Decided to shift gears today and do an album review of a CD that I stumbled across recently. I honestly don’t listen to as much music as I probably should, but I thought it was pretty relevant to the “music composer as a engineer/programmer” theme that I’ve been writing about as of the late so I decided to give it a shot. (And the music itself is pretty awesome!) In previous articles I argued that the music composers like J.S. Bach, Haydn, Hindemith, Schoenberg, and so on could be considered “engineering composers” because they managed to organize their ideas into formulas and systems, which allowed for future composers to build and learn from their works later on.

David Borden is a minimal music composer, currently teaching electroacoustic music at Cornell University. In the 60s, with the help of Robert Moog, he formed the Mother Mallard Portable Masterpiece Company, one of the first live synthesizer ensembles to come into existence. He comes from the same generation of composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and The Continuing Story of Counterpoint (1976-1986) contains some very similar traits to the former two musicians’ output.

If you’re familiar with Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts you might notice that Continuing Story shares some very similar traits to that piece — they’re both really long (several hours), rhythmically driving, features synthesizers/amplified winds/voices as its main instruments, and are organized into twelve different “parts” as individual tracks or movements. These similarities caused critics like John Rockwell (of the New York Times) to dismiss the work as being “too derivative” of Glass, but there’s a couple of key differences between the two that I thought would be worth pointing out.

For one, as the title implies, Continuing Story was written with the idea of introducing counterpoint into the minimalist aesthetic, and I think it succeeds very much in doing so. The interlocking rhythms are intricately executed, while the harmonic progressions are rich, frequent, and rarely repeated in its exact forms. Continuing Story feels like there’s a sense of direction happening at all times (a trademark of the use of good counterpoint) whereas pieces like 12 Parts tend to stay in one part of the music for much longer periods.

How does this make Borden an “engineer”? Engineers like to take existing ideas, hack it up, create something new out of it, then aim to make it as efficient, transparent, and functional as possible. In a similar vein, Continuing Story captures minimalism’s aesthetic of repetition while eliminating redundancies in the music’s rhythmic and harmonic combinations/patterns. The piece has sometimes been referred to as the Brandenburg Concerto of minimalism by some critics, since it infuses ideas of thematic, formal, and motivic developments of Bach into a style that normally cites “stasis” as part of its overall aesthetic experience. The result of combining the two styles together leads to a unique language that’s seldom seen anywhere, even within the avant-garde community.

Another interesting trait of CS is the pure music-nerdiness that’s shamelessly integrated in the words of the singer. Part 3 has names of various pre-Baroque composers and theorists, while Part 4 is a collection of words used by composers in order to describe certain compositional techniques. (Hocket, Counter-point, Canon, Cantus-Firmus, Inversion, Polyphonic, Voices, etc.) It’s abstract, technical, and tries to describe music as a result of its pure functional value. (Just like an engineer, in other words.) While the technical terminologies probably won’t resonate much with most people (other than a few composers and music nerds) the words aren’t integral to the piece itself so this doesn’t take anything away from the listening experience. Borden is more interested in the “actual notes” rather than timbre, he claims.

The Continuing Story of Counter Point - David Borden The Continuing Story of Counterpoint, Part 4

There seems to be consensus among many musicians that Borden’s works are under-appreciated and rarely gets the recognition it deserves, both by historians and the public at large. Even while being contemporaries of people like Glass, Reich, and Riley, why wasn’t he included in the narrative of the classical canon? His response to an interviewer’s question about being “left out of history” might help illuminate a few reasons why:

[...] And don’t forget, no Guggenheims. I used to complain about that kind of thing. Now I sort of enjoy it. I’m not even going to apply for another Guggenheim. I enjoy doing my own things and going my own way, and if nobody notices that much, I’m lucky in that for some reason I always get great players who like my music. We can go and do a few concerts once in a while, and that’s fine with me these days.

-David Borden, Interview @ NewMusicBox

Spoken without any hint of bitterness or sarcasm, the quote above seems to highlight the composer’s general apathy towards the idea of receiving recognition, which might explain why he was never included as part of the original founders of minimalism as a musical style. His scores, recordings, and concerts are mostly self-produced and self-published, and has remained that way since the beginning of his career — like most engineers, the feeling that you get is that Borden likes to have his work speak for itself, rather than the other way around.

But in today’s world where access and transparency is ever increasing, Borden’s works are starting to gain more recognition and traction. Kyle Gann’s history book include Borden as an important part of the development of American minimalist music, while electronic music group Four-Tet has recently done a remix of Part 9 on their FABRICLIVE 59 DJ-Mix album. Because of his connections with Robert Moog and pioneering of the synthesizer, Borden might re-emerge as an important figure in the development of the electronic music medium somewhere down the line.

Like Bach’s Art of Fugue, Borden’s music survives because of its innovativeness, clarity, and educational value. These composers are usually under-appreciated during their lifetimes, but eventually gain the recognition that they deserve when the time becomes right. Will David Borden have his time in the limelight in the near future? — only time will only tell. But meanwhile, enjoy some good music of his, available for download on iTunes and Amazon. (Parts 1-12 are spread out across 3 different CDs!)