There are several histories of music, not one. There are also several pantheons of music. There are artists who have never experienced commercial success, but in expression and influence are so vital and innovative that any true music lover is obliged to investigate their craft. Moondog is one such artist - a true American original as important as Sun Ra, Harry Partch, John Lee Hooker, or the Velvet Underground.
Throughout his nearly half century in music, the impact of Moondog's work has been farreaching and enduring: Big Brother and the Holding Company covered his "All Is Loneliness" on their 1968 debut album; his renowned drum-patterns can be found sampled on albums by such contemporary bands as Stereolab and Moonshake; and Kronos Quartet recorded his "Synchrony No. 2" for their just-released "EARLY MUSIC" album. His music has often been cheered for its artistry and inspiration by such artists as Steve Reich, John Zorn, and Phillip Glass.
With a repertoire nearly 20 albums in length, Moondog is, to this day, experimenting and moving forward. Now he delves for the first time into the sounds of saxophone ensemble with "SAX PAX FOR A SAX," his debut Atlantic album and first American release since 1971.
Recorded by David Lord, this utterly idiosyncratic collection of Moondog compositions was cut in Bath, England with the composer on bass drum and bongos before an all-saxophone orchestra (members of the award-winning Apollo Saxophone Quartet), the core of which was formed by leading British player John Harle. An extraordinary fusion of classical compositions and jazz harmonies, "SAX PAX FOR A SAX" is at once highly accessible, thrilling, and challenging.
The first pack - meaning different sized groups within the ensemble - involves four saxes ("Single Foot"), the second with five saxes ("Sandalwood"), then seven saxes ("New Amsterdam"), nine saxes ("Novette No. 1 "), and so on.
Superbly conceived, the album is a celebration of the instrument and its wide range of voices - both familiar and unfamiliar.
Along with its sweetly touching, almost melancholic instrumental tracks are vocal pieces featuring contributions from such acclaimed British artists as Peter Hammill (of Van Der Graaf Generator fame), Andrew Davis (ex-Stackridge), and piano soloist Nicola Meecham, a teacher at the Royal Academy Of Music. Bassist Danny Thompson (formely of influential Brit folk band Pentangle and a recent Everything But The Girl contributor) also performs on the album - in addition to having "D for Danny" dedicated to him.
On "Bird's Lament (In Memory of Charlie Parker)," Moondog & Co. craft an evocative, urban soundscape in honor of the jazz great - a reworking of a previously recorded version. "Charlie stopped by my doorway one night and said we ought to do something together," remembers Moondog. "I thought it would be a good idea. But the next thing I knew, he had died. That was in '58 that I wrote this piece in tribute to him."
Written more than 20 years ago - at least a year before Moondog ever ventured to the City of Light - the cabaret-styled "Paris" shifts the mood with a light-hearted spirit and jaunty male vocal chorus. "I wrote that using what little French I remembered from school and never dreaming I'd actually be going to Paris," says Moondog, who brings the track to life within the drama of the sax platform.
Throughout "SAX PAX...," Moondog intuitively merges jazz harmonies within a Baroque choral form, resulting in powerful, hypnotic pieces that effectively suspend time ... even within the space of three minutes or less.
Several album tracks - including "Mother's Whistler" and "Sandalwood" - are performed in a unique 5/4 beat that Moondog calls "snake-time." "It's an off-beat rhythm," says Moondog. "Since it's an irregular beat, it has sort of an undulating effect, like the movement of a snake."
Through the course of the album, tracks are played at one of just two beats, determined by the tempo of the conductor's bass drum. For Moondog, the focus on rhythm dates back to his youth out west. I learned the Indian drumbeats when I was a boy in Wyoming," he says. "On the sax album, I use either the fast or running beat, as the Indians call it, or the slower, walking beat."
While much of the music sounds like jazz, with wild improvisation as in "Present For The Prez.," it is, in fact, classically conceived. The character of the recording comes through in its deft combination of old and new musical elements. Heralded by a reputation for brilliance colored by large doses of urban myth, "SAX PAX FOR A SAX" brings Moondog into the light and proves that the legend, indeed, lives.
Moondog was born Louis Hardin, in Marysville, Kansas in 1916, of Episcopalian missionary parents, spending parts of his youth visiting Indian reservations in the Midwest and establishing musical influences that continue to this day. He still fondly remembers joining in a sun dance ceremony at age six on the Arapaho reservation, sitting on the lap of Chief Yellow Calf and beating the tom-tom.
Blind since the age of sixteen (when a dynamite cap exploded in his face), Moondog's initial musical training took place at the Iowa School for the Blind. He moved to New York City in 1943, believing it was the one American city where he would be closest to his beloved European art and music traditions.
"When I came to New York, I was very classical-minded," says Hardin. I got to meet the great conductor Arthur Rodzinski, and he let me come to all the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic." Hardin, in fact, became a singular exception to Rodzinski's ban on outsiders attending rehearsals.
Interestingly enough, it was during a brief 1948 trip to the American West - where he spent time living with the Navaho and Blackfoot Native American tribes - that Hardin's interest in jazz first began. "I think jazz originated with the Indian," he says. "If you listen to the music, there's a basic swing beat, over top of which they put all these ornate melodies - they're highly syncopated and very jazzy. Especially with the Plains Indians like the Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot Indians, they all use those highly syncopated melody lines.
