Interview: Composer David Borden

Mike Powell gets on Skype with one of the first composers to use a Moog synthesizer

David Borden was there. He was there in the late 1960s, in a closet in Trumansburg, New York, playing a Moog synthesizer the size of a telephone switchboard. He was there on the sideline for some of Merce Cunningham’s advanced classes, providing accompaniment. He performed John Cage and Robert Ashley in the early 1970s with a synth ensemble called Mother Mallard, Mallard being his grandmother’s last name. People hated it. At least, some did. Borden wasn’t fazed and generally doesn’t seem like someone who is.

I reach him in his office, stacks of papers and scores all over the room, an early Apple computer sitting in the background like some museum piece. Borden talks Moog like some men talk service: reluctantly, and quick to add that it was only a brief period of a much longer life. I respect that. Still, he and I know that I’m calling him in part because of an album called Music for Amplified Keyboard Instruments, which he recorded about 40 years ago and was recently reissued on Spectrum Spools – an album that doesn’t define him to himself but probably does to a lot of listeners. A good sport, he indulges me.

David Borden - Enfield In Winter

Mr. Borden?

Yeah. Are you on video also?

I can be. I’m presentable.

Okay, I see you.


Where are you anyway?

I’m in Tucson, Arizona. Where are you?

I’m in Ithaca, New York.

Which is where I think of you as living, but I wasn’t you sure if you had stayed there after you stopped working at Cornell.

Yeah. I’ve been here for over 50 years.

Wow. Well, first of all, thanks for taking the call. I’m sorry about having to reschedule the other day – I appreciate your flexibility.

It’s okay. I’m retired. What do I know?

I don’t think I had realized that you had stopped teaching until I prepared for this call. When did you retire?

Ten years ago.

Was that a…

I’m just waiting here for calls.

Was it a matter of a natural breaking point for you, or what?

I had been there for 37 years, and I turned 65. I retired when I was 66. I would rather just do composing and some performing, rather than keep on teaching. It was just a long time. I was on burn-out. I was never tenured, so I never had time off.

Cuneiform Records

I didn’t realize that. I knew some of your circumstances there. Like, I know you’d started out working with the dance program and went on to start the digital music program?


Tell me about that.

I was on my way out of town. I was being offered a job at [the University of Michigan in] Ann Arbor to be Director of Music for Dance there. I liked Ithaca, and I really don’t want to go, and at the same time Cornell said they would like to have me start something. I mean, Cornell is very conservative. They didn’t have much of an idea what they wanted. They just wanted something to do with electronic music because there was student demand for it, especially with computers. I told them I was leaving. They upped it a year earlier, and so I stayed, and they gave everything I wanted.

So you’d come to Cornell expressly to start the digital music program? I thought you had come into a side door.

No. I started out at Cornell in the Phys Ed Department because that’s where dance was. Dance has always been in the Phys Ed Department at all Ivy League schools.

Is that right?

It’s always been in the Women’s Phys Ed Department, so on the book side, I was being paid as an Instructor in Women’s Physical Education, but my title was Composer-Pianist for Dance.

Have you stayed in Ithaca primarily because of family?

No. I’ve stayed here primarily because I love it here.

What do you love about it? I’ve never been.

It’s a little gem in the middle of New York, on the Finger Lakes. Lots of water, lots of waterfalls, lots of green area. My favorite bumper sticker about Ithaca says, “Ithaca: Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality.”

I think the only Ithaca bumper sticker I’ve ever seen is something like “Keep Ithaca Gorges.”

“Ithaca is Gorges.”

Ithaca is gorgeous, okay.


Gorges, right.

I mean, it has probably the best organic grocery store in the world. There are lots of organic farms around. You can join one of those farm collectives and just go pick up your food every week. It’s just an amazing place.

