Ducks In a Row

Written by Dan Schwartz

For about six months of my life, around the time of my 18th birthday, I played in a cover band—six sets a night, and finished at 2 AM. The band’s “home base” was a club just inside the boundary of Camden, NJ.

We sometimes would go to the Penn Queen diner after performing. One night early in 1975, I loaded my bass into my Volvo 164, strapped in, turned the ignition, flipped on Diaspar (as usual) and — I was, quite literally, transfixed; maybe the only time that ever happened. I didn’t care about how tired I was, or about the smoke stench permeating my hair and clothes. I remember that I drove to the diner, but mostly remember seeing the guys in the band looking at me through the windows just sitting in my car (utterly “blissed out”, as the kids say) listening to the music. The piece was announced, I called the station the next day to find out what I could, and wrote a letter to the label.

A week later two copies of Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company[1] arrived on my doorstep with a nice note from group founder David Borden. Maybe I’ve been writing about minimalism as an excuse to write about Mother Mallard. I dearly love the records, certainly as much as the best Steve Reich — maybe more. It’s “minimal”, yes, in that it’s made up of small repeated motifs, but it’s also rock and roll — at least my version of it. And unlike the other “Big Three” (Riley, Reich and Glass), it’s primarily synthesizer music. In fact, as I was to discover, they were the first synthesizer ensemble — they had their beginnings in the studio of the R.A. Moog Company.

The piece I heard that late night on Diaspar was “Ceres Motion”, by ensemble-member Steve Drews. How can I describe it without using superlatives? Despite my enthusiasm for the other composers, I had never heard anything quite like it: a word that comes to mind is shimmering — the piece shimmers in place, but underneath is a rolling bass line that rocks prominently back and forth on IV and I.  And rocks. And rocks some more. In a field that has a lot of propulsive music, this piece really hurtles forward.


They formed in late 1968, initially to perform music by the aforementioned, as well as by Robert Ashley and John Cage (clearly they were very hit-oriented – not!), with the help of Bob Moog. At first, their orientation was strictly live performance. In the book Analog Days[2], founder Borden tells the story of what it was like to perform:

“Mother Mallard practiced their patch changes[3] in rehearsal: ‘We’d go into army drills.’ This produced a remarkable scene: ‘We used to have rehearsals where we didn’t play any music, we were just practicing the patching for the pieces… So we got it down to five minutes, five-to-seven minutes between pieces.’ During the five-to-seven minute interval where Mother Mallard would go through their silent patch-change choreography, they would show classic cartoons from the thirties and forties. David recalls that for some, the cartoons may have been the best part of the evening. ‘And I heard someone go out and say, ‘You know, it was worth it just to see the cartoons.’ ‘ ”

On top of everything else I love about the group, they took themselves seriously but not religiously so. They were hippies at heart with a good sense of humor about their name and titles. (And cartoons, of course.)

A few months after discovering them, on a trip to northern New York state to decide if I wanted to move there[4], my friend Pete and I spent a couple hours with Steve Drews in the studio at their “shitty farmhouse” (his phrase) as he worked on the bass part of a piece for the 2nd album, a composition called “Oleo Strut”[5]. It was from a version of the 2nd album that I still regard as superior to the CD, made up of less and better music (same with the first record). The added tunes on the CD are interesting, but I think they got it right out of the gate.

For instance, Drews’ piece “Train”, from the first album, perfectly captures my experience of lying with a girlfriend on the banks of the Delaware late at night when I was a teen, hearing a train going slowly by on the opposite bank of the river. The second record’s Borden-composed C-A-G-E Part II is the composer’s major recorded piece of the time, emphasizing the title pitches as a motif against the dense textures that only thin out, incredibly dramatically, close to the end.

Years later, I was surprised to discover, when I worked with Jon Hassell, that he had on occasion been on a bill with Borden. As the 50th anniversary approaches, Borden is active as a composer, and still on occasion performs under the name Mother Mallard. Drews has been active for many, many years, engaged in his second act as a photographer.

I feel very, very fortunate to have stumbled on their music late that night. It’s shaped my path.

Next: the final installment, a modern minimalist.

[1] Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co., Cuneiform Records Rune 109

[2] Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco, Analog Days, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002

[3] The changing of interconnections and settings of the modules

[4] I didn’t! I ended up in southern California 3 months later. It was the last weekend of April, and still the trees had no leaves.

[5] Like A Duck To Water, Cuneiform Records Rune 147

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