Moondog was a largely self-taught American composer, born in 1916 in Marysville, KS but grew up in Wyoming. At an early age Moondog took an interest in music and cites his first drum kit, the instrument he went on to be most famous for, as being a ‘cardboard box’ at the age of five. His father, a former Episcopalian priest, took him once to a Sun Dance with the Arapaho people where he sat on the lap of the tribe’s chief, Yellow Calf, who introduced him to the tom-tom, a formative experience for Moondog’s later style and approach. He played the drums in high school and it was also at this time that Moondog lost his sight in a farming accident when a dynamite cap exploded.
After studying at various schools for young blind men he moved to New York at the age of 27 where he began a career performing on the street, finding an audience for his unusual sound. It was also where he met classical and jazz musicians and composers like Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein and Charlie Parker, some of which became lifelong friends. As well as playing and recording music on the street, Moondog also sold poems and copies of his musical philosophy.
Snaketime was the name given by Moondog to his style and approach to rhythm as he believed the offbeat and syncopated percussion had a ‘slithery’ quality. This was mirrored in the unconventional time signatures he used, like 5 beat and 7 beat time, once claiming that the ‘human race is going to die in 4/4 time’.
While Moondog is typically known as a street musician, he was in fact a prolific composer of hundreds of works; 81 symphonies for orchestras, chamber and brass ensembles and works for piano and organ amongst others. He wrote all of his works in braille but did not write out the full score, just the parts, he thought that if his work was ever in demand the score could be ‘intracted’ from the parts as opposed to the normal ‘extraction’ of parts from a score.
One of Moondog’s more famous pieces of music, ‘Bird’s Lament’ was recorded after his friend passed away. “I call this piece`Bird’s Lament,’ in memory of Charlie Parker. We were to have cut a duet together. I wrote it after his death.” It was said that Charles Parker wanted to record an album with Moondog but passed away shortly after.
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