David Borden – Esty Point, Summer 1978

I ask you about Ithaca, in part, because reading your liner notes for the Music for Amplified Keyboard Instruments reissue, it seems that place and composition have dovetailed for you. Place has made an impact on the way that you work.

Well, the Moog company was here when I got here.

I meant in the sense of jogging along the railroad tracks and things like that.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of my music that’s not available, that you have no idea that exists, because only a few things have been tempting to labels. Actually, one that came out about 20 years ago is called Cayuga Night Music and it’s all about my running around the lake, but that’s no longer available.

Some of that is on your SoundCloud.

I don’t keep up.

Anyway, that was an image that struck me while reading the liner notes: You going for this jog, in this particular place, and taking home some feeling that led to a composition. Especially, I imagine being in a place for as long as you have. Has your relationship to Ithaca changed over the years?

Yeah. It’s a lot different. I mean, there are malls around where there didn’t used to be. When I first got here it reminded me of Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is an isolated place with a lot of educated people in the summer, and a lot of social strata. People from different social backgrounds are all treated equally for the brief summer in Martha’s Vineyard. That’s the way it was here. It was like the guy who is the janitor at the school was on good speaking terms with the president of Cornell. Stuff like that.

Did you go to Martha’s Vineyard as a kid? I knew you grew up in the Boston area, right?

I went there for a couple of summers and played in a band. I used to play a lot of jazz when I was younger, so I had a jazz trio there in the summer of ‘62 and then I did some solo playing at a club in ‘63. That’s how I knew Martha’s Vineyard.

Jimmy Giuffre – Pickin' Em Up and Layin' Em Down

I actually wanted to ask you about Jimmy Giuffre. I remember falling in love with Trav’lin’ Light as a teenager. It’s still one of the most unusual records that I’ve heard. Didn’t you study with him at some point?

Yeah. I graduated from high school in 1956. There was a big jazz scene in Boston at the time. It was really lively, and I was lucky I saw almost everybody. I just collected the recordings [Giuffre] made on Capitol as a solo artist. Then he started his trio. I noticed that he was appearing at Storyville one week, just as a solo guy, with a pickup rhythm section. I knew that people who played at Storyville always stayed at the Copley Square Hotel if they were white.

At that time, things were segregated. There was actually a black musicians local and a white one in Boston at that time. I know all of these because one of my teachers was Jaki Byard who was a black pianist and composer, really wonderful musician. Great musician, who later went with Charlie Mingus. I called the Copley Square Hotel and asked to speak to Jimmy Giuffre, and I got him on the phone. I was like 15 or 16. I said I loved his music and would really like to have a composition lesson with him.

I was a groupie for Jimmy Giuffre.

He hemmed and hawed, then he said, “Well, okay.” I went there one afternoon and brought him some stuff. From then on, I would ask every time he came to town. When that Trav’lin’ Light album was made, I was good friends with all the people in the band. I showed up and I was a groupie for Jimmy Giuffre. He and I became lifelong friends. The last time I saw him was in the mid-80’s. He played at Sweet Basil in New York.

Until he died, I didn’t know he had Parkinson’s. I asked him if he’d like to be in one of my recordings, one of those late ‘87 recordings I made at Cuneiform. I wanted him to be a guest artist. He said, “Well, we’ll have to talk about it.” I never really got back to him because I got the feeling he didn’t want to do it and I didn’t want to pressure him.

The thing was that he was suffering from Parkinson’s, and when you have Parkinson’s, you no longer control your hands. Most of the people with Parkinson’s. It’s all different. My wife has Parkinson’s, so I know a lot about it.

Anyway, I met Bobby Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Ralph Peña, the bass player. I was a real devoted fan of [Giuffre]. He would send me stuff he would do later, and all of that. He’d said he didn’t like synthesizers, and I said he’ll probably change his mind. About ten years later, he wrote to me and sent me an album with a synthesizer player on it. He said, “You’re right. I changed my mind.”

