Obituary: Moondog

Click to follow
TO DIZZY Gillespie, Moondog was a memory from the 1940s. "The guy who stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street," Gillespie recalled, "wrapped in a brown Army blanket, looking like Christ."

A few years later Moondog had moved a few blocks south and adopted purple robes, sandals and a Viking helmet which, with his long grey hair and beard and his sightless eyes, created a dramatic effect. Often, too, he would be holding a spear. But Moondog was more than just a picturesque feature of the Manhattan streets. He was a musician and composer in a great 20th- century American tradition of unclassifiable iconoclasts who made music the way they heard it.

Charles Ives, with his counter- marching street bands, was one. Harry Partch, the inventor of fabulous instruments, was another. Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett), Ornette Coleman, LaMonte Young, Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) and Brian Wilson were, or are, among their number. There may be dozens more hidden away in the valleys of Kentucky, the plains of Montana or the canyons of Manhattan. Their wildness, their wilfulness, their intransigence in the face of the consumer society, is the presiding spirit of American music.

Moondog was a street musician who wrote symphonies. He made his own instruments, with names like the "oo" and the "trimba", and his music often incorporated the natural sounds of the city streets, but he also created orchestral works characterised by a devout classicism. Inevitably, because he did not seem to be the sort of person who could be taken to meet sponsorship committees, few of his large-scale works were recorded. But those that survive may come to be seen by future generations as the product of a rare sensibility.

He was born Louis Hardin in Marysville, Kansas, in 1916, the son of an itinerant minister of the Episcopalian Church. In infancy the family moved from Kansas through North Carolina and Wisconsin to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, where Hardin pere had a trading post and, later, a ranch. Young Louis's first formal education was received in a school in a log cabin in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, where his mother was the teacher. "I enjoyed trout fishing, hunting and trapping out there," he recalled. "In Lone Tree, a cattle community, I rode a horse to school, as did all the other kids, each carrying a sack of hay for his horse to eat."

At five he was given his first drum, made from a cardboard box. And in Wyoming he accompanied his father on a visit to the Arapaho reservation, where he sat on the knee of Chief Yellow Calf and beat out the rhythm of the Sun Dance on a ceremonial drum.

He was 13 when his father sold the ranch and moved the family east, to a farm in Hurley, Missouri, where he played the drums in the high-school band. But it was there that an accident with a dynamite cap cost him his sight, and in 1933 he began learning braille at the Missouri School for the Blind. "During that year," he later wrote, "on a farm in Iowa, my sister read a book to me. It was called The First Violin, and something in it made me want to be a composer."

At the Iowa School for the Blind he became aquainted with classical music and studied violin, viola, piano, pipe organ, and theory. He read braille books on music and listened voraciously, eventually obtaining a scholarship to study music in Memphis. In 1943 he arrived in New York, where he met Bernstein, Toscanini and Artur Rodzinski, who allowed him to attend rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic.

In 1947 he began calling himself Moondog, "in honour of a dog I had in Hurley, Missouri, who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of". Although classical music was his inspiration, his way of life brought him into contact with the jazz musicians who performed in the clubs that lined 52nd Street in the 1940s. Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker were among his acquaintances. "Bird used to stop by my doorway in 1951-2 and talk about music," he remembered. "We even talked about doing a record together."

It was for a jazz label, Prestige, that he made his first recordings in the mid-Fifties, although miniature compositions for home-made percussion and stringed instruments with titles like "Avenue of the Americas (51st Street)" and "Fog on the Hudson (425 West 57th)" had no obvious formal or stylistic relationship with jazz. Yet it was among the jazz audience that he found his first following, perhaps as much for the Bohemian nature of his existence and appearance as for the sound of his music, which also featured a duet for the whistle of the liner Queen Elizabeth and a bamboo flute. His wife, Suzuko, sometimes sang or played instruments, including the samisen, a Japanese lute which fitted in with the home-made oo, the utsu or the uni - the last named being an instrument with seven strings, all tuned to the same pitch.

Not until 1969 was Moondog able to progress beyond the status of a curiosity. James William Guercio, who had produced hit albums for the jazz-rock groups Blood Sweat and Tears and the Chicago Transit Authority (later retitled Chicago) for Columbia Records, persuaded the company to allow him to record Moondog's orchestral works. The resulting album, entitled Moondog, provides the clearest view of the composer's true ambitions, and is a testament to the uniqueness of his vision.

It was tempting, just then, to use the word "originality" rather than "uniqueness", but Moondog would have disapproved. "I deny that there is such a thing as originality," he wrote:

All an artist can do is bring his personality to bear. If he is true to himself, he can't help but be different, even unique, for no two persons are alike. I do not strive to be different for the sake of being different, but do not mind being different if my difference is the result of being myself.

Pieces such as "Symphonique No 6", "Minisym No 1" and "Witch of Endor" (written for Martha Graham) indicated the richness and rigour of his conception. Although the metres are sometimes unorthodox (5/4 was a favourite time signature), the rhythms are relatively simple and, one can say, toe- tapping. The string and wind parts are usually built on incremental structures, sometimes canons or rounds.

"Lament 1", written on hearing of the death of Charlie Parker, is in a tradition of jazz threnodies (such as Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", for Lester Young, or Miles Davis's "He Loved Him Madly", for Duke Ellington) in that it sounds nothing like the music of its subject but unmistakably evokes the impression it made on the composer. "Symphonique No 3 (Ode to Venus)" is a piece for strings of astounding romantic loveliness, something like what might have happened if Vaughan Williams had rearranged "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

He was, he said,

a classicist at heart. I am much happier walking humbly in the footsteps of the great masters, such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms etc, upholding the values they upheld. With spear in hand I defend these values against all comers. I am a tonalist at odds with all atonalists, polytonalists, quartertonalists, computerisers etc.

But he was also not afraid to point out that his music was more faithful to the rules of harmony even than Bach or Mozart:

In the area of voice-leading I am a purist, as much as, or more so than, Palestrina.

He wrote a certain amount of music for radio and television commercials, but in the mid-Seventies he was invited to perform his music in Germany, and the warmth of the welcome persuaded him to make his home there. He recorded more of his miniature pieces for several small labels, and visited London several years ago to participate in the Meltdown festival on the South Bank, at the behest of Elvis Costello.

Louis Hardin ("Moondog"), composer: born Marysville, Kansas 26 May 1916; married; died Munster, Germany 8 September 1999.