MOONDOG was born Louis Thomas Hardin in Marysville, Kansas, on May 26, 1916. At the age of 16, a dynamite cap exploded in his face, permanently robbing him of his eyesight. He attended the Iowa School for the Blind, where he received his first musical training, and went on to study privately with Burnet Tuthill at the Memphis Conservatory of Music. He came to New York in 1943 and soon gained the friendship of Artur Rodzinski, renowned conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Hardin became a singular exception to Rodzinski’s ban on outsiders attending rehearsals of the orchestra. With Rodzinski’s departure from the Philharmonic in 1947, however, Hardin discovered his presence was less welcome, especially because of his unconventional ways of dressing.
Hardin adopted the name Moondog that same year, and eventually became a regular fixture on Manhattan’s streets, often dressed in full viking regalia. Despite intermittent lodgings of various kinds (both in the City and upstate), Moondog would spend the next three decades living on the streets of New York. Working there as well: By the ’50s he was supporting himself as a street musician, frequently playing on instruments of his own invention, such as the trimbas (triangular drums), yukh (a suspended log struck with rubber mallets), and the oo (a triangular stringed instrument struck with a clave).
Always a prolific composer, Moondog would type out his compositions in Braille and then have them transcribed into conventional notation. (He also produced a good deal of gnomic, witty poetry in the same manner.) His music soon became known for its unusual metric sense, intricate and rigorous canonic procedures, and refined, evocative melodies. But Moondog’s music wasn’t just composed on the streets; a good deal of it was composed with the streets. Despite the limited location-recording technology of the ’50s, he created numerous works in a range of New York City locations, utilizing the sounds of traffic, tugboat whistles, and the surf not just as sound effects or color, but as essential lines in the overall composition. By the end of die ’50s, Moondog had released several lps of his striking compositions on the Prestige label, as well as an unexpected project with Martyn Green and Julie Andrews: an lp of nursery rhymes and children’s songs – although his quirky rhythms and meters must have confounded more than a few youngsters who wanted to sing along!
Their solution may have been similar to Janis Joplin’s when she performed Moondog’s 5/4 song, « All Is Loneliness »: just sing it in 4/4. Her cover was one more example of how widespread Moondog’s music had become by the late ’60s, especially with Columbia Records’ release of an lp of his orchestral music (much to the delight of the composer, who then took to standing outside the CBS building on Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street).
In 1974, a concert of Moondog’s music brought him to Germany, where he decided to remain for a while after the performance. He was on a Street in Recklinghausen, wearing his Viking helmet and selling copies of his poetry, when he was spotted by Ilona Goebel. Upon discovering his album of orchestra music, she invited him to live with her family in the town of Oer-Erkenschwick. Today she is his manager, assistant, and publisher of both his scores and writings, through her company Managarm.
I spoke with Moondog by telephone at his home in Germany, on August 23, 1992. Researching this semi-legendary figure of American music had led me to all sorts of versions of his experiences – especially after his move to Germany: His absence form the streets of New York was taken by some people as a sign that he was dead! I wanted to hear his own recollections of his life and work, both on the sidewalks of Manhattan and in the concert halls of Europe, where be has of late found a renaissance of enthusiasm and support for his music.
Q: I’ve read that your father was an itinerant Episcopalian minister, and that he took you out to Indian reservations when you were a boy in Wyoming.
MOONDOG: He was a missionary out there in the cowboy country, and then he went to this convention in the Arapahu reservation. I must have been about 5 or 6 years old then. It was a two-week convention – he was bringing Jesus to the Indians.
Q: But they let you play in one of their ceremonies.
MOONDOG: Yes, Chief Yellow Calf let me sit on his lap and gave me the drumsticks and I beat on the big tomtom when they were doing the Sun Dance.
Q: That must be a very powerful memory.
MOONDOG: It still influences my music.
Q: You’ve remarked that Swing has its origins in Native American music.
MOONDOG: That four beats to the bar – bom-bom-bom-bom – is strictly in the Swing era, and that’s Indian, right out of the Indian drumbeats. And if you hear them sing, their music is full of syncopation. I think their music is very jazzy.
Q: In the ’40s, you also played with the Blackfoot Indians in Idaho. How did that come about?
MOONDOG: I was visiting there and they were having their Sun Dance ceremonies: They sing and dance for many hours – a couple of days and nights without eating. I had this little flute and I was standing behind the area where they were performing, and they liked my playing so much they wanted me to come and sit with the singers. Then, when I was staying as a guest in their big teepee, unbeknownst to me somebody rolled a big tomtom in there and then disappeared. I think they wanted me to play on it, so I did.
Q: Are you singing authentic Indian chants in « Wildwood » and « Chant » on your Prestige lps?
MOONDOG: No, it’s not authentic. Maybe just a rough comparison to what they do, but it’s not authentic.
Q: Was John Wesley Harding really one of your relatives?
MOONDOG: As far as I know.
Q: Being a minister, your father probably wasn’t too proud of the lineage.
MOONDOG: Oddly enough he was proud of it. He was a very great fan of Napoleon too. I guess there most be some aggression in a lot of ministers!
Q: One of your H’Art Songs is about John Wesley Harding. In your own way, you’ve been as much of a maverick as he was.
MOONDOG: Yes, I’m a rebel, but I’m rebelling against the rebels. By the rebels I mean the atonalists and the polytonalists. So I rebel against the rebellion and stay with tonal music.
