Born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916, Moondog has always stood aside from the main currents of music-making. Fascinated by the canon form and resolutely tonal, his music skirts ground between the classical and jazz worlds, appearing increasingly out of step with both.
This is the musician whose recordings for the Jazz label Prestige involved no improvisation; who recorded Tell It Again, a series of original songs for children on the Mother Goose storyline, with Julie Andrews; whose All Is Loneliness was recorded by Janis Joplin; who has published several volumes of his poetry (his preferred form is the rhyming couplet in which he also writes notes for concert programmes and CD releases); who was represented on the late sixties/early seventies CBS Rock Machine 'underground' rock compilations by an orchestral track; and who experimented with primitive overdubbing techniques in the early fifties when musicians were not prepared to record his works.
Moondog was in London in Summer 1995 for an all-too-rare opportunity to sample his work live when Elvis Costello's Meltdown series at the South Bank devoted a concert to his music. It was only the second time Moondog had visited the UK, the previous occasion being in 1991 when bass player Danny Thompson set in train a sequence of events that eventually brought together Moondog, John Harle and the latter's saxophone students for concerts at the Guildhall School Of Music and Dartington College. For his pains, Danny Thompson became the dedicatee and first soloist of a composition entitled D For Danny.
The Meltdown concert combined John Harle's saxophone choir, London Saxophonic (who had recorded an album of Moondog's music with the title Sax Pax For A Sax in the interim) with London Brass. The combination added an astringent, sharper snap to the broad warmth of the reeds as the ensemble maneuvered through a set of compositions which recalled the big band jazz tradition. In a programme drawn largely from their most recent CD, Big Band (the first release on Moondog's own Trimba label), Moondog and his musicians convinced utterly, with the conviction evident in both the writing and performance. Whether it was in the good-natured bravura of Lift Off, the naggingly haunting theme deployed as a 25-part canon in Heath On The Heather (written in honour of big band leader Ted Heath while Moondog was still working on the streets of New York) or in the twisting and coiling lines that danced about each other in short phrases for the duration of Shakespeare City to which the low instruments add a solid, tight punch as they drop into the mix. Elsewhere the tender yearning of Torisa, the stabbed chords and unhurried pace of Black Hole gliding above gong and drum rolls to coalesce about the dark, brooding theme of Cosmicode, and Invocation 'played entirely on one note' which shifts rhythmic patterns around the ensemble - all impressed greatly. Above all this was rich, affirmative music straddling the gap between big band jazz and the composed classical tradition (without once suggesting the sense of compromise that can manifest itself in some Third Stream music) through which Moondog led his musicians, either with his drumbeats or with his idiosyncratic style of conducting: 'I don't use a baton, I just beat my hand on my chest. The musicians seem to prefer it; they can see where the beat stops - when your hand touches your chest - but if you use a stick they're never quite sure how far the stick is going to go, where the beat ends.'
But this represents only one strand of Moondog's activity. He is a prolific composer who brings his individual stamp to a number of different idioms. He has composed over 80 symphonies (only one of which he has ever heard performed); numerous chamber works, songs and over three hundred madrigals (about 25 of them turn up on the second volume of his Columbia/CBS recordings); scores for brass bands and string orchestras; organ and piano pieces (including three volumes of 26 compositions apiece for the former and five books of The Art Of The Canon, each containing 25 works, for the tatter), plus material for his duo with French pianist Dominique Ponty (DMD, the Dominique-Moondog Duo) with whom he recorded a recent session for broadcast on Brian Morton's BBC Radio 3 programme Impressions.
Many of these works manifest a rhythmic propulsion that echoes the music of Native Americans and there can be little doubt that the two occasions on which he has played with Native American musicians in their ceremonies have had a lasting effect upon him. The first was as a five year old when his father took him to the Arapaho reservation and Chief Yellow Calf let him sit on his lap and beat the big tomtom during the Sundance Ceremony; the second during the forties when he visited the Blackfoot Indians in Idaho. There seems little doubt that the influence of their culture has been quite profound.