David Borden - The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint, Part Six

I’ve talked to other musicians who made electronic music in the late ‘60s but they had started playing in situations like yours: Pickup bands, jazz, R&B, wherever it might be. Almost being like a union musician-type guy. Maybe it’s just a timing thing, but I find the connection interesting.

I wasn’t playing much jazz after 1963.


For a number of reasons that I finally figured out later, when I was almost 60. I figured out why. I had a lot of trouble playing jazz, in that I had to memorize the changes. I could mess around with the changes a little bit, but if someone wanted me to play something in G, instead of E-flat, I had to re-harmonize it. It wasn’t simply that you play the same thing in another key. I had a whole set of different functionalities which drove everyone crazy. When I was playing solo, it was fine. I could just mess around. It’s hard to explain. When I read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia book – have you seen that?

I’ve read parts of it. The parts that I read, I read when it came out, which I think was almost ten years ago now.

Well, one woman, I think she was a musician. I have to re-read it because I’m writing a little essay on aesthetics now. She said that after her auto accident, she could no longer hear the harmonic functions in the pieces she knew. She could only hear separate voices, and she had perfect pitch, so she could hear the different pitches. Well, that’s the way I’ve always listened to music. I hear the notes. I hear the tones. I know the actual notes you’re playing, but I don’t hear the function of the harmony. It goes from A-flat to E-flat. I don’t hear 1 to 5. I hear A-flat to E-flat. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, I do. I can imagine that would make jazz difficult.

Well, that’s why I like Jimmy Giuffre because, basically, his approach to composition was contrapuntal. It wasn’t based on harmony. In fact, he used to tell me, “People show me these score changes and I would think to myself,” he would say, “Yeah, well, so what?” Then, I thought, “Yes! That’s the way I think.”

So it was just a natural quirk in your perception that ended up fueling your interest in counterpoint?

Yeah. Exactly, yeah. In fact, the other thing that bothered me was – it didn’t bother me, I just didn’t understand it. I love music from early on, like 14th century up until Chopin. Including Beethoven and all of those people. Once Chopin starts, it leaves me in neutral. I know, intellectually, these are great composers and great figures but my interest just turns off starting with Chopin until Stravinsky starts, or Satie. I mean, even Debussy is fine. I mean, I like it because it’s a little stranger. The functionality of the harmony isn’t always what you expect and I found that interesting.

I really started with Stravinsky up to the present, so that when Jimmy went to more atonal, it doesn’t sound weird to me. It just sounds interesting. If you listen to those things he was doing in the early ’60s, they’re extremely good. There’s a wonderful thing that he did with just solo clarinet. I have sampled a lot of those and I use them in my own music.

David Borden - The Continuing Story Of Counterpoint, Part Nine

What have you used Jimmy Giuffre clarinet samples in?

I’ve done a series of variations on “Happy Birthday” for friends. I used them in those pieces. Those pieces can never be recorded because there are so many copyright problems. They’re meant for the person I wrote the thing for.

You record it and then just send it to the person whose birthday it is?

They’re called “Earth Journeys” because ... Well, I don’t want to get into it. It’s too weird.

Is it?

Well, it depends on who you’re talking to, but “Earth Journeys,” you know, a person’s life. I thought, when people on my birthday list, who I’ve done pieces for, started dying... It can be thought of as a birth into another dimension, whether it’s coming to or leaving the Earth dimension, so these are “Earth Journeys.”

That’s how you think of the variations? As just an Earth journey?

Yeah, and I try to make it so that the person listening to their variation will hear something very familiar. Especially composers, I use segments from their own pieces.

I like that.

Yeah, it’s fun. I haven’t done that many lately, but I have over 150 of them, I think.


I started them 25 years ago.

I imagine that as a composer, it’s like side exercise.

Yeah, exactly. Well, what I did was I used them to hone my understanding of sampling. Although I’ve worked with wave forms, I really hadn’t worked with samples up until 1990. Then, you have to use hardware samplers, but now you don’t need any of that.