Q: Was there much music in your life prior to your high-school training at the Iowa School for the Blind?
MOONDOG: In my high school in Missouri I played the drums in the school band. And when I was 6 years old in Wyoming – just after we met the Indians – I used to climb up over a steamer trunk and beat my feet on both sides, and I had a box and I had two sticks, so I made rhythms with them myself.
Q: But you hadn’t been thinking of music as a vocation when you were a kid.
MOONDOG: No. I think the blindness made it possible for me to have a musical education which I never could have afforded. I had music teachers who were all conservatory graduates, and I had piano lessons; Organ; I played viola in the quartet and violin in the orchestra; I sang in the choir. I studied musical form and harmony, but they didn’t teach counterpoint – that I had to teach myself.
Q: And from there you went to the Memphis Conservatory?
MOONDOG: I studied privately with the head of the conservatory – his name was Mr. Tuthill. I studied counterpoint with him, a little bit, but most of it I learned myself by getting books on counterpoint.
Q: Did you take regular lessons at Memphis as well?
MOONDOG: I just came to his house and studied with him privately. He was the head of the conservatory, but I didn’t go to any classes, only to him.
Q: When you first came to New York in 1943, were you planning to study with a composer or to start being one?
MOONDOG: I wanted to be where the action was. I knew if I had to make it, I’d have to do it there; that was the focal point. I’d wanted to come to New York for many years, and after I’d been in Memphis for about eight months, I decided the time had finally come to come up there to New York, so I just got on a train and left Memphis. I had been financed by I.L. Meyer who was an art patron, so I came on up to New York and began posing in art schools to make a living. Then I met Artur Rodzinski who was the conductor of the Philharmonic, and he let me come to rehearsals.
Q: Halina Rodzinski recounts in her book that you approached her husband about sitting in on the rehearsal for Mahler’s Second Symphony.
MOONDOG: Well, that was the symphony they were rehearsing the week that I was there. It was very interesting: I came to New York early in November, and I took a taxi and came over to Carnegie Hall and got a ticket and I sat in the front row, center. And that was the day that Bruno Walter was taken ill and they had to get a quick substitute; unbeknownst to me, it was Leonard Bernstein. His debut, and I was sitting right behind him; just a few feet ahead of me, it was Bernstein, and I said to myself, « After the first number, I’m going to he the first to applaud, and be heard all over the country. » And I was.
The cello soloist in Don Quixote was Joseph Schuster, and he was sitting very close to me there, being the soloist. A few days later, I was standing in the entrance to the stage door, and there was an intermission in the rehearsal. Apparently, Joseph Schuster saw me, and he came over to me and said, « I saw you Sunday. Would you like to come to rehearsal? » And I said, « Yes. » He said, « Wait a minute », and in a few minutes he came back with Artur Rodzinski who put his arm around my shoulder and said, « Come with me. You can come to my rehearsal. » He took me clear to the front of the hall and took me down the center aisle and said, « Sit down now and enjoy yourself. » At lunch he took me up to his dressing room. Mrs. Rodzinski had brought some hot soup for him, and that’s how I got to meet her. And then Bernstein came in and asked something about the contrabasses. I didn’t know who it was, and I said, « Are you a bass player? » And he said, « No, I wish I were. » So I got to meet Leonard Bernstein too.
Q: Were you aware that you’d made such a strong impression on Rodzinski, and that it was highly unusual for him to admit an outsider to his rehearsals?
MOONDOG: Yes. He was a very superstitious, spiritual-minded person, and for some reason he got the idea that I resembled the face of Christ. I had a beard and all that, so I think it was partly that, and some kind of intuition that he should be especially nice to me. He was lovely, and I owe a lot to him and his wife.
Q: She’s written that he felt you brought him luck.
MOONDOG: Yes, that’s the way his mind was working, and I was very grateful to him for whatever he did. In fact, two years ago I went back to New York to do this concert, and I went up to visit Mrs. Rodzinski. She was very friendly, and told me all about what she’d been doing – she wrote a book about her husband and all that.
Q: Was that in a sense the last of your studies, your being able to sit in and listen to the orchestra at work?
MOONDOG: It was a great education to learn orchestration from first hand. And I also had a chance to talk to players about their instruments and their ranges, what the instrument could and couldn’t do. It was a first-hand education that was invaluable.
Q: Had you been writing any music for orchestra or large chamber ensembles around that time?
MOONDOG: Not really. I had the opportunity but I wasn’t ready for it. Rodzinski said to me one day, « Louie, do you have anything for orchestra? I’ll play it. » I didn’t have anything. And when I had it, he was dead.
Q: Is it true that eventually you were asked not to come to the rehearsals because of the way you were dressing?
MOONDOG: That’s right. I went up one day with some funny clothes on, and he sad, « Louie, I want to have a long talk with you. » I said, « It won’t take very long. You have a freedom in America as long as you don’t exercise it. » So he said, « Well, do what you want to do, » but he sounded very discouraged about me. Then later I heard about this manager of the orchestra, Bruno Zurato; he told one of the violinists to tell me that if I want to come back, I have to wear conventional clothing. But I never did. I cut my own nose off, but I did it for a principle.
Q: Did you find in later years that your appearance was hindering the acceptance of your music?