Moondog: 'The American Indians have this basic beat - a heartbeat in two speeds: a walking beat (in twos) and a running beat (in four). I use those rhythms to this day. In fact it just came to me recently that American Indian music is just so syncopated that any jazz musician - especially in the swing era - would see a clear connection between jazz and Indian music. Those songs are not improvised, they've been handed down from generation to generation; they're extremely old. I think of America as an 'Old World' too, maybe older culturally than Europe.'
At the age of 16 Moondog was permanently blinded when a dynamite cap exploded in his face. He subsequently attended the Iowa School for the Blind. It was here that his musical tuition began and it was to continue when he took private lessons from Burnet Tuthill, then the head of the Memphis Conservatory. Moondog has commented subsequently that the fact of his blindness enabled him to have a musical education which he could never have otherwise afforded. He studied harmony and musical form but avers that 'some elementary work with Tuthill aside' he was given no training in counterpoint ('The principles of tone relationships which date back to Pythagoras') and had to study it himself from books.
Now he states, 'When it comes to counterpoint, I'm the most fussy composer that ever lived! Throughout the classical tradition we find mistakes: Bach - nobody makes more mistakes than Bach - Palestrina, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn - the whole bunch! It's hard to pass a bar without finding something that's wrong contrapuntally. Nobody is as strict as I am! I take the time to analyse my music. It's one thing to write a piece, but it takes much more time to analyse what you've written than to write it.' He does add, however, that it's a task he has to undertake standing up, or else he falls asleep!
So are the rules of counterpoint cardinal? Is there no musical situation in which Moondog feels they could legitimately be transgressed?
'No. If you are a bricklayer you have rules which you must follow about the laying of bricks or the building will fall down ... You have to compose according to the laws of nature, and if you don't, you pay the penalties of doing it wrong ... and it will sound bad.'
In 1943 Moondog arrived in New York, working as a model for art students in order to make ends meet; he gravitated towards the musical life of the city and almost immediately began to attend rehearsals at Carnegie Hall compulsively where he was exempted by Artur Rodzinski from a blanket ban on such activity. 'He just thought I had an interesting face ... An article came out in a newspaper saying "Rodzinsk adopts man with face of Christ". He was a very mystical, superstitious person and that was just how it started' (the Biblical analogy was extended more recently when Michael Church, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, compared Moondog's appearance with that of God The Father in William Blake's engravings). He became friends with the conductor and used the rehearsals in part as an intensive course in orchestration, but once Rodzinski left Carnegie Hall, Moondog's unusual style of dress (Viking helmet, cloak and spear - adopted as a personal statement against the exploitative tactics of the fashion industry in manipulating the market by forcing switches in fashion trends year on year) led to the 'request' that he either adopt a more conventional style of dress or cease attending rehearsals. Moondog chose not to attend rehearsals.
He was to spend thirty years of his life living and working on the streets of New York, playing his music and selling his poetry. 'I started to do that in the Fall of '49. I had some square drums made and I remember that the first time I tried it on the street corner I had a crowd in seconds. I had to move because I had the street blocked. Then I moved up town in the fifties, and I stayed in that area mostly: around the jazz clubs in the 6th Avenue. Then I changed to triangular drums (the 'Trimba' from which his label takes its name). The square ones were too high; I had to squat down on the ground and I had two drums, a big one and a little one, but the little one was too high for me so I changed the design to triangular drums and that was a lot better. I was just playing drum beats in 5/4 and 5/8 time, and in the seven rhythms. It wasn't more than a few weeks that I'd been playing on the streets when one of the major columnists - Walter Winchel - heard about me and mentioned me in his column.'
Louis Hardin was able to earn a living on the streets but frequently chose to live rough in order to use the money saved on rent to hire a music copyist to work on his scores, despite the fact that, as he told Soundpieces in 1992: 'I've been kicked when I was sleeping, and pissed on, and abused and robbed sometimes.'
Within a short time he was making his first recordings: 'I started on the street in September '49, and by December/January I was playing in a doorway on 6th Avenue. When I stopped a man said, 'I like the way you play. You're sitting in my doorway and I have a music shop here. I make records and I would like to record you.' I made three or four 78s with them, starting in 1950.' That men was Gabriel Oller and his shop the Spanish Music Centre; they gave Moondog his first chance to record.
