Village Voice, 1989 November 14
Private Bells. Moondog / Conlon Nancarrow
In "Why Composers Write How," Virgil Thomson's treatise on how economic factors determine style, Thomson defined as a naif any composer who made his living outside music. Present economic reality has blurred the category, but the description is classic: "Naifs are rare whose technique is ample enough to enable them to compete at all with the Big Time. They mostly flower unknown and unheard. Those whom we do encounter are angels of refreshment and light, and their music is no small scandal. Its clarity is a shock to the professional mind. It doesn't hesitate about being lengthy or about being brief, and it neglects completely to calculate audience psychology. It is not made for audiences. As Tristan Tzara said of Dada, it is a 'private bell for inexplicable needs.'"
Thomson mentioned Ives, Mussorgsky, and Satie, but he might have referred more accurately to Louis Hardin (born 1916 and better known as Moondog) and Conlon Nancarrow, both of whom will make rare New York appearances this week courtesy of the New Music America festival.
Longtime New Yorkers may remember Moondog as the eccentric who dressed in Viking garb and hung around 54th Street and Sixth Avenue in the '60s, writing music in doorways, playing drums, and selling his mimeographed metaphysical poetry. Blinded at 16 by an exploding dynamite cap, Hardin felt singled out by providence, fated for nonconformity; he began dictating his music to people who would write it down for him, took his pen name from a pet which bayed constantly at the moon, and wore Norse clothing as a gesture toward his ancestral heritage.
The manifesto that served as liner notes for Moondog's first, 1969 Columbia record (just rereleased on CD) marked a one-man counterrevolution unlike any in recent centuries. Moondog's music was clear, simple, often canonic (using the same melody in each voice at different times, as in "Row, row, row your boat") and, when it came to rhythm, infectiously jazzy. As to harmony, it went religiously by the book. In his voice-leading (the manner in which contrapuntal lines move against or with each other), he declared himself "a purist, as much or more so than Palestrina; yes, more so, for even he broke a rule here and there. To me, bad voice-leading is bad taste ... If 'Rules are to be broken' is itself a rule, then I can break that one and say 'Rules are not to be broken.'"
An unapologetic classicist, Moondog called himself a "European in exile." In 1974 he went to Germany for a performance of his music by the Hessischer Rundfunks Orchestra, and, until this week, never returned. There he met Ilona Gobbel, who took him home to her family and became his amanuensis, publisher, record producer, and companion. Today they live in Oer-Erkenschwick, West Germany. His music gets performed in Germany and France, and in December German-based Roof Records will issue a three-CD set. To hear him talk, he's never swerved from that stance of radical conservatism:
"As far as I know, I'm the only composer who doesn't break the first two laws of counterpoint, which are changing notes and passing notes. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, broke them all the time. In the first fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier, I found the first mistake in bar two. There are only about 20 measures, and I went over it with a pianist and found 20 mistakes. The Brandenburg Concertos are bristling with mistakes. I don't think Bach had time to go back and analyze his music and eliminate the mistakes. No one makes more mistakes than I do, but I go back and take care of them. And yet, strict as I am," he rightly adds, "my music still flows and sounds spontaneous."
Asked about recent projects, Hardin enthuses with the cautious intensity of one who half expects to be misunderstood: "I've done a lot of research on the overtone series for 15 years, and I've found some laws in the first nine overtones which may apply to the entire universe. Apparently no one else has ever discovered them." He's written a paper titled "The Overtone Continuum" which in 54 axioms and a dozen-odd diagrams details the ways in which union of opposites and the two-directionality of time are deducible from a simple rising note sequence. The theories have found their way into his recent music in grandiose terms: "To describe the cosmos, I've written a 1000-part canon, Cosmos I. You couldn't paint the cosmos, but you can describe it in music. No one has ever attempted a piece of such magnitude. Mahler wrote a symphony for a thousand players, but it didn't have a thousand different parts. Cosmos I takes nine hour to perform - not that it will ever be played, but it was something I wanted to do, to describe what the cosmos is like. My 1000-voice canon," he adds with a nod toward poor Johann Sebastian, "you won't find one mistake."
Unfortunately, NMA can't bring us that phenomenon, but it will provide a number of Moondog's less ambitious efforts. For the opening night extravaganza at the BAM Opera House, Hardin will take part in a performance of his First Session, written in 1953. Then, November 16 at BAM's Majestic Theater, Tania Leon will conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic in a program Hardin calls "The Tale of two Cities," since it begins with a piece called Paris and ends with his beloved New York (written in 1958 and not yet performed in America). In between will be excerpts from the first Columbia record, including Good for Goodie and Bird's Lament (dedicated to Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker). Though Moondog titled his early pieces Symphoniques or Minisyms, he wrote his First Symphony in 1984, and this concert will give us a movement from his Symphony No. 50 (fast worker, eh?). "Most of the pieces," he says, "are jazz-oriented, but I wanted to do one piece to show my classical training," Passion Flower for string orchestra. And, you can hear the works free in open rehearsal at the Majestic at 2 p.m. Moondog will conduct "from the drums," and is bringing the same drums he used to play in the doorways of New York. "It'll be good to come back to New York," he says. "I miss that city very much." Those of us who have held his legend in the back of our heads for 20 years will find that return just as exciting.