Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The 40th Anniversary Of The Mini-Moog Synthesizer
April 2010 marks the 40 year anniversary of the first live performance of the Mini-Moog synthesizer. Although few realized it at the time, the event was a watershed moment in music history. Previously, the Moog components filled a room, and were nearly impossible to transport for concerts. Walter Carlos had put Moog on the map with Switched On Bach (1968), but did not play live events. With the introduction of the Mini-Moog, the use of synthesizers in live rock appearances exploded.
One of the unsung heroes of the Mini-Moog is David Borden. He had formed an all-synthesizer outfit called Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company in 1968. He was also a bit of a Robert Moog acolyte, and unwittingly helped the inventor “idiot proof” the Mini. Describing his first encounter with the instrument, Borden said, “It looked like the cockpit of an airplane, hopelessly complicated.” Moog tweaked the design of the Mini to accommodate non-engineer types like Borden.
During this process, Moog had given Borden the keys to his shop in Trumansburg, NY — allowing him total access to the prototype. It was over the Easter weekend in 1970 that Borden completed the very first composition done on a Mini-Moog. In honor of the holiday, he named the piece “Easter.” Two weeks later, he and fellow Mallard Steve Drew gave the first live performance of the MM, playing “Easter” at Cornell University.
Mother Mallard became a trio with the addition of Linda Fisher, and began playing all over the Northeast. Arriving at a gig, they often found themselves billed as “The Moog Synthesizer,” rather than their actual band name.
The appearance of the Mini-Moog sparked something of a musical revolution. Not only did every hip band on the planet want one, but Moog’s competition became fierce. The EMS company had the VCS3, which was prominently featured on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Soon ARP had a portable model also, and touted it with ads featuring Pete Townsend and Stevie Wonder.
Slowly but surely, synthesizers became reliable, metronomic beat keepers. The wild sounds Keith Emerson or Brian Eno could find on an “untamed” synth began to dissipate, being replaced with reliable presets. By the latter part of the seventies, very few rock bands were using synthesizers anymore. The instrument became heavily identified with dance music. Producer Giorgio Moroder was a pioneer of this, by sculpting Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” from lengthy sessions in 1976. Kraftwerk were doing similar things with their seminal Trans-Europe Express (1977). One of the most famous uses of the Mini-Moog was by Parliament, with their song “Flashlight” (1976.)
Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co. had recorded a couple of albums by this time themselves. Their music fell into the dreaded “no commercial potential” category though, and they were forced to release the records on their own Earthquack Records. A few years ago, Cuneiform Records re-issued these early efforts, and the music has definitely stood the test of time.
The first, titled 1970-73 originally appeared in 1974, and contained three rather lengthy tracks. “Ceres Motion” (1973) is very much in the contemporary space-rock vein of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Very trippy. “Cloudscape For Peggy” (1970) was composed specifically for a dance performance from Peggy Lawler at Cornell. It would be fascinating to see her dance, as the piece is pure minimalism in the vein of something by Terry Riley or Phillip Glass.
The biggest attraction of 1970-73 for me is the addition of “Easter” to the original set. The 19:23 composition had never been previously available, but with the advent of the CD format, Cuneiform had the space to include it. “Easter” is very different from any other MMPMC tracks I have heard. It is much more adventurous, even somewhat aggressive at times. Borden seemed to smooth out these rougher edges later on, although I happen to like the relative dissonance.
The second MMPMC album was titled Like A Duck To Water. It was released in 1976, again on the Earthquack label. Like its predecessor, A Duck did not exactly set the world on fire sales-wise, but remains an excellent document of a long-gone era. Cuneiform has reissued this on CD as well, with an additional 20 minutes of material.
Borden’s partner in crime, Steve Drews actually composed the majority of Like A Duck To Water. Opening with “Oleo Strut,” we find MMPMC going further into an ambient direction. Another outstanding track written by Drews is “Theme From After The Fall.” This was commissioned for a Cornell University production of the Arthur Miller play, and was previously unreleased.
The centerpiece of Like A Duck To Water has to be Borden’s “C-A-G-E Part II.” This 20:21 track originally filled all of the LP’s second side, and is one of the most memorable works of so-called new music I have heard. As one may deduce from the title, the piece was written in tribute to one of Borden’s idols, John Cage. In much the same way that Cage worked, Borden used the notes C, A, G, and E to build his opus with. The results are extraordinarily hypnotic. The gradual variations of tempo take the listener on a journey, although the actual notes never vary. “C-A-G-E Part II” is remarkably compelling all the way through.
While the very description and definition of synthesizers has changed a zillion times over the years, as has the meaning of “synthesizer music,” the early days remain the most interesting to me. I recommend the two Mother Mallard CDs as prime examples of what forward looking musicians were doing, way back when.
For those fortunate enough to live near Carlsbad, CA there is an exhibition titled “Waves Of Inspiration: The Legacy Of Moog” on display at the Museum Of Making Music — running through the end of April. And if you live a little too far away to make the trek, there is a fantastic book titled Analog Days: The Invention And Impact Of The Moog Synthesizer by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco that does a great job of illuminating the era.
Pinch and Trocco discuss Mother Mallard at length, and David Borden in particular. I am hoping more people come to know this key player in the development of the Mini-Moog. The fact that he is still making music 40 years after debuting the Mini-Moog is good to know, and I hope more people will check him out.