MOONDOG: A lot of people told me I was standing in my own light, and that they would like to help me in many ways but they couldn’t because of how I was dressing. So I paid a price, I can tell you.
Q: I understand Ilona Goebel persuaded you to set those clothes aside.
MOONDOG: Yes, she’s the only person that ever was able to do it!
Q: In retrospect, has it really been worth it?
MOONDOG: Well, frankly, it has, you know?
Q: You’ve gotten more performances now because of that?
MOONDOG: Yes. I think if I’d react as other people do, if I saw somebody doing what I’d been doing, I’d say, « Nothing doing – I can’t buy that. It must be some kind of a nut, really I mean, I can’t involve myself with that. » That would probably be my own reaction.
When I started changing the way I was dressing, it was a rebellion against organized fashion that dictates what you wear, and insists that you buy something new every year to keep in style, just for profit – that’s what was really behind it.
Q: Is there also the sense that, by controlling how people appear, there’s a deeper control at work upon how people behave and think?
MOONDOG: Yes, everything – control, control. Big Brother. That’s what it is.
Q: I’ve read that there were particular symbolic meanings attached to some of the Viking garb you’ve worn, such as the helmet and the spear.
MOONDOG: Well, I always said the spear had a double meaning. It could be used for defense or for attack, and you had a choice to use it to defend yourself or to attack somebody else’s liberty.
Q: In your years on the street, did you ever find yourself using it either for defense or attack?
MOONDOG: Oh no. But people would come up and ask me, « What’s with the spear? » I’d say, « If you don’t get the point, you can climb up and sit on it. » And one lady said, « Yeah, but don’t twist it »! I used to wear spurs and a guy comes up: « Moondog, where’s your horse? » I said, « Bend over, you’ll do. » Things like that were happening all the time. Another one says, « Do you have a problem? » I said, « Yes, » and I waited a while. « What’s your problem? » I said, « You. » When you’re on the streets, you learn to talk back to them when they come up with those things. One night I was standing on the corner and a girl and her boyfriend came around the corner and she screamed, « Sir Galahad! » I said, « No, Sir Had-a-gal »! That’s what you get from standing across the Street from the Hilton, you know?
Q: Being on the streets and dressing the way you did may have given some people problems, but doing all that was actually part of your effort to be in the world and be more accessible to people, wasn’t it?
MOONDOG: Yes, that’s right.
Q: I understand you bad a place in upstate New York, near Ithaca.
MOONDOG: Yes, I did have 40 acres up there.
Q: So you could have stayed there if you’d wanted to.
MOONDOG: Well, I couldn’t afford to. I had no income at all up there – I just went up there to get away from the city.
Q: How much of your time on the streets were you actually homeless?
MOONDOG: I had a choice. If I kept a hotel room, then I wouldn’t have enough money to hire a copyist to copy the music or to go up to my place, because to make a trip up there would cost around $50, including carfare and food for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t have the room and the music copying and the trips up there, so I had to make a choice: either keep a room and not go up there, or not have a room and go up there once in a while. So some of the time I would just sleep on the streets to save money. I could have a room all the time, but I wouldn’t then be able to do all the other things.
Q: How big a hassle was that life for you? Were you ever assaulted or robbed?
MOONDOG: Yes, I’ve been kicked when I was sleeping, and pissed on, and abused and robbed sometimes. But never stabbed in the chest – I mean, they could have killed me if they’d wanted to. One night a cop came up to me and said, « Are you all right, Moondog? » And I said, « Yes. » He said, « Here’s a couple of bucks. » He gave me two dollars.
Q: I wanted to know if the police were helpful to you or a hindrance.
MOONDOG: Mostly very nice.
Q: They wouldn’t say that you were disturbing the peace?
MOONDOG: Oh yes, some people did call the police, and the police would come and tell me that somebody was complaining about the ticking of the claves – it made quite a loud noise – so I stopped playing the claves. But in general it was very nice. Cabbies even watched out for me, and doormen if I was staying across the street from some place that had a doorman, they said that they were watching me to see that nobody bothered me. There’s a lot of love in New York, really.
Q: How significantly did things change from the ’40s to the ’70s? Do you think you’d be able to resume that life now?
MOONDOG: From what I hear, I think it would be difficult. They say there’s more violence than there ever was before when I was there. And perhaps I’d have more to fear from people who had taken drugs, because they’re not responsible for what they do; that’s an unknown quantity there, how people react under the influence.
Q: Conditions have changed a lot here since the ’70s.
MOONDOG. Well, I spent my apprenticeship there, 30 years on the Street. That’s enough, I think!
Q: I’ve read that you adopted the name Moondog back in the late ’40s, and that it was a reference to a dog you had in Hurley, Missouri.
MOONDOG: That’s right. Some people think that he was a seeing-eye dog, but he wasn’t. He was just a dog, half bulldog and half something else. But he was a great pal. He did a lot of howling at the moon. And then years later, in ’47, I thought I’d like to have a pen name so I thought of him. But I wasn’t original. I found out later that the word « moondog » exists in Alaska amongst the Indians: It’s a rainbow that appears over the moon, as opposed to a sundog which is a rainbow that appears over the sun. And in some of the Southern counties, Kentucky and some places, they have a whiskey called Moondog. It’s also mentioned in the Norse sagas, the Edda, and refers to a giant. And it also refers to the tail of a comet; that’s also called a moondog. So it does have quite a history.