What was the transition into digital keyboards and sampling like for you, having worked with stuff like a Moog for so long?

You know it’s Moog, don’t you?

Moog, right.

On his desk, it didn’t have his name. It just said “It said rhymes with vogue.”


Rhymes with rogue and vogue.


Well, I loved [digital]. It was like, “Yes. This is the way it should be. I can sit down at my computer and I don’t have to fuck around with patching shit up all the time.” I didn’t miss the sound that much. Everybody really gets on the analog part and this re-release of [Amplified Keybaords] shows, it’s great. I mean, an analog sound is great. I worked with it for so long, and in live performance it was very tough to control those, especially the modular ones. I think computer technology would just keep getting more sophisticated exponentially all the time, but the sound that everyone laments not having will be just as good.

Moog had some kind of contract with Arturia, and Moog Music, Inc. is having some lawsuits back and forth. They did the virtual instrument things, the Moog Modular and the Mini-Moog, right? Bob said it was close, but no cigar.

Just in terms of the timbral presence of it.

Yeah, the sound of it. The depth of the sound. The fatness of the sound.

Well, it’s funny, it’s not like the people building the earliest synthesizers were choosing to make it the size of a closet or something.

Oh, I know.

My generation seems to fetishize the sound of it. It’s such an odd thing to do in retrospect, because that was never by design. It was just that was the first thing that people had to work with.

You know the story that Moog never patented anything. He patented a couple of things, but not the filter. Arp reproduced the filter exactly, but they could never get the fat, deep sound and no one knows why. That was the Modular. They found out why no one did it in the Mini-Moog, because someone had made a miscalculation in the filter. I think the filter envelope or something. One of the engineers made a miscalculation where it sounded really fantastically much better than anyone thought it would.

I think there’s some kind of redundancy in either the oscillator or the filter itself. They used to call it magic wood.

Magic what?

Wood. “Oh, this is another synthesizer with magic wood. It sounds really fat.” No, they couldn’t figure out the Modular one, but they did figure out the Mini-Moog. You can see in the mind of Bill Hemsath, explaining exactly why the Mini-Moog sounds much better than most small synthesizers.

It’s not an aspect of the music that matters much to me, personally. I like the compositional aspect but I’m not someone who says, “Well, I need that sound above all.” It seems like you’re saying the same thing. It’s more about the composition, it’s not the notated music.

Yeah. What I was afraid of this interview is I had to talk a lot about why synthesizers fascinated me more than anything else. Well, it’s not true. What I really found in the Moog company, and I realized it later, was there was a state-of-the-art electronic studio there. With all of the tape recorders, and mixers, and all the accouterments where you could, as a person, as a composer, make something and hear it back right away by yourself. Whereas, going to school, you wrote a piece for a bunch of players and you didn’t hear it until they got together.

That’s interesting. The initial appeal wasn’t necessarily being futuristically-minded in that way. It’s just the replay-ability of the music, being able to record it and hear it back as a composer, helped you worked on the piece itself?

Exactly. As a composer, you got to hear these things all the way through, from beginning to end. You didn’t have to play a few measures on the piano and redo it, blah-blah, and go over and over it. Also, I worked on my time keeping. Having been a jazz person, the sequencer enabled me to work on my time. I would set the sequencer so it played a sequence that was not in any particular meter but random. You could do that by controlling the meter part of it with filtered pink noise. It made it so that it triggered, and the accents were continually changing at random rates.

I would practice my keyboard technique to play exactly with a sequencer, then I would flick the sound off, and keep playing on my own for, maybe, 30 seconds. Then flick it back on to see if I was still there. I did hours, I did that for hours. My time is really good now, or was. I mean, I’m old, but I think it’s still pretty good.