In '48, when I visited the Blackfoot tribe in Idaho, I realized I was one of them at heart. I would sit down at the big sundance tom-tom and we'd play together. I felt a community of spirit."
Afterwards, Hardin remained in New York City, living in a series of small apartments for close to thirty years, performing and writing on the streets of Manhattan. As Moondog (a name he adopted in 1949), he was for many years a unique attraction along Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 56th Street, playing percussion instruments of his own design, reading poetry and talking with passers-by. An imposing figure, dressed in Viking regalia, he became such a fixture that he was even listed in guide books to the city. "Sixth Avenue was the avenue that tolerated me," says Moondog, hinting at the many obstacles and challenges that face any determined street musician. "The people there seemed to like me to be around, so that's where I stayed."
Media specialist and musicologist Tony Schwartz began recording Moondog for his urban field recording albums for the Folkways label in the early 1950's, continuing to produce EP's and albums of Moondog's music for Epic Records. Moondog's lyrical and idiosyncratic music was acknowledged and admired by many greats of the time, leading to meetings with the young Leonard Bernstein, Dimitri Mitropolous, Arturo Toscanini, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, and to extensive recordings with symphonic players from around the city. By the end of the '50s, Moondog had released seven full-length albums, in addition to contributing to a charming project with Martyn Green and a young Julie Andrews - a 1957 album of nursery rhymes and childrens' songs.
From this formulative period, the Moondog anecdotes are many: He was befriended by Marlon Brando, who followed him around for a couple of weeks after completing The Wild One ("In those days he had a pet raccoon," says Moondog of Brando.); Diane Arbus photographed him and would dine with him at a cafeteria near Camegie Hall; he performed in concert with Tiny Tim and Lenny Bruce; and appeared in Conrad Rooks' legendary impressionist film Chappaqua, alongside William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg.
As a strong believer in musical tradition, Moondog chooses to respect the age-old rules of counterpoint in his work, following them to uttermost strictness. He was particularly attracted to the form of the canon, the cyclical song best exemplified by such childrens' songs as "Row Your Boat" or "Three Blind Mice."
"I read a book about composition once and it said that if you don't master counterpoint, you'll never become a composer," says Moondog. "That stuck in my mind and I began ordering books from the New York Library. They didn't teach counterpoint in the School for the Blind, so I had to study it by myself.
"I was always taught that the model was Bach," he continues, "but the more I studied Bach's scores, the more I found he violated the basic rules many times. About half the time he did it right and half the time he makes terrible mistakes. I think he didn't analyze his work; he wrote so many pieces and had so many children to support, he just didn't have the time."
Moondog has written over 300 canons in the form of madrigals, in addition to over 100 keyboard works based on canons, self-published in the four volume mimeographed set The Art of the Canon. "It's a life-long work and I'm always learning new things," he says. "It's a strict form but that very strictness gives you a lot of freedom that you wouldn't otherwise have. It's sort of a paradox."
Moondog has invented a variety of musical instruments used on his recordings: The Oo, a tri-angular stringed instrurment; the Trimba, triangular drums in varying sizes; the Uni, a seven-stringed instrument, plucked, struck with a mallet, or played with a bow; and the Tuji, a board with mounted dowels that are plucked.
An offer from West German radio station Hessische Rundfunk to conduct performances of his work at a pair of Frankfurt concerts led to Moondog's decision, in 1974, to leave New York. "I had a round-trip ticket but I got so fascinated with Germany that I stayed," says Moondog, who had long described himself as a "European in exile."
Shortly after beginning his life in Germany, Moondog met Ilona Goebel, a young geology student. The Goebel family invited Moondog to live with them in their Ruhr Valley home and Ilona gave up her studies to help Moondog with his music. Ilona continues to translate his music from Braille into standard notation and document Moondog's vast library of compositions. "She's been my eyes for 20 years," he says. "I couldn't have gotten all the notes written down without her help. She does it on a computer now. Before she did it all with pen and ink, which is very tiresome." (The pair were a subject of a 1989 People magazine article.)
While Moondog has toured across Europe numerous times over the years - conducting a full symphony or playing piano recitals - performance highlights in recent years include a 1995 set at the Elvis Costello-organized Meltdown Festival in London and, during a rare retun to the United States, a special 1989 concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This year, in addition to the release of "SAX PAX FOR A SAX," Moondog opened his own Internet website and is preparing for the publication of a book of poetry. His first formally released collection, it features more than a thousand rhyming couplets, many of which were written on the streets of New York.
Moondog is now busy orchestrating his "Overtone Tree," a symphony in one movement. "It's a thousand bars long and it has so many contrapuntal parts that you need four conductors to make it happen," he says. "I've been working on overtones for 20 years now and I discovered they're really a secret code. If there is a God - I call Him the Megamind - He's relaving a message through the overtones to us."
With such passion evident in every idea and expression, it is clear that Moondog thrives on the joy of discovery. It's what drives him forward. "It seems like everyday something new comes along. Sometimes it's most unexpected.
You turn a corner and you see something that you never dreamed existed. That's what's so exciting about life. You climb one mountain, thinking it's the only one, but when you get on top, you see that there's a higher one in the distance... and so on. That goes on for as long as you live. The more you know, the less you know. The excitement is unending!"
- Extensive contributions courtesy of Johan Kugelberg, Ugly Things Magazine