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Mother Mallard at the Smithsonian ::

Hannah M.G.Shapero wrote a great review of the April 15 Mother Mallard concert at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. It’s reproduced here with her permission.

[image temporarily missing]
Left to right: Lisa Leong, Doug Wyatt, Les Thimmig, Louise Mygatt, Gabriel Borden, Sam Godin, David Borden (not visible: Rick Faria)

April 15, at the National Museum of American History,
Smithsonian Institution,
Washington DC

Rain, mists, and the threat of demonstrations in the streets did not keep the faithful away from attending the concert of the electronic/acoustic group “Mother Mallard,” here in Washington DC. “Mother Mallard,” historically based in Ithaca, N.Y., has been a performing entity since the early seventies, under the leadership of composer David Borden. Though the personnel has changed over the decades, the music and the inspiration remain, with Borden giving it continuity. In fact, sitting in the audience was Bob Moog himself, inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Still making electronic musical instruments after all these years, Moog was a beaming patriarch enjoying what his genius had helped to create.

This concert was the culmination of a Smithsonian program called “300 years of the Piano” which celebrated the evolution of this instrument, which is now morphing into electronic keyboards. And there were plenty of those instruments up on the stage, in a complex tangle of wires and stands. The band for this concert consisted of David Borden on synthesizer, Doug Wyatt (whose album ACCIDENTAL BEAUTIES I recommend highly) on synthesizer, Sam Godin on synth, and Lisa Leong on synth as well as prepared piano. That’s five keyboards. The other musicians were Richard Faria on clarinet, Les Thimmig on saxophone and other wind instruments, David Borden’s strapping, flame-haired son Gabriel on electric guitar, Louise Mygatt as singer, and, for the second half of the concert, rock legend Keith Emerson on piano and synthesizer.

The first half of the concert was devoted to one long set of pieces, Borden’s composition “Variations on a theme of Philip Glass.” David Borden is thought of as a “minimalist” composer, and so this is one “minimalist” building on the work of another. Yet as “minimalism” has developed over the 40 or so years of its existence, it has gone from simple repetitions to a more complex style enhanced and enriched by elements of the very “classical” or “jazz” music it originally sought to escape from. In my opinion, Borden’s transformation of Glass improves greatly on the insistent, trance-like yammering of the original. In Borden’s hands, the Glass theme goes through all sorts of fresh changes, both harmonic and textural, and even gets treated to two fugues. Into the driving mix of the minimalist style go echoes of Romantic and Impressionist chords, jazz licks, even a bit of neo-medieval Hindemith here and there, and elsewhere, some noisy stuff that sounds like Messiaen on speed. Indeed, the Glass Variations were postmodern music to the max—colorful sparks struck off of 600 years of Western musical history were flying all about. And yet it is still recognizably “minimalist,” with its unremitting rhythmic drive, its lack of soft-loud dynamics, and its busy sequencer repetitions (which were played “live” rather than mechanically).

This music is really unclassifiable. It uses classical harmonies, counterpoint, and fugues, as well as modern “minimalist” techniques, yet it’s played on instruments which are associated with popular and commercial music. The synthesizer sounds that I am used to hearing from big commercial musicians like Vangelis and David Arkenstone were here used in the service of neo-medieval counterpoint and cathedral harmonies. Meanwhile, an electric guitar and jazzy saxophone lit up the mosaic of notes. Louise Mygatt’s singing, all wordless, was treated as another instrument rather than a conveyor of literary “meaning” with lyrics. She went from eerie wailing to pure soprano tones following the melody to fast scat-singing, and looked like she was having a fine time doing it.

After intermission, the group returned with another Borden piece, “Continuing Story of Counterpoint part 9,” part of his ongoing transmogrification of counterpoint into the minimalist electronic style. After that was a change of pace. The piece they played next was really two pieces, one by John Cage written in 1944, “The Perilous Night,” and another by David Borden just last year (1999) called “The Perilous Night Companion.” This peculiar cross-time collaboration came about from Borden’s association with John Cage years ago, when Borden asked whether other music could be played at the same time as one of Cage’s works. The eccentric Zen-inspired Cage said yes; an answer unthinkable from an ordinary composer. Many years later, that idea came to life in Borden’s companion piece for this Cage work.

The original Cage piece is for “prepared piano,” a technique Cage came up with in the 1930s. Various objects are placed on or in the strings of a piano so that they will sound unlike piano notes. In fact, the piano with these changes sounds more like an Oriental percussion instrument. Lisa Leong was in charge of playing the Cage, while Borden and Wyatt played the accompanying piece. The original Cage music is spare, soft, unmelodic, and only occasionally rhythmic—not something that would appeal to a wide audience. The Borden “companion” added needed continuity and musical accessibility to the piece, and also enhanced the idea of a “perilous night” with spooky synthesizer effects. I would even go so far as to call this piece “dark ambient.”

After this, Keith Emerson made his appearance. Up to now, despite all the hot minimalist riffs and synthesizer special effects, the concert had been rather on the intellectual side. But Keith Emerson, a veteran of 30 years of rock and pop performance, added some razzle-dazzle to the night. He is, as always, a showman who immediately takes center stage, wearing an emerald green shirt (and dark pants) against the mostly black outfits of “Mother Mallard.” Emerson tried out the piano, only to realize that the clunky weird “prepared” notes were still there—a comic moment. Then he took charge at the synthesizer to play one of his standards—his rock transformation of Copland’s FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN. The band got to play loud. They even had a “virtual” rock drummer, coming from synthesized drums played by David Borden. The marvels of modern technology (with a few glitches) gave us a rockin’ ensemble.

Things were still lively and we wanted more, so the band decided to play “Ceres Motion,” a 1973 composition by Steve Drews which Borden had originally announced was going to be deleted from the program. This classic electronic piece has lots of space for jamming, so Keith Emerson, playing the “altered” piano around its Cage-notes, was able to sit in with improvisation, and everyone got his or her turn. There was a standout solo from Thimmig on sax.

But that wasn’t all. The band came back after lots of applause and whistles, for one more number, a blues jam led by Keith Emerson and David Borden. The band which played fugues on the first half, ended with blues on the second. As I said, postmodern eclectic sparks all around.

Now I’m gonna get a little philosophical here. Many of us music listeners, both classical and popular, have grown up listening to self-contained, emotionally predictable music; the soft melancholy of Brahms or the bombast of Wagner, or the little dramas of songs about love and loss, or psychedelic Grateful Dead-style noodling, or the simple structures of rock anthems. The music I heard tonight, though its style is not new and has been going for more than 30 years, felt new to me, it felt like a music appropriate for our 21st century age of Internet and virtual reality and sizzling circuits of information bytes. It didn’t weep European tragedy, and it didn’t pant with American lust. It was, in its cool pan-cultural kaleidoscopic fiberoptic richness, a glimpse of what our cultural life might be like in the next few decades. And it was also, by the way, wonderful fun to listen to as well. Welcome to the 21st century, listeners!

Hannah M.G.Shapero

Thu, 20 Apr 2000, 2:52 PM EDT
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