Any history of Tompkins County worth its salt will include a mention of Moog synthesizers, one of the county’s claims to musical fame. The instruments, invented and designed by Robert Moog, were manufactured in Trumansburg while his factory was stationed there, and Moog was a graduate student at Cornell.
Consequently came the formation of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company, founded by David Borden, which used Moog synthesizers to bring music to Ithaca that wasn’t commonly heard in the area otherwise. At the time they were a trio, and one of the pioneering groups of synthesizer music in the world.
Borden’s group was formed in 1969, and to commemorate their 50th anniversary he will be leading two concerts in November with the other current members of the group. Borden, now 80 years old, still plays the synthesizer, as do the other members of the group, who range in age from 40 years old to his age, Borden said. The two shows are being held at Barnes Hall on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Johnson Museum, both of which are on Cornell’s campus.
The band’s origins are humble enough, as Borden tells it. He was composer-in-residence at the Ithaca City School District in 1967 when someone told him about Moog’s studio. With his interest piqued, Borden headed there to learn about the innovative instrument from Moog—though without much luck at first.
“I didn’t understand a word of it, although I’ve got a very extensive music education,” Borden said. “So I stayed there for months, and finally I figured it out. He’d let me come in every night, he gave me a key, and that’s how I learned the Moog synthesizer. It took a long time.”
Borden is a classically trained pianist who has been playing music since he was five years old. The pieces that Mother Mallard will be performing at the two concerts are pulled from the Continuing Story of Counterpoint, Borden’s own series of compositions. The event’s page calls the Continuing Story of Counterpoint a “minimalist masterpiece” by Borden. They’ll be playing on original Moog synthesizers from different eras of the company.
“This is not new technology, this is old technology,” Borden said. “We’re playing vintage, analog instruments. And we usually don’t. [...] What we’re playing are not well developed, they’re very early versions.”
For Borden, reverting back to the old instruments isn’t a particularly hard transition to make, since he has grown up playing all kinds of synthesizers over the decades. They are, however, basically “a different world,” comparing the ones Mother Mallard will play on for these concerts and the ones commonly used in synthesizer practice today. He said it can be challenging for the dozen or so other people in the group who are less accustomed to the older versions of the instrument to translate their skills. All the musicians in the group also have classical training.
After all these years, though, Borden isn’t experiencing any additional anxiety associated with the significance of the events.
“I don’t know what to expect, I’ve heard from some people out of state but the venues are small,” Borden said. “I’m just nervous about playing well.”