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A Musical Odyssey: Issue #8
by Kurt Keefner


Moondog is an American original and virtually unclassifiable. Because he is an experimentalist, uses lots of rhythm and throws in the occasional spoken word like a Beat poet, he has sometimes been promoted as if he were a jazz musician. But although he was slightly influenced by jazz, his music does not include improvisation, nor does he usually make use of the typical jazz instruments.

It would be easiest to classify him as classical, except that he is utterly outside the classical mainstream of his time: his music is tonal and tends to come in small packages. And there's that rhythm again. Yet Moondog is far too serious and draws too much on 19th century Romantic music to be regarded as pop.

It is tempting to put him in the category of soundtrack music. You can just imagine his two-minute wonders running behind the credits of a movie or a TV-drama. Furthermore, classically-based soundtrack music often incorporates "extraneous" elements like rhythm and the occasional jazz combo into its forms. And lastly, one of the composers most influenced by Moondog, Philip Glass, has comfortably crossed back and forth between recital-pieces and soundtrack music for most of his career. However, to my knowledge, Moondog has never scored a movie or TV show. So unless we liberate "soundtrack music" from its functional moorings and treat it as a free-standing genre, Moondog doesn't get into the door. (By the way, for a great discussion of soundtrack music, see Henry Pleasants' 1969 work "Serious Music - And All That Jazz!". )

Unfortunately, the best category to put Moondog in is, somewhat anachronistically, "New Age." I say "unfortunately" because in my opinion New Age is kind of a garbage category, a mishmash of electronica, watered-down world music, tired jazz, and hollowed-out classical - all packaged as mystical/medicinal mood music. Music for potheads and other space cadets, in other words. I know this is unfair of me, because there are good artists who can plausibly be placed in the New Age category, like Loreena McKennit and the World/Jazz band Tuatara. Perhaps I need to remind myself of Norman Spinrad's profound dictum that 90% of everything is crap. It's just that the crappy part of New Age music is so unctuously marketed.

Who is Moondog? He was born Louis Hardin, in Marysville, Kansas, in 1916. Blinded by an explosion as a teenager he received his formal musical training at the Iowa School for the Blind. He ended up selling copies of his poetry and music on a corner in New York City in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, taking DJ Alan Freed (who in the mid-50s first dubbed big beat music "rock and roll") to court over the use of the name "Moondog" which Freed had brought with him from Cleveland but which Hardin had been using since 1947. Hardin won.

Moodog attracted the attention of labels like CBS which put out both jazz and classical music and ended up with about a dozen albums to his credit. Eventually he re-located to Europe, where he always felt he belonged. (Hardin feels strongly about his Scandinavian roots and used to walk around Manhattan dressed like a Viking.)

The two CDs reviewed here include three albums. The CD "Moondog" includes the LPs "Moondog" and "Moondog 2" from 1969 and 1971 respectively. "Sax Pax for a Sax" is a recent performance of some old and possibly some new Moondog pieces from 1994. I have never heard any of Moondog's other dozen albums, almost all of which are out of print, so to cover myself I should say that all my generalizations are built on this limited sample.

Describing Moondog's style isn't hard, but capturing his appeal is. Imagine short pieces of music, usually under three minutes in length. They often use formal techniques from Elizabethan England, like madrigals and rounds, and from baroque Europe, like canons, but with a lusher, more Romantic nineteenth-century melody and harmony. Instead of using the oldstyle forms, Hardin will frequently use a short repeated figure. And drums. Hardin loves percussion: bass drum, snare drum, maracas, whatever. His rhythms are complex and insistent. Not as complex as Middle Eastern rhythms or as insistent as African ones - more like the rhythms of a really clever and energetic marching band drummer.

What holds this melange together is Moondog's undeniable sense of drama. Moondog clearly does not regard music as an academic exercise but as a means of rousing the spirit. The best of his work under consideration is the orchestral music on "Moondog," of which I have two favorites: "Stomping Ground" uses a full orchestra, smartly arranged, over tympani (those big, tuned drums used in some classical music) and a snare drum to build up two-and-a- half minutes of dramatic tension. It has a restless, martial air which it both dispels and increases with quasi-fanfares. "Lament I, 'Bird's Lament'" is a piece Hardin wrote in memory of jazz great Charlie "Bird" Parker whom Hardin knew slightly. It is a 1:41 tour de force: strings and snare drums begin with an insistent, repeated figure. Then two saxophones, baritone and alto, I think, trade phrases both jazzy and melancholy, as if they were part of a New Orleans musical funeral procession. As their exchanges grow more intricate, the background figure is played louder with more and more instruments, a little like Ravel's Bolero. It's the kind of lament a jazzman would want.