During the following years a handful of recordings followed: an EP for Epic, three albums for Prestige, two for Columbia/CBS, Tell It Again for Angel and a selection for an LP issued by the Musical Heritage Society. The 78s and Prestige albums often combine Moondog's own playing with natural and New York sounds, sometimes from prerecorded sources (such as the howling wolf on his Moondog Symphony from one of the very early 78s) or in primitive location recordings; he was thus able to incorporate the sounds of both nature and the city and its traffic (most famously, the sound of the foghorns in his Tugboat Toccata). The early 78s also incorporated tracks which involved a rudimentary form of overdubbing; unable to enlist other musicians to play his works, Moondog performed all the instrumental parts himself. In the days of the early 1950s, prior to widespread use of multitrack recordings, this involved the use of two tape recorders. The first instrumental line would be played and recorded, the result would be played back while the second line was performed live simultaneously, the combination recorded by the second tape machine. The recording of these two parts was replayed and the third line performed ... and so on. Naturally, the recording quality deteriorated quite quickly, but as Moondog commented, 'You got an idea of what was happening.' The results of one such recording, Theme, were later reorchestrated for the first Columbia album.
A contemporary solution to this problem has been Moondog's adoption of the sampler in tandem with modern overdubbing techniques to enable him to play his own compositions single-handedly. The results can be heard on the 1991 release, Elpmas (released by Kopfrecords), where he samples the marimba, balafon and koto amongst other instruments, although he is critical of the fidelity with which the sampler reproduces the sound of some instruments, most notably some of the woodwind. Although attracted by the precision of the sampler, Moondog prefers to work with live musicians wherever possible.
In 1954 Epic records released a 10 inch album of two suites written for three cellos and two violas from the New York Philharmonic, but it was not until 1969 that a full recording of some of his orchestral works was made available by Columbia/CBS (on the Masterworks series in the USA). Two years later it was followed by an album of madrigals. Moondog celebrated his liaison with Columbia by moving his pitch on the streets to one opposite the company's New York headquarters. A further opportunity to record his orchestral compositions has not presented itself; indeed, performances have been rare. Moondog recalls a time when Rodzinski asked him if he had anything for the orchestra which he (Rodzinski) could conduct, and comments, 'I didn't... and when I had it, he was dead'.
Similarly, when in 1954 Moondog wrote a a United Nations Waltz (in 5/4!) for orchestra and chorus to celebrate the founding of the organisation, he offered it to Leonard Bernstein. 'I thought he would jump at the chance to conduct it, but he acted like he didn't hear me. So nothing ever happened.' The work was eventually recorded for the big band and received its world premiere at the Meltdown concert.
During his time on the streets of New York Moondog met many of the jazzmen who played in the clubs that characterised his patch. Among them were Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louie Bellson and Charlie Parker, who suggested that they record together, but who sadly died before the plans came to fruition. Later during his time in New York, Moondog met the minimalists. Philip Glass gave him shelter in 1969. 'I know all of them: I stayed with Phil Glass for about three months back in '69; he was just getting started, and he certainly shot up fast! All power to him. If he can become rich and famous doing what he's doing then I'm not against it. I'm hoping that people can do what they want to do whether I agree with it or not.' In fact Philip Glass and Steve Reich recorded some of Moondog's madrigals with him in a disused factory at this time. It has not softened Hardin's attitude towards their musical endeavours: 'They violate every rule in the book! They just go hellbent for leather, regardless of any rules of tonal relationships. Rhythmically I can accept it; but not musically, not melodically or harmonically. When they start to use chords or melody lines it's absolute chaos! They claim that I'm the 'founder' of minimalism, but I'm not, I don't accept the title. But I like them all personally.'
He does, however, have some sympathy with La Monte Young's attempts to come to grips with the inaccuracies of the standard tuning system ('equal temperament') in as far as it reflects some of his own work. Whereas Young has deployed his system of 'just intonation' (where the fundamental frequencies of the instrument are tuned in small whole number ratios with the pitches coinciding with the harmonic content of the strings themselves) which he claims gives a more perfect set of pitch relationships, Moondog has developed what he refers to as the 'pure scale.'