I defended the name in court against Alan Freed who was using my name and my record. I had a piece called « Moondog Symphony » which had a howling wolf on it. It was on one of my first 78s, and Allan Freed used it on his radio program as a theme song for his show. I won the case: The judge said that I had worked hard to establish claim to the name, and so they wouldn’t let him use it anymore. After the judgment, he got on the radio one night and said, « I cannot use this name anymore because it belongs to somebody else. So from now on the show will be called The Rock & Roll Show. »
Q: Is it true that Igor Stravinsky spoke to the judge on your behalf?
MOONDOG: Yes, he called the judge and said « Take care of this man. He’s a serious composer. Do him right. »
Q: Had you known prior to that that Stravinsky was interested in your music?
MOONDOG: I didn’t know. I was at a rehearsal of the Philharmonic when he was conducting some of his music, but I didn’t meet him. But years later I heard that he did that for me. That’s quite an honor.
Q: I’ve read that, in the ’51 recording of « Theme », you played all the parts yourself and overdubbed them.
MOONDOG: Yes, I did. I bought a violin, a flute, a baritone horn, and a contrabass and a lot of other things and dubbed them all in. That was overdubbing on very primitive machines. When I recorded for Columbia, my producer Al Brown said, « Why don’t you orchestrate that? » So I did.
Q: When did you begin recording your music?
MOONDOG: In 1950 I was playing drums in the doorway of a man named Gabriel Oller who had a shop called Spanish Music Center. When I finished playing a piece he said, « You’re sitting in my doorway. I make records – would you like to make a record? » So I said yes and soon we’d made a series of three 78s. Then I later made an album on my own label but I sold it to Prestige. I had recorded all those things down in the Village and brought it out as an lp and then a man came to me and said, « I think I can sell this to Prestige. » So he went over and talked to Bob Weinstock, and he said he would like to bring it out. That was the first Prestige record and then they did two more. I also did a 10-inch lp on Epic.
Q: Is that the one with the New York Philharmonic string players?
MOONDOG: Yes, right. I had written two suites for three cellos and two violas from the Philharmonic. Then I did the 1969 album on Columbia Masterworks, with a 40-piece orchestra, and the next year I did the madrigal album with my daughter. That’s all I did in New York. I came to Europe in 74, and made three CDs here, and then the Elpmas CD just last year. I introduced there something that I created myself: a 16-part triple canon. I used the marimba mostly on that because it was very reproduceable on the recording equipment; it records well. Some of the samples, like of oboes and bassoons and clarinets, don’t sound like those instruments; they sound artificial. But there’s something about the percussive quality of the marimba which makes it sound realistic.
Q: Fog On The Hudson is one of your 78s?
MOONDOG: That was from a piece that I played on the piano, overdubbing. I got the sound of the foghorns from a man I used to work with, named Tony Schwartz. He gave me that sound and we dubbed them together. I called this piece « Tugboat Toccata ».
Q: How difficult was it to overdub at that time?
MOONDOG: They had very primitive machines. To do the dubbing, you had two machines, and you had to play the one recording I did against the one I was going to record.
Q: So it’s playing back while you’re playing live, and the two are recorded.
MOONDOG: Right, and they mix it. You lose a lot on each take that way; the quality gets worse and worse as you keep overdubbing. That’s why it sounded so unclear. But you got an idea that something was happening.
Q: Did the pieces that featured environmental sound happen the same way, with one machine playing the location recording while another machine recorded that along with all the other musicians?
MOONDOG: Some of it was; some was done live on the street, like on the Mars 45. Tony Schwartz had the equipment and he had a car. For electricity, he had some kind of electrical equipment in the car, and so he could come right up to where I was recording – he had a long extension on his microphone cable – and could record on the street.
Q: It’s wonderful how the environmental sound sits with the music. It doesn’t just add « color », but instead is a part of the total musical sensibility.
MOONDOG: Yes. The orchestra concert I’m doing this month in Switzerland includes « Surf Session » which is something I recorded on Prestige. Here I’ll be using a much larger string group, and I’ll also be using a recording of the sound of the ocean in the background. We’re doing « Fujiyama » also – the 16-part canon I was telling you about – and we’ll dub in the sound of thunder and rain at the end.
Q: How did you wind up performing Mother Goose songs with Julie Andrews for Angel Records?
MOONDOG: Well, a certain Ms. Laurence approached me and said she was doing this record, and she wanted to know if I would write the music. So I said yes and wrote the settings to all those Mother Goose rhymes, and then we had a rehearsal with Julie and Martyn Green and Julius Baker who did the flute part. We recorded in ’55 and it came out on Angel in ’57, I think. Capitol bought that but never brought it out again. I’d like to have it come out again.
Q: It has a delightful section of rhymes about the calendar.
MOONDOG: That was part of the text that they wanted me to set.
Q: I’ve read that in the ’50s you presented the New York Public Library with a calendar you’d prepared, which covered 3,000 years in both Julian and Gregorian computations.
MOONDOG: That’s right. It took two weeks to work it out. That’s about 1,500 years of Julian and 1,500 years of Gregorian, which goes into the future, of course. The librarian said that of all the mechanical ways of determining time which they’ve ever had – some were in wheel form and other things – mine was the fastest and easiest to do.
