Moondog, aka Louis Hardin, is a true maverick, the archetypal American musical iconoclast. He might be considered to be the hip, beat generation musical analog to Grandma Moses. Like the painter, Moondog is a true naive artist, in the best sense of the word. He writes without regard to fashion or contemporary style; instead, he follows his muse in the creation of his compositions. Since the 1950s, Moondog has recorded numerous albums for Prestige, Columbia, Musical Heritage Society (!) and in more recent years he has released albums in Europe. Most of these records are obscure and quite collectible.
The CBS release is a compilation of Moondog and Moondog II, the composer's most well known, musically accessible and easily obtained records. Both albums were produced by James William Guercio (known primarily as Chicago's producer). The first consists of music for orchestra. The music is tonal, but quirky in a most wonderful way, often with irregular rhythms and syncopations.
Some pieces, such as "Symphonique No. 6 (Good For Goodie)," dedicated to Benny Goodman, reveal a jazz influence. Appropriately enough, performers in the otherwise "classical" symphony include flutist Hubert Laws and bassist Ron Carter. Most notable are the repetitive techniques which antecipate similar techniques used by minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich some 10 years later.
Also, one finds Moondog's signature percussion, which is performed on specially designed drums ("trimbas") and maracas. These distinctive drums, along with a steady underlying pulse and infectious syncopations, help define the Moondog sound. Occasionally the composer will recite a little verse which he has written as a prologue to the music.
Moondog II is comprised of 26 brief "madrigals." In fact, they are not like Renaissance madrigals, rather they are rounds or canons. As with almost all of his music, imitative counterpoint is the formal structure that forms the basis of Moondog's work. The vocal style, as executed by Moondog and his daughter, with plenty of overdubbing to create a small chamber choir, is without vibrato and coupled with the charming, sometimes obscure texts and some of the composer's most delightful music ever. Unfortunately, CBS did not see fit to reproduce the music and texts which accompanied the original release in the form of a beautiful booklet.
The Prestige release, originally recorded in 1956, is less polished and more musically obscure and severe. Still, the music is quite wonderful, with Moondog performing on piano. recorder, percussion, "Oo" and trimbas, and other unidentified instruments, as well as singing and providing recitations. Other performers include the composer's wife's rustic singing and others on traditional Western instruments. Several works are percussion solos or at least percussion-oriented. The sonic texture is often filled out by environmental sounds (insects and birds chirping, crashing waves, rushing traffic, etc.). Caveat: production values are only fair. Still, this is well worth owning if you enjoy Moondog's idiosyncratic and unique music.
Flaskkvartetten is a Swedish string quartet which is comprised of two violas and two cellos, rather than the traditional two violins, viola and cello. They also play unconventional music that skirts the boundaries between contemporary classical music, jazz and progressive rock. On Moondog Conducts Flaskkvartetten: Bracelli they perform works by Moondog, often augmented by contrabass and trimbas. Perhaps more than the other recordings, this one contains music which is dark, brooding, somber and evocative, as one might expect from the lower members of the string family. As always, the music is lovely (in fact, stunningly beautiful at limes), quaint, but with that extra intangible something that makes Moondog so special.
It has been a long time since most have heard anything from Moondog and this collection of old and new material is a real treasure trove, sure to delight initiates, at well as those discovering this most unusual musician for the first time. (Moondog Conducts Flaskkvartetten: Bracelli is available from Wayside Music, POB 6517, Wheaton, MD 20905)