October 24, 2002

The Mystery of the Mallard

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David Borden was the first guinea-pig for Robert Moog and the synthesizer that would change the face of 20th-century music. He went on to form Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, one of the first live synthesizer ensembles, and has earned a spot in the ranks of minimalist and electronic music innovators, along with the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley. He is currently the director of Cornell’s Digital Music Program. The Daze recently had the chance to sit down with him and learn .

DAZE: What were your first impressions of Robert Moog and his synthesizer?

David Borden: Well that was a while ago … 35 years ago. God. (Laughs) It was in Trumansburg; he had his company there. I visited him and no one was using his studio at all. It was a classic analog studio and I had never really seen one. It was all impossibly complicated, so my first impression was that it was a total mystery.

DAZE: How did Moog take you through it?

DB: He sat me down and gave me a two hour lecture on how it all worked using terms I didn’t really understand. I was still in the dark at the end of it, so he invited me back to mess around with it. I did … and I took a very long time to learn. The first few days I couldn’t even get a sound out of it; I was embarrassed to go. I went to the head engineer and told him I couldn’t get a sound out of it. He came down, looked around, and turned the amplifier on. That’s how bad it was.

DAZE: Could you explain how the Moog synthesizer works and what it does in layman’s terms?

DB: No. (Laughs)

DAZE: So it’s been made less complicated since those early days?

DB: Oh yeah. Now I can just push a button and get a new sound. In the old analog days you had to start from scratch with every sound. Making a sound has to do with starting with oscillators and physically taking the sound out of the oscillator with an audio cable and putting it into something else, and ending up with a voltage control amplifier with specific envelopes which you have to know how to open and close. So it took a long time to learn how to make a sound.

DAZE: What was the first indication that this machine was something special you wanted to devote yourself to?

DB: I think right away, within the first few hours. I knew it could make an infinite number of sounds, I just didn’t know how to do it yet. I thought of it in terms of doing more with less. Here was one instrument that could make more sounds than any other instrument.

DAZE: So, for you, what were the advantages of the Moog over other traditional instruments?

DB: At the time, I thought of the possibilities of performing live with this. The Moog was not designed for performing live; it was for use in a studio to produce music on tape. I was always thinking toward live performance, if I could only get a few of these that weren’t as huge as the one I started with. And it came true a couple years later when they started making simpler synthesizers. In those days, when the machines were monophonic, I would have a different synthesizer for each person’s hand. We had five synthesizers and one electric piano. So I thought that with just three people we could have access to many more different sounds than you traditionally could with 25 people on regular instruments.

DAZE: With synthesizer performances, were you going for rock n’ roll or a “new classical” or just a new genre of music altogether?

DB: A whole new genre.%0