Q: Was Sixth Avenue and the Fifties a congenial neighborhood for you in part because of its proximity to the jazz clubs?
MOONDOG: Yes. I would be playing in that area late at night, and sometimes some of the players from the clubs would come over and listen to my drumbeats for a while. One night Dizzy came by, and another time, Louie Bellson; another time, Duke Ellington. People like that would talk to me. I never did meet Lester Young, but I wrote a piece for him and we did it in my little tournee this summer with the saxophone group I have, called the London Saxophonic. One of the players, Andrew Scott, played it beautifull; I’ve always had trouble finding tenors who could do it, and he did it very well.
I met Charlie Parker one night, and he said we should do a record together but the next thing I heard, he was dead. So I wrote this piece, « Bird’s Lament ». On the record it’s too fast; the drummer influenced me to play it faster than I wanted. Now when I play it with the group it’s a little slower.
Q: Didn’t you play piano on a bill in Los Angeles with Duke Ellington in 1948?
MOONDOG: It wasn’t a bill. They had an amateur-music contest, and I played a piano solo and won first prize. Then I got word that he wanted to meet me, so the next day or two I went backstage and met him and the band. Then I didn’t meet him again until I was back in New York. He came by one night and we talked again – very nice man.
Q: In 1970, you performed at New York’s Whitney Museum on a double bill with Charles Mingus. Was there any interaction with him, either prior to that concert or afterwards?
MOONDOG: No, I didn’t meet him, but we were on the same bill. I was with the Aeolian Chamber Players and we did some of my pieces and I did some of my poetry. Very nice audience there.
Q: The Prestige recordings – both in their initial release and now in the cd reissues – turn up in the jazz sections in the stores.
MOONDOG: In Germany, they don’t know where to put me. They call it E- and U-music – one is classical and one is Pop – and they don’t know where to put me. One French reporter said « It is not Pop, it’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s not classical, it is just Moondog ».
Q: Are you bothered that the music is put in jazz categories when that’s not really what it’s about?
MOONDOG: It doesn’t bother me where they put it, as long as they put it.
Q: Some tracks in the Prestige recordings feature improvised performances.
MOONDOG: I wanted it to sound like that, but actually every note is written down, every note. That’s what shocks people: They say, « That can’t be written down, it’s too free. » I say, « WeIl, that’s the point. I want to make it sound free, but every note is written down exactly. »
I’m against improvisation because only the composer can improvise; he’s the only one that has oversight over all the different parts what each person is doing. In Sweden, they call a composer a « tone-setter », like a printer setting type – that’s the oversight. Players who don’t have that knowledge and improvise over a large group of instruments are stepping on everybody’s toes here and there; they’re lucky if they change chord at the same time. Even Benny Goodman made a lot of terrible contrapuntal mistakes because he was improvising and went his own way, and the other people were being stepped on. But you have to be a master of counterpoint to know this. Even I make mistakes; nobody makes more mistakes than I do. But I analyze every piece, every bar, every note, and any mistakes are eliminated. In a 16-part canon, you have 120 chances of making a mistake. When I analyze, I can’t sit down and do it – I fall asleep. So I have to stand up and analyze. Brahms’ solution was to stand up when you write.
Q: You’ve said that your piece Witch Of Endor was Part of a ballet for Martha Graham.
MOONDOG: Yes, which she never used. She had me come up to her place once, and she said, « I don’t know your work. » I felt like saying to her, « I don’t know yours, either! » Anyway, I wrote this but she never used lt. She got William Schuman to do something.
Q: The Prestige recordings feature your playing with dancers at their rehearsals. Were there other choreographers that approached you for music?
MOONDOG: Yes, several times. There were performances by different ballet companies in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and France. Last year we got a call from American Ballet Theater. The choreographer had heard the Columbia orchestra album, and he wanted to do a ballet to it. We only had six weeks to get the music together, so we rushed over the music and they did it – called it « Moondance. » They said, « Send us the parts and we’ll have scores made, » and they rushed out to California to start their tournee, and they did « Moondance. » They performed it in New York in June, I think.
Q: Louis and Bebe Barron perform a dialogue with you on one of your Prestige lps.
MOONDOG: Yes, on one you hear her voice, and then on another one, where I’m talking about youth and age, that’s Louie.
Q: They were real groundbreakers in electronic music.
MOONDOG: Yes, I heard they did something with some kind of outer-space movie.
Q: That’s right Forbidden Planet. I’m curious if you had any contact with them regarding electronic music. Did they ever speak to you about it or play some of it for you?
MOONDOG: No, I never got into that. We worked a couple of years together and then they moved out to the West Coast.
Q: Did Janis Joplin ever get your permission to use « All Is Loneliness »?
MOONDOG: No, she just did it. The piece was written in 5/4 but she sang it in 4/4. She took great liberties, but as long as she called me « beautiful cat » then I don’t mind.
Q: No royalties though, I take it.
MOONDOG: No, I didn’t get anything.
Q: Is it true that in the ’60s you were playing with Philip Glass and Steve Reich and Terry Riley?
MOONDOG: We used to go up into an old factory building and record some of my madrigals together – just Reich and Glass were there with me. Then I was invited to come over to Riley’s house and meet him one night. We never worked together, though.
Q: Do you know what happened to these recordings?
