Songs & Symphoniques: The Music of Moondog

Ghost Train Orchestra & Kronos Quartet, plus guests
Cantaloupe Records

A most unusual release of music by a most unusual composer. As a youth, Louis Hardin was blinded in a terrible accident. He moved to New York, but never had a permanent residence of his own. Instead, he crashed on couches whenever he could. Whilst wandering 52nd Street and 6th Avenue, he met and befriended Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker. Adopting the name Moondog, Hardin learned about composing in Braille and began to write his own music (also in Braille, that was adapted into conventional notation much later in the composer’s life by a German student Ilona Sommer, neé Goebel). He also built his own instruments and performed using them, often with any other musicians who wished to collaborate. Thanks to the efforts of his musical friends, (Toscanini and Goodman testified in court when another musician attempted to use the name Moondog as a stage name) Moondog achieved a certain reputation as a serious composer, but maintained his homeless status in New York, writing, performing and selling pieces of music to passers by. Eventually his fame was such that he was able to begin recording and releasing albums, including in collaboration with Julie Andrews! The antithesis of the stereotypical “composer look”, Moondog strolled 6th Avenue wearing a cloak, holding a staff and ultimately adding a horned helmet, earning himself the nickname “The Viking of 6th Avenue”.

Aside from his own releases, Moondog works have been performed recorded by the Britten Sinfonia, Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra and now the Ghost Train Orchestra with the Kronos Quartet. The Ghost Train Orchestra are best known for their re-interpretation of 1920s jazz music (sometimes performed with a slightly more avant-garde jazz inflection), while the Kronos Quartet are renowned for interpretations of contemporary American repertoire. An unusual pairing to be sure, but, as it turns out, an inspired one, since the marriage of jazz and classical (broadly speaking minimalist) styles is the essence of Moondog’s music. Many of the pieces are also vocal, with sardonic witty poetry sung over the powerfully rhythmic playful music. Not unlike the composer’s life, the album is a star-studded affair: Rufus Wainwright sings Be a Hobo, Joan as a Police Woman sings on tracks 5 and 17, while Jarvis Cocker sings I’m This, I’m That. In such august company from the popular music world, Cocker is strangely out of place, as his delivery of the text is sadly unintelligible. A real highlight, however, is Marissa Nadler singing High on a Rocky Ledge, hitting a wonderful hybrid sweet-spot between classical, jazz and pop with her hypnotic interpretation of this number. Credit must also go to the Ghost Train Orchestra and their founder Brian Carpenter for arranging all of the music for the ensemble on this disc (with Moondog, ensembles are to be as adaptable as possible). The result is an album of eclectic, engaging music with exceptional performers, both ensemble and soloists, that should provide great entertainment for those interested in American Maverick composers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *