nthposition online magazine

The Viking of Sixth Avenue

by Ian Simmons

[ cdreviews ]

America certainly knows how to turn out striking composers: you could not imagine Benjamin Britten hanging out on street corners dressed as a Viking, nor Peter Maxwell Davis or Michael Nyman for that matter. That's what Louis Thomas Hardin, aka Moondog, spent much of his time doing while homeless in New York. Moondog, with his distinguished face and flowing beard, adopted the Viking costume because he was sick of passers-by mistaking him for Jesus. I don’t want to imply that Moondog was some kind of Wildman Fischeresque curiosity - far from it; while somewhat eccentric and given to an unconventional existence (like Harry Partch and Sun Ra, to whom he bears certain similarities), there is no denying the quality and innovation of his musical creations.

Born in Kansas in 1916, he was blinded in an accident when he was 16. He took the opportunity to study music intensively at a school for the blind, which he later said his family could never have afforded had he kept his sight, and became a highly accomplished musician and composer in the process. On completing his musical studies, he moved to New York and took to sleeping rough to save money, eventually remaining a street person for over 20 years, despite increasing acclaim as a composer.

He attracted the interest of a diversity of musicians. Igor Stravinsky intervened on his behalf in a court case against DJ Allan Freed, who'd taken to calling himself ‘Moondog’ on the radio, and Charlie Parker wanted to record with him but died before this was possible. Janis Joplin covered his madrigal ‘All is loneliness’ on the first Big Brother and the Holding Company album; and Philip Glass and Steve Reich view him as “the founder of Minimalism”.

Despite this support, he only managed to record intermittently and after he moved to Germany in the 1970s, there was a long period of silence from 1979 until his re-emergence in 1990, when he was once again active until his death in 1999. Many of his compositions remain unrecorded, but this album gives a superb cross-section of those that have been, from early pieces from the 1940s on his own Moondog label, to 90s material recorded with Andi Toma of Mouse on Mars (though nothing, as far as I can tell, from the Julie Andrews nursery rhyme album for which he provided the music. Who dreamed that one up?).

The music is unique, fusing Western structures with rhythms derived from Native American music that he experienced first-hand as a child, and played partly on instruments that Moondog, like Partch, invented for himself, including the Tuji (mounted sticks of various lengths); triangular drums named the Trimba; plus the Oo (a triangular stringed instrument played with a clave) and the yukh (a log hanging from a tripod, hit with rubber mallets). The results are startling, highly structured yet deceptively loose, sometimes slow and solemn, sometimes skitteringly joyful. My wife, who used to do contemporary dance, commented that they were a gift to choreographers.

Despite shortcomings in their recording, they are an absolute pleasure to listen to. The package comes with extensive and interesting biographical notes by Edwin Pouncey, but falls short on the musical information. Apart from the track listing and some mention of specific pieces in the notes, there is very little detail on the music. I would like to have known a lot more about when and where the tracks were recorded, what was being played and who was playing them. For a compilation that is clearly a labour of love, this is a strange omission. Really, though, I suppose such info is for the anal. Rather than worry about such matters, it's far better to just kick back and enjoy the marvellous music.