Moondog: Bird’s Lament

Having recently read Oliver Sack’s “Musiciophilia,” I am even more amazed by the human brain’s capacity to create something overwhelmingly amazing and which serves no readily apparent evolutionary purpose. Such is music. The ability to perceive music requires different parts of the brain to process its distinct components–rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, timbre, dynamics, etc.

Sacks fills his book with amazing stories of people lacking in the ability to perceive one or more of these elements; others who lose the ability to understand music at all; still others who suddenly start hearing music playing in their head constantly; people who are not musical and suddenly start composing music in their head and have to learn music in order to transcribe or play it; people with and without perfect pitch; synesthetes who see musical keys and notes in colors; people who lose sight and develop increased powers of music; and composers for whom color and music are so inextricably linked that it directs the form their compositions take.

I am reminded of Moondog, a who wrote today’s piece.

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916 in Kansas but grew up in Wyoming, where at an early age he started drumming on cardboard boxes. At some point, his father took him to an Arapaho sun dance, where he ended up on the lap of a chief named Yellow Calf, playing along on a buffalo skin drum. He continued playing drums in high school after his family moved to Missouri, where he was blinded in a blasting cap accident farm accident. His family sent him to a number of schools for the blind where he studied the principles of music and taught himself composition and trained his ear. He wound up with a scholarship at the age of 26 to study in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942. After that he moved to New York where he flourished–in a most unusual way.

Wearing a Viking helmet and long robes, he stood on the corners of 6th Avenue and the 50, sometimes standing completely still, sometimes busking for money, or selling his poetry or tracts on music. He was greatly influenced by jazz and the music of Benny Goodman and befriend Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. He seemed to be homeless but actually had an apartment in the city and a house in upstate New York.

He took the name Moondog after hearing a dog that howled “more than any dog” he’d ever met, and developed a following. In the 50s, a disk jockey in New York, named his show after Moondog and played an excerpt from Moondog’s First Symphony until Moondog sued him. The jockey tried to blow it off but then Bernstein and Toscanini testified that he was a serious classical composer. In New York, he also became an inspiration to the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steven Reich who studied his work and later paid him homage.

In the 1970s, Moondog moved to Germany where he met a young German student who hosted him, transcribed his work from Braille, and eventually inherited his estate when he died in 1999.

His music continues to inspire as it seems like a wonderful fusion of classical, jazz, folk, minimalist, and “found” music–he was inspired by foghorns and other sounds most of us would perceive as noise.

Bird’s Lament is one of those pieces which is like a perpetual motion machine. It’s repetitive but it sucks you in and they shifting between two chords, Gm and D, creates a tension that doesn’t ever seem to resolve and it feels like t’s sweeping you into an endless trance-like state.

Sacks tells us that the in order for the brain to integrate all the pieces of music, we have some kind of higher order organizing capability. Without that capability, music would just sound like foghorns and car crashes to us.

Which version of Bird’s Lament above does the higher order part of your brain prefer? How about your baser one?

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Moondog: Bird’s Lament

  1. kvennarad says:

    If it’s synaesthesia you’re after, check this out, especially the section after the guitar solo (which is basically all chords). There’s something about the chord progression of Thelonious Monk’s tune that chimes with Moondog, but it’s like ‘Dog got stuck on one repetitive set of changes; that’s not a bad thing, it’s like circulating a phrase or an image. This Jimmy McGriff track is a masterclass in Hammond organ. I love it passionately.

    Liked by 1 person

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