'Well Bach came in with his "equal temperament" so that he could play in 24 keys and sound reasonably well in all of them; but it was a compromise, and compromises are always dangerous. I wrote a series of pieces with the piano tuned in perfect fifths and fourths and octaves, which I call the "pure scale." It means that I could only use a limited number of keys. But I don't think the facility to modulate into 24 different keys is that important. I think modulation was overdone, especially from Wagner on; he made it sound reasonably well, but Mahler made a fetish out of it. His nonsequiturs in all sorts of keys became almost absurd. You don't have to keep modulating to keep up the interest; the interest isn't in the modulation, it's in the ideas and how they're developed.'
In the 1950s Louis Hardin had been forced to take steps to protect the working name he had adopted in 1947. Of its choice he states, 'Subconsciously I must have been more influenced by the Indians than I realised. I was attracted by an Indian-sounding pen name. But it was really referring to my dog that I used to have in Missouri who used to howl at the moon a lot. I thought of him when I put the words together. But I learned later that the Inuit indians have a 'Sundog' (a rainbow over the sun) and a 'Moondog' (a rainbow over the moon). So it wasn't as original as I thought!' However, Allan Freed proved less original. In 1952 Moondog had heard through a friend of a DJ in Ohio who was interested in the possibility of him going out and joining his show, but 'the next thing I knew he had moved to New York and adopted the name himself to broadcast a radio show using one of my records with the howling wolf (Moondog Symphony) as his theme song. So I got a lawyer and we sued him and we won the case. Freed got up on Thanksgiving Night in '54 and said, "I can't use the name Moondog any more, it belongs to someone else, so from now it's the Rock and Roll Show." Rumour has it that Igor Stravinsky interceded on Moondog's behalf: 'I heard later, not at the time, that before the decision came down Stravinsky had called up Judge Walters and said, "Do right by this man - he's a good musician." Whether his intercession had anything to do with the final decision, I don't know.'
In America, Moondog had often commented that he felt his spiritual home was Europe, that he was a 'European in exile.' In 1974 he eventually came to Europe. 'In '73 I got a call from an organiser in America who said, "I have a chance for you to come over to Europe with me and do a concert." I said, "Yes, I'd like to come." So in January '74 we came over, they got a little orchestra together and I conducted some of my pieces, then Paul Jordan played some of my organ pieces. But I liked it so much over here I didn't go back with him. I went to Hamburg for a year and then I got a letter from someone in Recklinghausen, a little town near Cologne, who said, "Come down, maybe we can do something." So I did. One day I was selling my music on the streets of Recklinghausen (in Viking helmet) when a young lady came up and introduced herself. We've been working together ever since. That was Ilona Goebel. She writes all my music down, accompanies me wherever I go and publishes my music. It's twenty years I've been here now ... and we have a little record company called 'Trimba.' The big band is the first release on our own label.'
In the same way that Moondog's Columbia recordings were characterised by a timeless quality - at once reminiscent of the past, anchored in the classical tradition and yet simultaneously shot through with an entirely contemporary perspective - so his Big Band and Sax Pax For A Sax recordings at once evoke a past musical idiom whilst still retaining the vibrancy of compositions which do not look back, but forward. Yet if the heartbeat of the jazz idiom was its improvisation, this has no place in Moondog's work: 'Oh no! I'll write it out completely. Soloists don't know what they're doing contrapuntally; they play whatever comes into their heads whether it fits contrapuntally or not. To me, the only person who can improvise without any contrapuntal mistakes is somebody who plays a solo instrument, perhaps against a drumbeat. Then they can do anything they want to do - they can play a solo improvised melody without breaking any of the rules. But as soon as you put a soloist against a band, a piano, or one other instrument, then the trouble begins. They constantly break the two basic rules of counterpoint - changing notes and passing notes - and violate the tonal relationships between the different tones. Even a composer, who is not improvising, who is writing music by himself and is the only one who has anything to do with it - even they make mistakes. So it's a little trick: to make it sound free, but to make sure it's following the rules. For instance, Bird's Lament is a chaconne with an alto (sax) solo; people who don't know it's written down would swear it was improvised, but it isn't. It's the art of concealing Art; that's what I'm always up to. People don't care about the complexities beneath the surface as long as they can enjoy what you're doing. I don't make a point of saying, "Look how clever I was." Some artists do - they make a big point of the technicalities. Virtuosos are that way; they say, "Look how fast I can go, how many notes I can play per second." That's fine for the circus, but it's not Art. That's basically what I have against concertos in general: they're show pieces for the virtuoso, but the musical content is often almost nil.'