MOONDOG: If they still exist, they would be with Philip Glass.
Q: How did you meet them? Did they just approach you on the Street?
MOONDOG: Well, I got to meet Phil Glass because somebody in The Village Voice said, « Where are Moodog’s friends? He has no place to stay. He has to sleep on the streets. » One of the people who called was Phil Glass, and he invited me to stay with him. So I did; I moved down there and stayed with him for about half a year, I guess it was. That’s how I got to meet him. Then I met Steve Reich. This is the late ’60s – in ’68 I moved in with Phil.
Phil Glass is always saying about minimal music, « Moondog is the leader of the pack. » We have tonality in common but that’s where it ends, because I’m very strict in my counterpoint, and apparently they pay no attention to contrapuntal rules: When it comes to changing and passing notes, they don’t know from what, I tell you. I like them personally, but when it comes to counterpoint I’m the most fussy composer that ever lived. One of the papers here said I’m stricter than Bach and Palestrina, which is true: They’re full of mistakes.
Q: When you find errors in their work, is their muse nodding or does it seem more that they just don’t care about the rules in certain situations?
MOONDOG: There could be different motivations. One might he haste – didn’t have time to analyze it. Or possibly they didn’t care about the rules. Or they didn’t know – but I can’t imagine they didn’t know. But even Tallis and Frescobaldi and Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, they’re all full of mistakes. I have to turn the radio off – I can’t stand it, what they’re doing to my ears, you know? Unbelievable mistakes, what they’re doing. You’d think the farther back you’d go, the better it would be, but it’s not. Even back in the 14th, 15th centuries, the same mistakes.
Q: Some corruptions could have crept into the scores over the years.
MOONDOG: That is always a possibility, when every note was written by hand and rewritten and rewritten. But there are too many of them to be that. It’s common mistakes and violations of the principle of tone relation going back to Pythagoras. Well, what can you do? I go my own way.
Q: That’s what you can do: Show them how it’s done.
MOONDOG: Right. One paper said, « Moondog came to Germany to give German music refinement! » What a thing to say! I was on television here and I pointed out where Bach made a mistake In The Art Of The Fugue, and I played it on the piano, the mistake. I heard later that some professor jumped up out of his chair and said, « Vot, zis American telling us about Bach? » Oh, he was exploding! I didn’t tell them about my German ancestry: My mother’s family were all from Germany.
Q: Is there a Scandinavian background for you as well?
MOONDOG: My father was Norman English, and the Normans of course were of Viking descent. So it’s all the same thing.
Q: To what do you attribute your need for such correctness?
MOONDOG: Well, there’s a right and a wrong way to do things. There’s two ways to learn from a master of the past: either you can learn what to do, or you can learn what not to do. I’ve learned a lot from Bach; I’ve learned what I should do and not what I should not do. Haydn taught Beethoven counterpoint but he said, « I can’t teach this young man anything. » Well, I don’t know how he could – he must have taught him a lot of wrong moves in counterpoint, because the same mistakes are in both.
Q: On one level, what you’re involved in is a quest for purity, isn’t it?
MOONDOG: Yes – and if you judge the reaction of the people at my tournee, they’re shouting and screaming and stamping their feet. I couldn’t believe that a German audience could react that way. They don’t know the rules technically, but they know them intuitively; they can tell when tones are fitting together properly, and they react. One lady called and said she wanted a copy of the piece called « Paris. » She said, « Ahh » – that sigh, you know? When you hear that from the people you know you’ve reached them. So I have great respect for people who don’t know the technicalities. They can feel it and know when it’s right. If you combine that rightness of counterpoint with melody and with harmony and with rhythm, you’ve got a winner.
Q: I’m very interested in the work you’ve done with the overtone series in the last 20 years.
MOONDOG: That’s my biggest project in life. Believe it or not, I’ve discovered that whoever created the universe, whenever, left a message in the first nine overtones or you can say that the first nine overtones are the message. I just wanted a theme for my Creation – I didn’t realize that there was anything there. But I discovered in Hamburg that there’s a system there. And I discovered that, by using the principle of diminution, I could develop these nine overtones, using a series of diminished sequences of overtone series, and create a pyramidal structure. And in that pyramidal structure, I realized that the secret message was that whoever created the universe is trying to tell us that He’s sharing with us the secret structure of the universe. In other words, it proves the principle of contraction and expansion. Hubble was always talking about expansion, but this system in the overtones proves that you can’t have one without the other. It also has a lot of other implications, like the two-directionality of time. But scientists that I’ve approached through the letterbox do not respond. They’re either afraid to find out if it’s right or wrong, or they’re threatened because, if they accept this, it will overturn innumerable theories and conjectures of science.
How could you send a message that would never be destructible? Only in sound waves. Waves arc indestructible. Wherever there’s a planet that has atmosphere, these overtones could be heard. Apparently, there may be even in our own galaxy some planets that may have an atmosphere, and there may be living creatures there who might be able to discover the message. If this is ever accepted, it’s the biggest discovery that was ever made by humanity, because here’s a direct message to us. – He respects our intelligence enough to think that we should share the knowledge of the inner structure of the universe. And it’s there everywhere. Scientists are looking in telescopes and microscopes, and they don’t realize that this is here, right here. The secret is all around us, and nobody recognizes it.
Q: Has your work with the overtone series affected your attitude regarding equal temperament?
