American Composer: David Borden

By Kyle Gann

For me, one of the most depressing things about the composing world is the ever-growing list of things that composers, collectively, are taught, and think, that one has to do in one's music to be considered a "serious" composer. One of them is the great expansion in notational detail. Henry Cowell, writing about Edgard Varese in the 1930s, credits him with starting this trend, by writing a single note with an sf followed by a diminuendo, a p, a crescendo, and a sfff. Varese, he notes, was contemptuous of composers who did not fill their scores with expression markings, saying: "They do not know how they wish their music to sound." Another mandate of historically recent origin is the almost scientific attention to timbre. Composers are carefully taught techniques of sul ponticello, fluttertongue, and various kinds of trumpet mutes, and are expected to show their expertise by all kinds of such differentiations designated in their scores.

I suppose these developments come partly from a feeling that, by the mid-20th century, the musical effects achievable through pitch and rhythm alone were pretty well exhausted. Composers started branching out, extending their control into what I consider the secondary aspects of music, timbre and detailed dynamics. The myth of depleted resources fused with the fallacy of historicism: that now that the collective musical language has evolved to a certain point, one can't go back, we are forced to continue using all the techniques that have been developed, and to not know and use them all is a retreat into amateurism. There will be no more keyboard pieces, like Bach's, that would work equally well on clavichord and piano, let alone operas like Monteverdi's Orfeo in which the instruments aren't specified. I've always admired, though, George Rochberg's rebellious response to historicist edicts: "We are not slaves of history," he wrote; "we can choose and create our own time."

All this is to contextualize one reason why I find David Borden's music, and his compositional stance, so refreshing. Borden started out with a jazz background, but in the 1960s he came to know Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, and found himself on the ground floor of electronic music performance. Moog didn't see his instrument as a live-performance vehicle, but Borden had no interest in just playing tape compositions. In 1969 he founded the Mother Mallard Portable Masterpiece Company (named for his grandmother, whose last name really was Mallard), and became one of the first people to perform electronic music live. Hearing today the music he's produced while teaching at Cornell all these years, though, one realizes that the electronic element of it takes a distant back seat to purely musical values. He still performs with synthesizers, but acoustic instruments would often do as well, and have sometimes done so.

Borden's lifelong work has been a huge multi-movement series called The Continuing Story of Counterpoint. Even the title has the vague flavor of a manifesto: in these days in which most new music seems to valorize timbre and texture, counterpoint is still continuing, it implies, the combination of two or three or four musical lines against each other is still relevant, regardless of what instruments play those lines. And Borden has shown some latitude along these lines. While the piece is generally played by Mother Mallard, some movements are also playable, and have been played, on multiple pianos. He's also allowed for changes in synthesizer sound over the years, and in a recent New Music Box interview, said he'd be happy to hear a string orchestra version.

Music extremely detailed as to timbre and dynamics has to be performed with great delicacy and care, but The Continuing Story sounds as sturdy as some old protestant hymn. On the scores I've seen, no dynamics are marked. They aren't needed. No one could look at these cascades of eighth-notes, these bouncing chords, and play the music with any feeling but a kind of joyful, bopping ecstasy. The music elicits an initial identification as minimalist - the first couple of measures of some movements could easily be mistaken for Glass, elsewhere the slow chords over faster figures bring Reich to mind - but what's really interesting about it is its departure from classically minimalist tendencies. The texture is minimalist in its consistency, but the form of each movement wanders with intuitive insouciance. The rhythms are sometimes regular, just as often jerkily asymmetric. The harmonies and chord progressions are sometimes calmly diatonic, and elsewhere creep through chromatic voice-leading as circuitously as a pop-influenced Max Reger.

Most of all, The Continuing Story reminds you that counterpoint itself is still a pleasure, that pitches and rhythms without any fancy frills can still tell exciting and unpredictable stories. Some of the movements have optional or non-optional voices, with lyrics that are not exactly nonsense, but self-referential, and chosen seemingly for rhythm and contour: in Part Four, for instance, the singer sings rhythms on the words "Hocket, counterpoint, cantus firmus, canon." Despite a steady momentum based in perpetual motion, the music is not locked into grids; there are sometimes guitar solos, small glissandi, some improvisation. Some of his pieces, including other synth-group works like Enfield in Winter, Enfield in Summer, and Droneland, have an almost pop aura, and his music has edged at times into the same territory as Brian Eno and electropop groups like Tangerine Dream. But, along with its traditional contrapuntal technique, Borden's music always describes a long-term trajectory that removes it from the more short-term goals of pop genres.

And I love that Borden does all this with the most traditional of means, with pitch, rhythm, chords, counterpoint, ignoring the "contemporary music" mandates of timbral specificity and neurotic attention to detail. After all, music is ultimately made new not by the particular materials the composer uses, even less by pursuing methodologies, but by the form it scopes out, where the music starts from and where it dares to go. With Borden's music, I always enjoy the journey.

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