Howard Wershil | 5 DEC 2023
Mmmm. Not what I expected. Not at all!
Given the reputation of Kronos Quartet (and, admittedly, my lack of knowledge of Ghost Train Orchestra), I was anticipating a serving of identifiable contemporary music residing somewhere on that broad spectrum ranging from mellifluous minimalism to ecstatic cacophony, looking forward to a new sonic experience echoing my life experience and musical knowledgeability, with perhaps a bit of contemporary classical innovation thrown in to expand my horizons. But is that what I received?
No! But I’ll tell you what I did get.
I got a smile on my face! A really, really big one! 😊
For those who are unaware, Kronos Quartet is a San Francisco-based American string quartet that has been in existence with a rotating membership of musicians for over 50 years. The quartet covers a very broad range of musical genres, including contemporary classical music, and is celebrated for having commissioned more than 1,000 new works.
The Ghost Train Orchestra, active since 2006, is known for its unique re-imaginings of under-appreciated and often obscure composers. They have recorded and performed extensively and released five albums, each critically acclaimed for its originality and vision.
The collaboration of Kronos Quartet and Ghost Train Orchestra, and the highly imaginative and quirky arrangements their collaboration yields, raises the music of Louis Hardin to exceptional heights.
Louis Thomas Hardin (aka Moondog), an American composer, musician, performer, music theoretician, poet, and inventor of musical instruments, was an artist whose reputation and music are certainly new to me. His life was unique and eccentric. Blinded by an accident at age sixteen, he learned how to read and write music in Braille and learned to play several musical instruments. In 1947, in homage to a three-legged farm dog back home that howled relentlessly at the moon, he took the name Moondog and moved to New York. By 1949, he was playing homemade drums on Sixth Avenue and busking (the act of playing music in the street or another public place for voluntary donations) for change.
For 30 years, Moondog lived on and off the streets of Manhattan, often wearing clothes of his own construction, usually consisting of a horned helmet, baggy tunics under a cape, and often the obligatory Norse-inspired spear. His idiosyncratic appearance rendered him a frequently photographed figure in New York as the “Viking of 6th Avenue.” Somehow, amid the chaos, he was able to earn money as a percussion performer, sometimes including an instrument of his own design, and obtain recording agreements from various independent labels.
Nevertheless, his achievements remained relatively obscure, with his particular brilliance being largely publicly unacknowledged. Moondog spent the last 25 years of his life in West Germany, adding extensively to the volume of his works. Many have yet to be transcribed, performed, or recorded.
How do I describe Moondog’s musical style, based on older recordings I’ve now heard? Try to imagine just the bare genesis of brief, repetitive, looping phrases, combined with unexpected sounds, vocalizations, and sudden departures to the unknown, yet all within a context that seems reserved and almost diplomatic. Imagine this cast in a variety of rhythms, colors, tempi, and densities varying from piece to piece.
How do I describe Moondog’s musical style as enhanced by the musical arrangements of the Kronos Quartet and Ghost Train Orchestra? Try to imagine raw materials dazzlingly refined by superior performances, production excellence, and the talents of such independently and unrepentantly iconic guest vocalists as Rufus Wainwright, Marissa Nadler, Petra Haden, Aoife O’Donovan, and more, exuding all manner of expression from rock, pop, folk, classical, jazz, punk and beyond.
I found myself both amused and perplexed by the titles of Moondog’s works as featured on this recording. Sometimes fanciful, sometimes stark, sometimes mystical, and sometimes downright mundane, they prod the mind at least a modicum outside its comfort zone. Consider titles such as “Theme,” “Be A Hobo,” “Why Spend A Dark Night With You,” “Coffee Beans,” or “Behold.” What can these titles possibly mean?
As I listen to this recording, I’m unsure whether I’m reaping the benefits of an austere genre now gently tamed and humanized or enjoying the gifts of a popular genre achieving the full breadth of evolution heretofore unachieved by those far less aspirational. Either way, the effect is exhilarating.
Sometimes, and perhaps more often than not, the most delightful experiences in life occur from something we weren’t expecting, something that comes completely out of left field, something fresh, surprising, confounding, and ultimately, totally uplifting and redeeming. So let me offer the sincere recommendation that you take the time to hear this music for yourself and breathe a bit of air wafted from yet another newly discovered planet.
In his time on earth, Moondog influenced hundreds of artists, including some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century: Philip Glass, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Janis Joplin, just to name a few. It could be argued that Moondog’s music was eventually a seminal influence in the development of that genre of contemporary classical music called Minimalism that has so influenced and pervaded the music world. Perhaps the most beautiful flowers do emerge from seeds not easily seen.
Not what I expected.
But isn’t that exactly what makes artistic discovery so joyful? ■
- Ghost Train Orchestra: https://www.ghosttrainorchestra.com/
- Kronos Quartet: kronosquartet.org
- Moondog – The Official Website: kronosquartet.org