Review Summary: Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time…
For 30 years, many simply considered Louis Thomas Hardin, Jr. to be one of the more eccentric vagrants that line Manhattan’s walkways. Few New Yorkers knew that when they flipped their spare change to the spear-toting, horn-capped, wispy-bearded “Viking of Sixth Avenue” they were giving to a man who had transcended insurmountable conditions, acquired blindness and homelessness, to become one of the 20th century’s most gifted and under-recognized musicians.
By 1969, the Kansas-born composer, who wandered into New York City and adopted the moniker “Moondog” in the late 1940s, had almost a half-dozen recordings to his name. That same year, after a 12-year recording hiatus, he reentered the studio at the invitation of producer James William Guercio to commit a new album to tape for Columbia Records. The result, simply titled Moondog
, would feature compositions Moondog had been constructing for more than a decade, including two canons, two "minisyms" (short symphonic-styled pieces for miniature orchestras), three symphonic works, a chaconne memorializing the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird’s Lament”), and ballet music written with modern dance pioneer Martha Graham in mind ("Witch of Endor"). The collection would come to be known as a singular entry in the catalog of Third Stream music and possibly Moondog’s finest hour.
The music here could be described as minimalist; however, with its composer taking cues from the shrill car horns and rumbling subways of the Big Apple, it is by no means lacking power. Not unlike Borges and his fiction, Moondog encapsulates in six minutes or less the intrigue and magnificence of a larger-than-life symphony. The whirling “Minisym #1” bursts at the seams with menace and drive despite its stunted runtime, and the melodies woven throughout “Symphonique #3 (Ode to Venus)” boast a poignancy that could rival Elgar’s famed Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
. Jazz elements are just as prevalent and at their most in apparent in pieces like “Symphonique #6”, where clarinets croon with big band flair in apt tribute to the “King of Swing” himself.
Moondog’s disdain for convention and his knack for genre fusion are intoxicating, but the album’s standout is his flawless integration of unusual percussion and odd meter, or what he called snaketime, into his distinct amalgam of modern classical elements and jazz leanings. Instruments of Moondog’s own design punctuate the record’s introductory “Theme” with peculiar rhythms before seguing into the equally serpentine snare and timpani work of “Stamping Ground”. It’s a fitting opening statement for a man who would “not die in 4/4 time”.
Quirks notwithstanding, this collection is arguably less "experimental" than some of Moondog's other works. The music is surprisingly accessible given its origins, yet its ambitiousness and creativity is none the worse for wear. The Viking may have been blind, but his vision was crystalline. Moondog
is a career highlight of an unlikely hero, who amidst the clatter of a busy street corner forged a path all his own. For someone who had the stones to criticize J.S. Bach for his counterpoint “mistakes”, it must have seemed like the only way to go.