This was all stuff that you just discovered, stumbled into, when you went to the Moog facility that was outside Ithaca, basically?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had no idea what I was doing, of course. I mean, it took me a long time to get comfortable with the synthesizers. Even turning on the right sounds. I mean, when I got there, for the first few days, I couldn’t get a peep out of anything. I finally, in embarrassment, went to the head engineer and he came down and turned the amp on.

That’s great. It’s one of those IT solutions jokes. It’s like, “Did you try like turning the thing on first?”

Yeah, right. I had trouble setting up my home stereo. I had no background in anything electronic, or science, much, just a very fancy music education.

Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company - Live

What was the response to Mother Mallard in Ithaca at the time? Like, to the “program,” so to speak. The music that you guys were playing was pretty new when you were performing it.

Back in the ‘70s? Yeah. In 1973, the music department banned us from their concert hall.

At Cornell?


Even though you taught there?

Well, I was in Phys Ed!


When they wanted to hire me [in the music department] the first thing the chairman told me is, “Of course, you will be able to play in Barnes Hall whenever you want, of course.”

The academy takes its time to warm up.

Yeah, right.

I love the music of Robert Ashley, so I noticed that Mother Mallard had played Robert Ashley’s “The Wolfman,” which is just such an interesting thing. Now he’s probably better known certainly for his operas – “The Wolfman” is such an outlier.

Yeah, and he’s such a good writer, too. He’s a very interesting man.

I talked to Robert Ashley maybe seven years ago for an interview. I was totally out of my depth but he gave me a lot of his time and some of his potato vodka. We had a really nice conversation.

He would alternately drink a lot and not drink at all. He died of cirrhosis of the liver, you know?

I’d heard that. It surprised me because I don’t think that that was something – the avant-garde music world isn’t a world where I think people discuss stuff like that in the way that they might with other types of artists or public figures, so I didn’t know that it was even an issue.

In the ‘50s, everyone who was an intellectual, or creative, and intense and really interesting, they all drank a lot and they all smoked a lot. You would constantly be talking with chain-smoking, hard-drinking people. I was surprised myself. I mean, I couldn’t sustain it, I’d get sick. I’m not a teetotaler, but I only drink local.

Well, I didn’t mean to bring Robert Ashley out to talk about his personal life.

That’s what we all grew up in. I mean, that’s what people did. Then it changed when the green people started coming into our lives, and organic food and watch your diet, which I’m already into. I had already been somewhat into because I discovered it... I don’t know. I shouldn’t bring this up. Do you know Edgar Cayce? If you don’t, well, forget it. Wait, no, forget it.

Top 10 Edgar Cayce Predictions

You don’t want to tell me who he is? Otherwise, I’ll start asking you about modular synthesizers.

C-A-Y-C-E, is how you spell it. He was a very unique person. He could self-induce a trance. He would hypnotize himself, and someone else would be there. He would give a reading for someone who had requested it. It’s usually about their health. It’s a last ditch health thing. His anatomy would be perfect. Doctors would come down to expose him, and then they couldn’t when they found his anatomy so perfect, but his remedies were strange.

Anyway, he was the first one to talk about food and how important it was. How you should only have whole grain breads and blah, blah, blah. When he woke up, he never followed his own advice. People would have life readings and they would talk about their past lives. He was a pretty uneducated fundamentalist Christian from Kentucky. It took him a while to get used to all of this, but he accepted all of it after a while.

Anyway, there are thousands of his readings that have been preserved and impeccably taken down by a stenographer. They are very, very interesting. I drew up a series of very strange things in my own life, which I don’t want to talk about, discovered them when I was 19 or 20. It just changed the way I do things, or thought about things.

I’ll look them up.

Wait, one more thing.


I’m a clumsy person. I have trouble opening doors.