MOONDOG: I don’t really basically accept equal temperament as Bach produced it. When I work with overtones, I’m not talking about equal temperament, because the overtone series has nothing to do with equal temperament. It’s all pure tone. I really think it was a big mistake to go in for equal temperament. Every fourth and fifth should be perfect, in perfect tune, and the only way you can use perfect fourths and fifths on a keyboard would be to limit yourself to just a few keys: maybe one or two flats, one or two sharps – that would be it. That’s the way it should be. But you make compromises to be able to play music in all 24 keys; then you have to compromise a little. I heard one famous clarinetist say he hates to play with a piano: « I always have to adjust my intonation to fit this out-of-tune piano. » Bach called it the Well-Tempered Clavichord, I call it Ill-Tempered.
Q: Nevertheless, you’ve stuck to composing in equal temperament.
MOONDOG: I have, I did a series of piano pieces in every key, in Bach’s tradition, but I know it’s a compromise.
Q: Have you found that your work with the overtone series has led you to forms and structures that you otherwise would not have employed?
MOONDOG: Very much so, especially in The Creation.
Q: Your long piece « Cosmic Meditation » really is a departure from your other recorded music.
MOONDOG: Yes, I think there is that element of differentiation there. Right after the chorus I have all overtones, a little eight-bar introduction. And after that I have the overtone series, where I produce this little pyramidal structure. And then after that it’s a free thing with overtones, using themes from my Creation. But I want to bring out some really complete ones. They’re 81-part canons I call the Yin and Yang: Yin would be on one whole cd and Yang on another. I’ve written a series of nine Yin And Yang canons. And this would be all using overtones. I get some reactions here from the critics who say that it’s very meditative and soothing to listen to. The piece on the Elpmas cd is just a little thing that we did in a few minutes; it’s not really a complete piece, just a first attempt.
Q: Can you tell me about Creation? I understand it was begun in 1971.
MOONDOG: That’s when I first got this idea of using the overtone series as a theme. I left New York in ’74 to do some concerts here in Germany, and then I stayed here. In that same year, ’74, in Hamburg, I got the breakthrough on this structure. From then on I’ve been refining it and developing it, so that now it’s a complete system. The Overtone Tree is one aspect of Creation, and it takes about 40 minutes to play it. It’s never been performed yet. I have a lot of Creation music based on the Norse Edda: a book of songs based on the Edda, and I have a lot of orchestral pieces. I’ll be doing some of them from the Creation with a big orchestra in Switzerland. We’re even using alphorns: I wrote a 16-part triple canon for alphorns. I’ve got about four players who can read notes, who also double on trumpet. We’re going to use four if we can get them, and supplement the four with French horns. We’re working on getting a group of sixteen alphorns together. Until then I’ll do the sixteen parts on the computer.
Q: Can you tell me about Cosmos I and II, the 1,000-part canons?
MOONDOG: They’re actually a series of eight canons. Each one is 1,250 bars long, and they all fit together by shifting the bar numbers, so it comes out to 1,000 parts.
Q: You’d actually need a thousand players to perform it.
MOONDOG: That’s right. It takes about nine hours.
Q: Could that many players no matter how skilled, be able to keep together? Isn’t it the kind of thing that would sound better if it was played by machines?
MOONDOG: Well, it would be better on a machine. But I didn’t write it with any idea of it ever being played – it was just a stunt of mine. What’s much more practical is to do a concentration of that thousand-part canon into a hundred-part canon. Then it’s playable by an orchestra.
Q: You’ve commented elsewhere on the value of the sampler in performing canons because of its precision.
MOONDOG: That’s right – absolute synch. The sampler was made for this kind of music, and I’m very happy with it. But even so, I always like to work with live musicians whenever possible even though there is the element of error.
Q: Is the sampler pretty much the only keyboard you’re playing these days?
MOONDOG: Yes, that’s the only playing I’ve been doing. On Elpmas I did all the keyboards. But when I’m leading with the saxophone group or with the orchestra, I conduct from a drum.
Q: Do you think you’ll record any of your own organ or piano playing?
MOONDOG: No, I can’t play the organ that well. But I have an organist, Fritz Storfinger, who did the organ on the three cds called Tonality All The Way. I have a lot of piano music, but I don’t really have a concert pianist who’s working with me right now.
Q: Storfinger plays the piano very well on your H’Art Songs.
MOONDOG: Yes. He doesn’t consider himself a pianist, although he’s very good. We’re doing « Do Your Thing » with Stephan Eicher who’s a platinum-seller in France; he’s got two platinum discs out, and he wants to sing my songs very badly. The only thing is he doesn’t read notes. But he wants to sing « Do Your Thing » and he wants to sing « Fujiyama » at this Switzerland concert. He’s very keen on getting into classical music. Peter Hoffman started out as a Pop-singer, and he got into Bayreuth singing Wagner. Stephan Eicher sounds like he wants to get into heavier music now too.
Q: Do you still compose first in Braille?
MOONDOG: Yes, I always work in Braille, and then I dictate the notes to Ilona Goebel. She’s invaluable, that person – a marvelous help. She’s been my eyes. She’s just marvelous.
Q: In what sense is your « Logrundr No. XIX » a portrait of your mother?
