“Moondog, “ (Louis Hardin, 1916-1999) was a blind composer and street performer in New York. He has become a cult figure, a jumping-off point for musicians working in many styles and genres to explore . For example, Philip Glass wrote that he and Steve Reich took Moondog’s music “very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Julliard.”
Last night’s Barbican concert, “The Music of Moondog“,- a co-production between the Barbican and producer “Eat Your Own Ears.” brought together a number of ways in which Moondog’s legacy is being absorbed and built upon.
What had drawn me to this concert was something different, however. It was participation of two world-class musicians in their absolute prime, whom I was keen to hear in this unfamiliar context. Paul Clarvis and Liam Noble deliver, and here they were to live up to every expectation.
First, Clarvis. He has the power and the radiant enthusiasm to propel a band of any size, any age or make-up, from his tiniest of drum kits, and he served London Saxophonic very well last night. This saxophone nonet were impressive, full-toned, with good ensemble and balance. On the other hand the “All Star Moondog Choir” looked ever so slightly bored and sang ever so very flat.
For my ears the highlight of this first half, and possibly of the whole concert, was Liam Noble’s brief solo feature half way through the set, of three piano pieces. Noble has an extraordinary depth of understanding of how to get right under a Moondog melodic line and really make it sing. I could happily have heard a lot more. He’s a unique craftsman. He voices and phrases so subtly and interestingly, I would be fascinated to hear him extend his explorations further, and to bring fresh life into the domains of Glass, Reich, Adams and Nancarrow.
After this first set came one of the most bizarre episodes I have ever seen in the annals of concert-planning. The compere for the evening, Kerry Shale, had the bad luck to be trying to keep the audience interested in some of Moondog’s poetic loopinesses (about e.g. love and death and the ebb and flow of the ocean) while large numbers of Barbican stage-hands wandered around him, drawing attention away from him, by completely re-setting the stage for a four-piece rock band. Shale then walked off the stage, uttering a final “Hello” as he left (Uh?) . Numbers of people who thought this must be the interval were then told by public address outside the hall that it wasn’t, and instructed that they should make their way back into the hall. A standard issue four piece rock band called “Clinic” then got a set of just two numbers out of the way- mercifully quickly.
The second half was a 90 minute set from the Britten Sinfonia. Conductor Andre De Ridder kept a lively beat going, the Britten Sinfonia played Moondog with conviction. But there were also moments when harmonic stasis and vexatious repetitiveness had me looking at my watch, notably in the two World Premieres: “Salzburg Symphony No 3” a pastiche of Mozart and of the Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Italien, and the over-long Nocturne. This set also featured classical percussionists O Duo, and electronica crossover specialist Andi Toma
I was impressed with enthusiasm and the stamina the mostly young audience, who cheered their appreciation for this long set the Britten Sinfonia loudly.
But what about Moondog? I would thoroughly recommend John L Walters’ persuasive and highly readable short essay in the programme. (Perhaps it will be available elsewhere?). Walters comes to grips well with the scale and reach of the Moondog phenomenon, using Network Theory to explain its unique influence and significance across a very broad range of musicians and styles. Walters argues that Moondog’s music is now “increasingly relevant to the way music has developed in the new decade, where the colliding and crossing of cultures and genres is both desirable and technically feasible.”
I find that an interesting and challenging thought. But my ears are telling me that absolutely the right place for Moondog’s music is under Liam Noble’s fingers on a Steinway.