VIDEO - Moondog, the unclassifiable composer

Classical music, minimalism, jazz, world music... It is impossible to assign just one musical genre to the composer and musician, Moondog! Here is a look at the "worldly music" of Moondog, the Viking of 6th Avenue, with Amaury Cornut, Moondog's biographer, and the pianist Dominique Ponty.

VIDEO - Moondog, the unclassifiable composer
Moondog, the unclassifiable composer, © Getty / CBS Photo Archive

How can we describe Moondog’s music?

With Amaury Cornut, Dominique Ponty, and archive footage of Moondog from the INA (National Audiovisual Institute)

What kind of music is it?

My music and my jazz are written in a classical form, so it’s a combination of Indian influence and the European influence - Moondog

Everyone agrees in saying that Moondog cannot be reduced to one single genre. Indeed, the composer blurred the lines of genre by drawing inspiration from Native American rhythms, from baroque counterpoint and canonic writing, by befriending several of the great jazzmen of his time, and from the growing minimalist movement. According to Amaury Cornut, Moondog specialist,  « it is its own music, its own genre ».

The prolific composer wrote over 1 000 works, including 81 symphonies.

An academic education and Native American percussion

Moondog was classically trained: blinded at the age of 16, this resulted in him attending a special music school. As a child, he also often followed his father, a pastor, to various Indian reserves, where he discovered the rhythms and percussion of the Native American music.

On the streets of New-York

Moondog moved to New-York in 1944 and decided to live on the streets in order to save money and finance his musical transcriptions. However, as a blind composer, he required help in transcribing his compositions. 

For three years he attended the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Artur Rodziński and his assistant Leonard Bernstein. There he was able to further his musical education and establish a network of professional musicians, many of whom later collaborated with Moondog on different albums. He became the Viking of 6th Avenue, living and composing in the street where recorded the different everyday sounds (whistles, conversations...) which he would then use as instruments in his own music. 

Inventor of instruments

In the late 1940s, Moondog began inventing and making his own instruments, mostly percussion: the most emblematic of these is the "trimba", a triangular percussive instrument. 

Moondog and jazz music

In addition to his passion for the musical pulse and groove, Moondog sympathised with the great jazzmen of the 1950s: Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and Charles Mingus...

Moondog's master

Moondog’s musical master was Johann-Sebastian Bach - Amaury Cornut

Strongly influenced by Bach, Moondog developed a fascination for counterpoint and canonic music. He was also interested in the music of great European composers such as Strauss, Wagner, and Mozart...

I am very strict with my counterpoint, perhaps the most strict composer - Moondog

Founder of musical minimalism

Though Philip Glass and Steve Reich described Moondog as the founder of minimalism, Moondog himself rejected the label somewhat instinctively. Yet, Amaury Cornut agrees that "he had assembled all the necessary ingredients. The pulse, the tonality, the short and repeated melodic motifs".