It’s like Ram Dass. When he first discovered this guy [Neem Karoli Baba] on the slopes of the Himalayas, he was just astounded at this guy and his psychic ability, right? His whole field had been study in neurology and psychology. He was astounded by this guy’s ability to know what plane he had been on, when he was coming, that he was expecting him, what his name was. Well, that’s like 1% of what Edgar Cayce’s psychic ability was. I was surprised that someone like Ram Dass never heard of Cayce who died in 1945. There were books about him already. It’s not an academic thing. In fact, when you bring it up in academia they treat it the same way as they do UFOs. That’s why I don’t like to talk about it very much.

Pseudo-science, right.

Pseudo-science and quack medicine.

I always imagine that some non-negligible percentage of the quack medicine of today will become the truth of tomorrow.

Well, Cayce was the first one that I read where the neurons in the brain kept replenishing themselves. Whereas, when I read that in the early ‘60s, the belief was that you were born with a certain set of neurons and they never change. I don’t know. That was from the 1920’s reading.

Now, the ideas of plasticity are everywhere.

Yeah. But we’re not talking about anything you wanted to talk about though, right?

Well, how do you know? The way I see it, this is an opportunity to talk to you about whatever you like to talk about. I’ve been looking at your website and I thought, “Gee. This guy has done a very good job of recording his own history. Why should I ask him to just sit on the phone with me and repeat things that he’s probably said 20 times before?” But I should ask about dance. When you started at Cornell, were you interested in dance an art form?

No, not until I just played in the classes. I’m a clumsy person. I have trouble opening doors. I would just marvel at how fantastic some of these people could move. It was very moving to me, no pun intended. Especially Merce Cunningham. I accompanied his advanced class a few times. All the visiting guys, like Honi Coles, the jazz guy. He danced with Baryshnikov, you know.

I guess it’s an untranslatable thing, but I’m just curious how one medium of art affects the process of creating another. I don’t know if it can be articulated in a concrete way.

What got me about dancers, is that most of the dancers technically didn’t know much about music, but they were completely open to anything, no matter how strange it was, as sound sources. That opened my mind up to my music, as well. It led to my really enjoying Robert Ashley, for instance, and doing “The Wolfman” and getting to know John Cage, because I knew Merce Cunningham. All that opened my mind a lot. That was when I first got to Ithaca, practically, from ‘68 on, it was a big influence.

Do you still play the piano? I know you said you composed for it sometimes.

Yeah. Yeah, I still play the keyboard in general. I’m just practicing my new “Variations on a Theme with Philip Glass,” which we’re going to premiere soon.

I did see that in a corner of the screen. I wasn’t sure whether to ask or what. That’s a piece that you’ve worked on?

Yeah, I’ve done two versions of this. One I did in the early ‘90s. I listened to it not long ago and thought, “Well, I could do better.” In 2011, I started working on the same theme and doing other variations. I finished it last year.

It’s funny, the idea of variations on a theme. We talked about this, your Earth Journeys, “Happy Birthday,” earlier. I think the idea of variations is such an old-fashioned gesture. I know, obviously, there are composers who did them throughout, but in my mind, it’s always Bach.

Yeah. That’s not true. Most composers work on variations all the time.

I wonder if it’s just a sense that, I don’t know – I don’t want to say what I want to say, because it’ll probably sound even stupider than I think I’m going to sound when I say it.

I feel the same way when I talk about certain crazy things.

I don’t think you’re crazy at all. I realized I was about to make an assertion about composition that probably was not at all true.

Go ahead.

The thought that I had in my head was, I wonder if the idea of a theme and varying on a theme, seems to an audience to be a less creative gesture than to make something out of whole cloth, or whatever it might be.

Well, one of my first rules is, “You never let your audience compose your music.” You make them come to you. If you start going to them, I don’t think the results are as interesting. You never know who your audience is, so I ask other composers, “Do you know who the audience is?” Sometimes they do, up to a certain point. I say, “Well, have you sent them a questionnaire about what they like and don’t like about music?”

Header image: Steve Drews

By Mike Powell on March 5, 2015

On a different note