Courtesy of Mother Mallard

November 20, 2019

Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company Reminds Us of The Specialness of Ithaca’s Music Scene

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Fifty years ago, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company premiered as the world’s first all synthesizer band and revolutionized Ithaca’s music scene as they performed for audience members on Cornell’s campus.

On Nov. 15, David Borden, founder of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, told a packed room of Ithaca’s music lovers at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art how after a lively debut at Barnes Hall 50 years ago, the group made their mark creating music and found a place to perform regularly within the museum itself. Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the group returned to these venues for two shows and performed “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint,” a 12 part piece that began in 1976 and was completed in 1987 that showcases the intricacy and experimental nature of synthesizer music.

Between parts, Borden told the audience how he met Robert Moog Ph.D. ’64, the creator of the first commercial synthesizer, in 1967 when Borden himself was composer in residence for Ithaca City School District. Working together, Moog taught Borden how to play his Moog synthesizer while also using Borden’s experimentation to improve his instrument. This collaboration ultimately changed the landscape of modern music.

Accompanied by Blaise Bryski Ph.D. ’06 and David Yearsley, David Borden showed how “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint” represents this changing view of sound in the stretching and shrinking of notes, creating music that simultaneously clashes and sounds collaborative. The three current core members of the Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company switched back and forth between the synthesizers on stage, including the original Moog Synthesizer, effectively showcasing their intimate knowledge of their instruments.

The group also invited other musicians to join them, such as guitarist Gabriel Borden ’98, David Borden’s son to whom Borden dedicated one part of “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint.” The younger Borden joined the group for their opening number, parts five and six of the larger collection. Not blocked by clunky synthesizers, audience members could clearly see Gabriel Borden play with speed and dexterity that informed viewers of the complexity of the music that might have been otherwise lost. Parts five and six of “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint” were a great choice to open the night. Consisting of fast, technical work, these two pieces truly represented both the complexity of this music as well as the experimental work put into it.

The music itself remained mostly in higher frequencies, creating a mood that shifted from whimsical to dream-like, while maintaining a strong repetition perhaps indicative of the newness of this type of music when it was first written. Often, the pieces consisted of varying parts with one member playing long tones on his synthesizer to contrast the quick melodies played by the others. The members of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company looked to one another throughout each part, counting and cuing one another in, showing true collaboration as they worked together through familiar pieces, relying on their bond as a group to pull off their best possible performance.

Even with their familiarity and dynamic as a group, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company hit a few bumps in the road. In their last piece before intermission, the group — now consisting of just its core members — started and stopped a total of three times, but their calm attitude and persistence to work through it together eventually got the group up and running again. This misstep also highlighted the difficulty of their music, with Borden turning to the crowd at one point to mention it was the most difficult part of their show. The audience, which consisted mainly of people the same age as the musicians playing, did not mind.

Whether an audience member was an Ithacan who could remember when Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company first began or a music lover who wanted to celebrate the experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s, the audience sat engaged and enthusiastic throughout the entire performance. The turnout itself was so great that many people had to stand out in the hall, unable to even see the performance, but content to listen from afar.

The Ithaca based Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company celebrated its 50th anniversary and reminded those in attendance of the specialness of Ithaca as a hub of creativity, which celebrates a music scene that allows groups like this to pioneer new forms of experimentation in music and art.


Erin Hockenberry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].