In music as in any other field career paths know no straight lines. And even if they did they'd all go in different directions. Some composers get instant recognition and others are rediscovered years after their death. Some musicians dedicate their lives to one kind of repertoire, others always go exactly where they are not expected. This new series of posts is about the detours, the unexpected, the hidden talent.
If you had strolled the streets of Manhattan in the 1960s, you would have encountered a blind musician/poet wearing a horned helmet and home-made clothes and playing instruments of his own creation. Maybe you would have taken a picture of this eccentric street artist who looked like a Viking. But you probably wouldn't have guessed that this man was in fact a classical music composer, a musician who had already made several recordings of his works, a man hailed as a pioneer on the minimalist scene by Philip Glass.
Born in Kansas in 1916, Louis T. Hardin lost his sight after a dynamite cap exploded to his face when he was 16. He learned braille in St. Louis and how to play several instruments (alto, piano, organ, etc.) at the Iowa School for the Blind. In 1943 he left for New York with just a month's rent in his pocket. After attending a concert by the New York Philharmonic, he became the "mascot" of the orchestra. He was allowed to attend every rehearsal, some musicians agreed to play and record his works. Artur Rodzinski was one of his greatest supporters but Hardin "finally fell out of favor because of his dress, which was becoming more "bizarre" because he was fashioning it himself." (read the outline of Moondog: An Authorized Biography, Robert M. Scotto) Empowered by his music, Hardin went on to become Moondog.
He remained a figure of the New York street life for 30 years until in 1974 he left for Germany. He went there to perform but never earned enough money to make the trip home. He was "adopted" by Ilona Goebel who eventually gave up her job to transcribe Moondog's music. The 25 years he spent in Germany were the most prolofic of his career as his working conditions were better than ever.
«Rhythmically I'm in the past.»
His forte, he explained in 1998, was "to follow the basic rules of counterpoint. (...) [Pythagorus's] basic rules of tone relation are the basis of counterpoint. I follow those very religiously. Those are physical laws of the universe which cannot be altered - that's the way they are and the way that tones and scales are put together. (...) counterpoint comes out of the past. It goes back to 1100 or 1200. Harmonically, my music is the same as Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and those people. No difference really."
He also explained his fascination for canons: "When you write a piece, it may take a day to write it but then, composers, especially Bach, would put it aside and say 'it's finished.' But that's when my work really begins. It's note by note and in a sixteen part canon, there's 120 possibilities of making a mistake between any two notes. That's the most boring labor you can imagine, comparing note against note for a whole composition. If you find a mistake, you can't just change the note, you have to change the whole phrase because of the musical grammatics. (...) One other thing I like about canon is that you start with one voice and then you add first counterpoint, then the second and so forth. If it's a nine part canon, then you have this build-up which leads up to a climax. Harmonic music doesn't do that - they start out full blast and go on. But this builds up and builds up. That's what I like."
This vision of music explains why, when asked whether he saw any modern-day composer or musician as his peer, he answered: "I'm not in the field of atonal music at all. I'm strictly tonal so I feel kind of lonely."
The legend lives on
Moondog was a complex character with a very personal view on life, religion, history and music. He left a mark on New York as a part of its counterculture. He left a mark on music as an influence on some of the greatest composers of today. Now the legend lives on and a movie about him is in the works, meant as "a funny and moving celebration of a life lived as a work of art." It should be released some time next year.