind of a problem.
FJO: But one that will hopefully be addressed. You mentioned that you are preparing a performance edition of The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.
DB: Yeah. I’m in the middle of it now.
FJO: So that will be something that ensembles could do. Let’s say a string orchestra wanted to play it, would you be O.K. with it being re-orchestrated?
DB: Yes, I would. Just like The Art of the Fugue is done.
FJO: Hopefully that will happen.
DB: Maybe it will.