Outsider Music II: Notes On Moondog’s “A New Sound For An Old Instrument”

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“I’m into swing. I get that from the American Indians like the Sioux, the Arapahoe and the Apache. They have this drum-beat, heart-beat. Bom, Bom, Bom…I got that influence when I was six years old in Wyoming. My father took us to an Arapahoe Indian reservation. The chief let me sit on his lap and beat the tom-tom for the Sun Dance. So, that goes back to the early ’20s for me.”

– Moondog (interviewed by Jason Gross, 1998)

Moondog (1916-1999, born Louis Hardin) was a mysterious composer, percussionist, and musical instrument inventor known as the “Viking of 6th Avenue” because of the Viking costume he wore as he walked the avenue from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. Moondog was blinded in accident when he was a teenager and although often mistaken for being a homeless man dressed in costume, he wasn’t. He was a skilled artist whose rhythmic, modal, and contrapuntal music influenced New York composers, including two who would become infinitely more famous, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, Glass is quoted as having said he and Reich took Moondog’s work “very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard” (quoted in R. Scotto, Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue, New York: Process, 2008, p.12).

I recently came across Moondog’s 1979 recording of organ music, A New Sound For An Old Instrument. (I loved the title.) The audaciously-titled recording sounds somewhat odd and out of step with the modern era–as it were the soundtrack to The Hobbit or Lord Of The Rings–but also because it truly does its own (timeless) thing. The pieces on A New Sound are mostly built out of multiple melodies set up as canons. (Moondog was a huge fan of the discipline of canon writing.) These organ melodies are rhythmic and percussive, singing in short tones, which gives the music a light, dancing feel–unlike so much lugubrious and somber organ repertoire. Accompanying the organ is Moondog’s distinctive stomp and jangle homespun percussion parts, which are sometimes in odd and complex meters and filled with their own layers of accents and patterns. How did Moondog record this album? Did he overdub all the parts himself? I’m not sure but the music has a great feel to it.

Anyway, listening to Moondog’s music is fascinating because it’s as if in it you hear faint traces of other more well-known composers and styles, as well as intimations of musics that could have been, might have been, but for some reason never were. It’s as if these organ pieces trace a stylistic path that leads us down a forest trail that suddenly ends at an old locked gate. What music was/is/could be sounding beyond that gate?

Here are two of my favorite pieces from A New Sound, “Single Foot” and “Mirage”:

You can read an interview with Moondog here.

 

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