MOONDOG: Well, my relation with my mother was very mixed. She was never really close to me but I loved her. She was a very beautiful woman to look at. But when I wrote this piece in Germany in ’75, I said, « I’m going to relate that to my mother. There’s something about this piece that makes me think about her. » So I just called it « Portrait Of My Mother. » You know, I was a black sheep in the family, and she never really took me very seriously. But years later, when she got a copy of my Columbia album with the orchestra, my brother put it on – she was living with him – and she sat there and listened and said, « Did Louis write this? » She couldn’t believe it that the black sheep could really, finally do something, you know? So I’m glad she found out that I could do something.
Q: Did your departure for New York also involve a break with the family religion, and thus strain your relation with your parents?
MOONDOG: My father and mother separated long before I came to New York, and they remarried. My brother was raised up by my grandmother mostly, and I was closest to my sister. She began reading philosophy to me when I was 21, and from that time on I broke away from Christianity completely. My sister had a very big influence on me, reading things to me which she thought I should know. In 1933, a year after my blindness, she read a book called The First Violin, and something in that book made me want to be a composer, and so from then on composition was the main thing.
Q: In The H’Art Songs, there’s one song called « Choo Choo Lullaby, » which sounds like it also holds some special memories for you.
MOONDOG: That’s right, yes. Out in Wyoming we had a store, a trading Post, in Fort Bridger, which was nine miles away from the railroad. The railroad station was called Carter, and I use that word « Carter » in there. At the time, Carter was president, so it has a double meaning: Carter, Wyoming, and Carter for President. And those big engines, you could see them coming, the Union Pacific coming down the track. Enormous engines – I was so little and they’d come thundering by and then they’d stop and you’d get on. God, what a sound, what a sight, to see those big engines coming down at you. A fabulous sound, you know?
For that song, I tried to get the sound of the train whistle by using a chromatic harmonica: I’d blow in to get one sound and blow the other way to get a semitone lower, like it’s in the distance – that Doppler effect. I had fun doing that.
Q: In the past, you’ve described yourself as a « European in exile, » saying your heart and soul were in Europe. Now that you’ve been living there for almost 20 years, has Europe welcomed you in return?
MOONDOG: Yes, I’m making a bigger success here than in the States. It’s growing every day. Like yesterday in Zurich there was a two-hour Moondog show, playing my music. Last week we had a 45-minute show playing almost all of the saxophone concert we did in one of our towns here. And I’m getting a lot of promotion in the biggest papers here, like the Spiegel and Die Zeit – all these big papers and magazines. And innumerable rave reviews. I mean, they seem to love me for some reason. I can’t do anything wrong. It’s not real.
Q: What about the music video you’ve been planning to do?
MOONDOG: There are several companies talking about doing it, but it hasn’t come up to anything final yet. I’ll be on the television with Stephan Eicher, some thing we filmed in Paris; it’ll be out on satellite television in October, I think. That was just for the one number, « Paris. » We have had several television companies recording our saxophone group. One is in Stuttgart, and that was already on television. And Berlin is planning to do something.
Q: Last year in England, there was a series of concerts and seminars in celebration of your 75th birthday. I didn’t know there was a following for your music there as well.
MOONDOG: I didn’t expect that the people would react like they did in Dartington – that’s a very conservative place. Yet the people were really shouting, like at a ball game! And I thought, « Gee, I didn’t expect the English to do that. »
Q: Your music is obviously feeding people something that they’re not getting anywhere else.
MOONDOG: I get that feeling too. I’m filling some kind of a niche. I’m glad I’m in a position to do something about it.
Q: Has there been any feeling over this time of being an American in exile, or do you really feel at home now in Europe?
MOONDOG: My roots are here. I felt that for many years when I was in America, that I really belonged – historically, culturally, and every other way – to Europe. I feel like I like to be close to the things that happened historically, which mean a lot to me.
Q: I read that you went to Beethoven’s birthplace and sat at his piano.
MOONDOG: That’s right. I played on the piano where he wrote his sonatas. They allowed me to – normally they don’t, but in my case they made an exception.
Q: That must have been an amazing experience.
MOONDOG: Oh it was, really. And I was in Mozart’s home in Salzburg. The Salzburg association performed my First Symphony there with an orchestra from Czechoslovakia. And they let me stay in a villa there which was reserved for very special guests. They treated us lovely there.
Q: Your performance in Brooklyn at the tenth New Music America was the first time you’d been back to the States in some 15 years, wasn’t it?
MOONDOG: Yes, I’d left in ’74 and came back in ’89. I was very happy at that. And I have tuxedo, will travel, anytime, anywhere – including America.
Q: Is there any chance you might be visiting us again soon?
MOONDOG: Oh, I would be very happy to, but I have to wait for the offers. If I build myself up big enough here, then they’ll call their boy home.
Q: What would you speculate has been the effect on your composition of living in Europe all these years?
MOONDOG: Well, I just feel that this is the place to be doing it. If place has any meaning in one’s life, then it has a lot of meaning for me. Because to be in the same area where all these things happened, artistically and culturally, which mean so much to me, I feel at home here.
Q: Would you have written something like the nine-hour canons if you had stayed in America?
MOONDOG: Oh, I could have, yes. I could work anywhere. The pieces I wrote on the street were generally short, out of practical reasons, as you can well imagine. If I have a choice, I’d like to work in a place as congenial as it is here. But nothing would stop me from writing.