One of the most curious
of 20th-century composers
, Louis "Moondog" Hardin wrote some of the century's most interesting tonal music
when he wasn't performing as a street musician
in New York City
Hardin was born in Kansas in 1916, but his family soon moved to Wyoming, where his father opened a trading post and owned a couple of ranches. His family was on good terms with the local Indian tribes, and frequently attended Arapaho Sun Dances. Later in life, the tomtom beats he heard and played at these events would be incorporated into his pieces. In 1929, a dynamite blasting cap exploded in his face. He survived the experience, but was rendered blind for the rest of his life. After studying music at the Iowa School for the Blind, Hardin went on to study braille at the Missouri School for the Blind in 1933.
After graduation, he moved to Arkansas and began to teach himself music theory by reading those books on the subject that had been translated into braille. In 1942, he was granted a scholarship to study the subject in Memphis, and in 1943, he went to New York to meet with contemporary greats Leonard Bernstein, Artur Rodzinski, and Toscanini. Toscanini was sufficiently impressed with Hardin's work to help get him a record deal later in life.
In 1947, Harden started writing his music under then name 'Moondog', in honor of a dog he once had "who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of". The weirdness was just beginning. Moondog was homeless by choice, and his performance venue was the corner of 54th street in New York. Decked out in a flowing beard and Viking Regalia with a homemade spear by his side, he would recite poetry, play the drums, the flute, the saxophone, or instruments of his own invention for passers-by. When he wasn't playing on the street, he was composing works of his own in braille. Moondog differed from other composers in that he would not and could not write a score for several instruments at once, but would write down the individual parts for each instrument, and later have an assistant combine the parts into a score, if demand for the piece was great enough.
Moondog's first album was entitled 'Moondog', and came out in 1956. allmusic.com notes amusingly: 'By the standards of the mid-'50s, or indeed or any era, this was so far-out and uncommercial that it's difficult to believe it was even released.' Percussion lines in odd time signatures provided the backbone for melodies inspired by Asian music. A few tracks also incorporated environmental sounds into the music, such as frogs croaking or Manhattan street sounds. Other albums from moondog came in the same vein. One piece consisted of Moondog playing a bamboo flute with the whistle of the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner sounding in the background. Another piece consisted of the composer banging on a bass drum with bundles of ostrich feathers.
Moondog's time on the street brought him into contact with Jazz giants such as Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman, and he incorporated their influences into his music. His 1969 piece Lament for Bird, a tribute to Charlie Parker, was the intro music for NPR's All things considered for a brief period of time.
A few of Moondog's albums were released in the mid-50s, and the artist put out another batch of recordings in the 1970s. in 1974, a family in Germany invited him to come live with them. Although he composed thousands of pieces, he made no new recordings between 1979 and 1997, when his album Sax Pax for a Sax was released. The album consists of arrangements for saxaphones, with Moondog providing a steady backbeat on the bass drum. Some critics have called this constant backbeat unsettling.
Moondog died in Germany in 1999. Although he is not famous now, we will have to wait and see to determine whether he will be remembered as a member of the 20th century canon of composers, or as a little-known insane crank. You can decide for yourself by downloading samples from cdnow.com or amazon.com.
Thanks to allmusic.com, cdnow.com, and www.lesk.demon.co.uk/pages/moondog0.htm