- Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co. 1974–1976: Like a Duck to Water
This recording is the second document in a series of the first-ever analog synthesizer ensemble, Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co. Led by David Borden, now director of the Digital Music Program at Cornell University, the band's history is conversationally described in the liner notes, with particular reference to its artistic camaraderie with John Cage and some of the musicians (including Gordon Mumma) who worked with him at that time. Such was Cage's influence that these recordings form one of many instances in which composers who found his articulations irresistibly inviting created musics of widely divergent aesthetics. Statements like this aphorism included in the notes allowed wide open allegiance: "Future happens before we experience it." And so it does, particularly here in these minimalist compositions made before Minimalism's name was formally born.
The notes contain descriptions of Mr. Borden's experience at Robert Moog's workshop, where he approached the early synthesizers with instinctive (and well-trained) musical sensibilities, contributing to the user-interface design of these instruments. Detailed notes about the compositional methods used by both Mr. Borden and Steve Drews shed light on issues involved in working within the constraints of these particular pieces of equipment as a live ensemble.
Charming photos are included of group members at the time of these recordings, with a particularly impassioned Mr. Borden on page 11, and an informative two-page photo of the group and its equipment setup in performance. Equipment used by the group included several very early Moog custom and demo modules, including a sequencer prototype, as well as an RMI electric piano played by Judy Borscher (originally purchased by Linda Fisher, a member of an earlier incarnation of the group). Also employed were Sony and Revox analog tape recorders making use of möbius tape strips (their use was originally suggested by Mr. Mumma). Three of the pieces on this CD are newly released: Mr. Borden's All Set, and Mr. Drews's Downtown and Harpsichord Truck.
In naming Oleo Strut, Mr. Drews was drawn to the sound of these words, which refer to a kind of shock absorber used on specific types of aircraft. The composition begins with short repeated figures amid long tones, structures which are hallmarks for this album. A little more than halfway through, a second texture in a higher register emerges—long tones superimposed over softer layers of rhythmic motion characteristic of the first texture. This fast-moving material "goes inside" the sound, and becomes observable as phenomena on the edge rather than as a main focus. Limited materials, varying perspectives . . . first it's "what's happening," then it's "what's shimmering."
All Set, by Mr. Borden, begins with three distinct percussive pitch areas, then starts to move, as if, in the midst of minimalist investigations, a traffic jam occurs through the process of phasing. The opening material returns, and now it's not traffic so much as impressions and layers of traffic and motor vehicles, with twisting sirens. Then again the opening material returns, and melodies mix themselves into a set of phrases whose texture keeps on sliding up, over and over sliding up, more and more layers are piling up, melting, then the opening material phases into itself, stuttering to a stop.
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Theme from After the Fall, by Mr. Drews, was written to accompany a production of this play by Arthur Miller. A minor-mode melodic theme with organ-related timbres is accompanied by evolving, repeating figures. A slowly shifting theater music develops that undergirds stage action, adding another layer of information and filling long spaces of thinking within plots and scenes. Clearly defined elements remain, clearly defined elements create change.
Waterwheel, by Mr. Drews, begins with...