Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Moondog remembered

I've just finished reading Robert Scotto's biography of Moondog (Louis Hardin), Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue. The details of his life are really outside of my portfolio -- a sometime street musician, blinded as a youth, with a thing for Viking-inspired garb, and apparently some ugly opinions -- but his music is charming and, in its own way, important, an example of a music benefiting from the constraints of an aesthetic niche, but also making interesting connections to other contemporary musics, in Moondog's case to music life in New York from the Rodzinski years at the Philharmonic to 1950's jazz and 1960's minimalism.

Moondog specialized in composing rounds and canons, sometimes to a ground, and usually over steady percussion accompaniment, which he played on a kit of triangular drums struck with a clave and a maraca as mallets. The counterpoint is quite strict, tonal or modal, but with frequent quintuple and septuple metres, which I've found makes the music especially suitable for teaching musicianship. (I recommend the rounds (Moondog called them madrigals) on the second Columbia recording, Moondog 2.) Scotto poses the question of how a technique so focused upon a minor genre like the round can be used to generate larger forms, and it clearly troubled the composer, but it really shouldn't trouble us, as good things are not diminished by small packages.

The best part of the book is the attached cd, with some rare recordings, including some of the madrigals performed by an all-stars-to-be grouping including Moondog, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and Jon Gibson. (Drawing a connection from Moondog's piano piece, To a Seahorse, to some later minimalism, is almost inescapable.) Unfortunately my copy came with defects in the surface, making half the tracks unplayable... has anyone else noticed that the quality of cds has been slipping, just like lps in their last years?


Anonymous said...

Without equating Moondog with Kafka, might you say that Moondog's music is a "minor music" like the "minor literature" status that Deleuze and Guattari assign to Kafka?

Kalvos said...

Moondog's influence from those original LPs is pretty deep on this composer. Minor maybe, but minor perfection.