The first 30 minutes of the CD "Moondog" is devoted to this fascinating orchestral work, interspersed with a couple of mercifully brief poems or epigrams. The last 45 minutes of the CD derives from the LP "Moondog 2" and consists of 25 madrigals in the form of rounds and canons. Here Moondog and his daughter June sing, backed by musicians on viola da gamba, harpsichord, recorders, shawm and the like. And percussion, of course: maracas, tambourines, bells, the whole works. Some of the pieces are interesting in their rhythms and in the complexity of the music, although they are all too short to develop properly and sound too similar to "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to be of the highest caliber. All the words I can make out are insipid and are sung in that high, breathy, almost lispy Richard Carpenter/Mason Williams vocal style so popular in the early 70s. Still, taken in small doses, these pieces are intriguing and a worthwhile makeweight to the orchestral work.

The CD "Sax Pax for a Sax" is one of those gracious tributes that lucky artists receive in their twilight years, an inventive revisiting of the best work with participation by the composer as he is able. Gone is Hardin's intricate percussion, instead he gives us a steady beat from the bass drum. The group he accompanies is an ad hoc outfit called the London Saxophonic, consisting of up to nine saxophones, acoustic bass (played by Danny Thompson) and a snare drum, tympani or piano. Three of the pieces include vocals, which are droll, and interestingly delivered by a chorus with no solo singer. The chorus consists partly of the band and is not a bunch of skilled part-singers. When they sing it reminds me of when John Coltrane and his merry men mumble-chant "A Love Supreme" although they are technically better than that. It's pretty funny to hear this mostly British, very civilized group singing Moondog's love lyrics to New York City, "I dig her deeply - and no wonder." This I dig of you, ducky.

There are the usual canons and repetitive figures, but they sound different when played on multiple saxophones, more intimate and idiosyncratic and less like orchestral Romanticism. I am not a big fan of groups made of the same kind of instrument, all-tuba serenaders, recorder quintets and the like, but this one works pretty well. It helps that a soprano sax can sound like a clarinet while a bass or baritone sax can sound like sort of a tuba. The players and producer do an adroit job of achieving aural separation so that we don't end up with one big messy super-saxophone sound. At times, like the conclusion of "Toot Suite, Movement 3" we end up with something of a New Orleans sound that having all those saxes contributes to.

Interestingly, we lose the New Orleans sound of "Bird's Lament," the one track duplicated from the CD "Moondog." On "Sax Pax" it is 20% longer due to having been slowed down almost to dirge-tempo. (New Orleans funeral music, like an Irish wake, is spirited.) And the limited forces cannot achieve the same dynamic crescendo. Still, the timbres of the saxes are very nice and have just the right rough edges and burrs for such a piece. As a complement to "Bird's Lament" Moondog gives us "Present for the Prez," which is a memoriam to jazzman Lester Young. It employs some improvised or improvised-sounding sax lines played over a low, menacing figure delivered by the baritone and bass saxes and the piano.

There are a lot of nice short pieces to enjoy on "Sax Pax." On "Single Foot," Moondog delivers something like snake-charming music, sinuous, exotic strains over a pitter-pat rhythm. Not so nice is the foolish three-movement "Suite to the EEC," which includes a "Hymn to Peace" that sounds like a cross between Haydn's "Austria" and "Hail to the Chief." The peppy little third movement is called "EEC Lied." Presumably this is "Lied" as in "Lieder" - German for "songs," but given the recent shenanigans in Brussels one cannot be too sure. The first movement is called "Golden Fleece" and that seems appropriate.

In the very middle of the album we are treated to a relief from the saxophonic palette by way of two very short pieces for piano: "Seahorse" (1:17) and "Fiesta" (1:35) played by Nicola Meecham. They are the kind of works that sound a little like a lot of people. There's some Schubert, there's some Shostakovich. Oh, isn't that Philip Glass? And yet they hang together as just "Moondog."

I've mentioned the similarity between Moondog and Philip Glass a couple of times now. It's not a trivial connection. Moondog is regarded as one of the fathers of minimalist music, with its strong rhythms, repeated figures and limited harmonic development. (Steve Reich sometimes sounds a little like Moondog too.) And minimalism represents one of the most successful attempts to help serious music escape from the box it's gotten itself into. I'll save the main discussion of this issue for a later Odyssey covering Philip Glass, but it's nice to know that a blind busker from Kansas can help set off a revolution in music. And no, I'm not going to tell you what a busker is. Go look it up.

1999, 2000 by Kurt Keefner. All rights reserved.