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Spirit Of Moondog (live at Black Box)

29 May 2016

Moondog steleIn a quiet and undisturbed corner of the Zentralfriedhof (Main Cemetery) in Münster, there stands an elegant, tapering stone stele, atop which is a death mask so wonderfully detailed and realistic it seems that the eyes might at any moment open slowly, like an image from Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus come to life beneath the blue Westfalen sky. Foregrounded against the thick green hedge behind it, and surrounded by a colourful riot of flowers, it is a beautiful spot. Here, amidst the birdsong and the obsessively well-tended greenery, lies American expatriate Louis Hardin, better known to the world by a moniker adopted in honour of his trusty, yet lunar-affected, hound: Moondog.

Born in Kansas mid way through the First World War, the young Hardin was a promising drummer, very much inspired by an early attendance at a Native American sun dance, during which he played a ceremonial buffalo skin tom-tom. Tragically, however, in 1932 a farm accident with a dynamite cap robbed him of his sight forever. Despite this catastrophe and, by modern standards the paucity of support services for those with such disabilities, through the following years young Hardin (moon)doggedly pursued his musical education, both at formal institutions and through self-learning.

Moving to New York in the early 1940s, Moondog met and learned from some of the greatest musicians the city had to offer, from Arturo Toscanini (former director of La Scala Milan), to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, the blazing comet of jazz, whose “One Night Tunisia” sax break revolutionised the genre before the decade was out. Mixing such influences with his own utterly unique style, Moondog began a thirty year career as the city’s pre-eminent blind, Wagnerian-bedecked, symphonic-tradition-meets-jazz street composer and poet. It was something of an niche genre, to be sure, but taking up residence outside the Warwick Hotel on the corner of 54th Street and 6th Avenue, andsporting a horned helmet and simple sackcloth cloak, Moondog made it his own, earning the sobriquet “the Viking of 6th Avenue”.

Spirit Of Moondog live at Black Box

Despite what must have seemed to most a rather freakish appearance, Moondog’s music found increasing traction over the following decades, exerting a profound influence over the likes of budding local hopefuls Steve Reich and Phillip Glass,1 as well as a generation of rock musicians in the Sixties who were eager to explore their own outer reaches in the same way that Moondog so obviously had. Moving to Germany in mid 1970s – its mighty Teutonic musical and cultural traditions finding much resonance with him – Moondog eventually settled in the picturesque Westfalen university city of Münster, itself no stranger to historical weirdness,2 where he continued to compose voluminous amounts of music until his death in 1999.

And so, to mark Moondog’s centenary in May 2016, his adopted hometown honours him tonight with a memorial Spirit of Moondog concert at the superb Black Box venue. This is, however, not just any gathering of interested musicians, but a collective under the direction of Stefan Lakatos, a close friend of Moondog and the only person ever to have studied percussion with him. Bringing with him both a personal connection and a deep spiritual understanding of the music, Lakatos is now the curator of Moondog’s musical legacy, and tonight he opens a window into the music through which the assembled aficionados can gain a truly unparalleled insight.

Spirit Of Moondog live at Black Box

With a tremendous back-line of master saxophonists Jürgen Bebenroth, Dietmar Schmahl, Olivia Alam, Norbert Geis and Andreas Lensing formed in a crescent behind him, Lakatos settles himself on the carpeted riser at centre stage and runs his be-ringed fingers over the trimba, the multi-level triangular percussion instrument invented by Moondog. It is truly a thing of beauty, a giant percussive Toblerone whose ornate deep red wood and wonderfully worn leather playing surface combine to produce the rich, organic rhythm sound upon which the typical Moondog counterpoints are built. Combined with the bells, shells, cymbals, jingles and woodblocks both on and around it, the trimba is an instrument of huge dynamic range, from delicate tinkle to pile-driving thump. And with fingers moving across its angular planes like hummingbirds, Lakatos (whom someone during the interval refers to as a “rhythm devil”) provides a masterclass of mesmerising polyrhythm.

Drawing on material both familiar and released commercially (“Bird’s Lament”) and from the cavernous and unchartered archive of unseen compositions, some of the pieces performed tonight have never been heard before. From symphonic compositions to the Tout Suite pieces, we are even treated to a mash-up of two numbers from the Exotica era – that strange late Fifties interregnum when very straight middle class Americans were turning on over their Martinis to the wild, ersatz Polynesian stylings of Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny – including the utterly delightful “Seahorse”.

Spirit Of Moondog live at Black Box

Dietmar Schmahl hits us some wonderful bursts of deep, booming bass saxophone, whose sonorous tones were, according to Lakatos, a particular favourite of Moondog. Lakatos himself is warm and charismatic, his long white hair and beard giving him a sage-like appearance now very reminiscent of the older Moondog himself. Speaking in barely-accented English, with only the slightest hint of a Swedish inflection giving away his Scandinavian origins, Lakatos is generous with his audience interaction, obviously seeing the explanation and background of the music as a vital part of the evening – promoting understanding of the compositions is as important as playing them.

Moreover, despite the profound levels of concentration etched across his brow during his playing, he has a glowing smile on his face. And, all through the performance, so does the audience. Moondog was certainly neither saint nor proto-hippy – Phillip Glass is on record as talking about both his uncomfortable racial views and his selfish sexual solipsism – but the work must always3 stand apart from the artist; and this is inspiring, uplifting music which is in no way diminished by some of its creator’s less appealing personal characteristics.

The Black Box flyer4 states “Die Mischung aus Klassik, Jazz and Weltmusik lässt Moondogs Tonsprache zeitlos erscheinen.” (The mixture of classical, jazz and world music renders Moondog’s musical language timeless). Amen to that.

-David Solomons-

1 Glass commented that Moondog “came from a true American tradition; he personified the maverick, solitary hero composer, like Nancarrow, Partch, Ives and Ruggles… Moondog was very connected to jazz. He’d stand in the stairway to the jazz club Birdland and play along with anything they were playing inside the club. I was amazed at his facility for doing this, and the way he could make music of found sounds. I remember him standing on the roof overlooking the Hudson River, and when the Queen Elizabeth pulled into port, blowing its horn, Moondog would toot along with it on his bamboo flute.”

2 The polygamist, proto-communist Anabaptist revolt of 1534 is a blood-soaked story and three quarters in itself – see the novel Q by Luther Blissett for a fun and gore-drenched overview.

3 Or nearly always.

4 As an interesting aside, the origins of the flyer (flier) lie exactly here in the Flugblätter (fly sheets) that passed around the Germany countryside during the tumultuous religious upheavals of the early sixteenth century.

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