But given the importance of improvisation within the jazz context, does he then view these works as primarily to be of the 'jazz' or the 'classical' traditions?
'I'm basically classically orientated: I think classically. The basic forms I use are either the cannon or the chaconne, perhaps with some variations. My concept of 'jazz' is more [Native American] Indian orientated. But I combine the two ... and that may give a new twist to the European tradition.'
When Moondog talks of 'jazz' in relation to his works he appears to be referring to a pronounced syncopation rather than improvisation. It is ironic, then, that where Moondog's releases are stocked they are almost exclusively to be found in the jazz racks, and that his work should be featured in session for Brian Morton's Radio 3 jazz slot. We should be grateful for those opportunities that do exist; the classical orthodoxy has not rushed to embrace him.
'There are no orchestras knocking at my door to play my music, and I'm not getting commissions. But you never know, it could change overnight. I've only had my first symphony performed, by an orchestra in Salzburg in 1983. That's the only time I ever had a symphony played. I think the big drawback with me is that my music is too tonal for conductors who are bending over backwards to play atonal music. There's a lot of pressure on composers to play that - there's a very tight-knit clique on a global scale pushing that music. The last thing they want to see is tonal music being included. But trends change, and I think this atonal music will pass.'
But whatever style he may be working around, the common factor which binds together almost all his recorded work is its brevity. There is very little preserved for posterity in that form which exceeds fifteen minutes, for the most part it is much less. 'I heard somewhere - it may be a Greek proverb - that brevity was a virtue. To be of few words: to say something important in as few words as possible. That's why I like the couplet so much as a verse form. And it's true of canons too: you can say an awful lot of things in a few bars. But I have written a thousand part canon which takes nine hours to play! It will probably never be performed, but it was just something that I wanted to do.'
So is Moondog able to perceive any development in his compositional style over the years? Does counterpoint remain at the heart of it? It still is ... 'My attitude towards composing hasn't changed in the last forty-one years; I still follow the same rules. But looking back on some of my pieces ... even on the Columbia album I notice I overlooked one or two mistakes. It's on record, I can't change that; I have to admit that I goofed there, I have to live with it!' Yet Moondog is also aware that these compositional processes have led him towards innovation. 'I created a 16-part canon. The form never existed before - it's three canons within one. The Big Band is performing one of those called Invocation [on the Big Band CD] and it's all on one note - a low A - it's the same note that the Buddhist monks chant. This Invocation is to help living people to communicate with ancestors, or ancestors to communicate with the living, or the living to communicate with god, or even people of this galaxy to communicate with other galaxies ... Thought is instantaneous; light goes fast, but thought is faster. So imagine communicating instantaneously with intelligent beings in a remote galaxy - or any galaxy. This Invocation evokes that; it generates something. After five minutes you begin hearing things in the overtones.'
And talking of overtones, as the interview comes to a close, Moondog ensures that I have an A4 sheet of paper which is headed The Cosmicode. He briefly explains a little about it: 'That's what I've been doing for the last twenty years. I've found that in the first nine overtones there's a code which can only have been conceived by a god - I call it a megamind. That code not only proves that god exists (because it can only have been conceived by a super-intelligence) but I have found that there are secret laws in there referring to cosmic construction; for example contraction and expansion, two-directionality of time, cause and effect ... These things are all there in the first nine overtones.'
In truth, the best context in which to regard his work is amongst that handful of maverick American composers whose music is united by both the individuality of their musical thinking and the single-mindedness with which they followed it through the shifting currents of critical and public (dis)regard, despite the fact that their music itself could not be more varied. Thus his piece is indicated alongside Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier and John Cage, amongst others.
Moondog himself would probably disavow such affiliations.
Moondog was born 26 May, 1916 and died 8 September, 1999. This essay was written in 1995.