Published Dec 04, 2016In the annals of American outsider music, there are a couple of composers who, despite a pretty crusty demeanour and a highly unconventional lifestyle, retained a profound and stubborn originality that eventually gained the respect and admiration of many. Harry Partch and Moondog were examples of people whose street/hobo lifestyles and behaviours were the antithesis of the schmooze culture that so many past and present utilised to get their music heard and appreciated.
For his part, Moondog (a.k.a. Louis Thomas Hardin) became a fixture of New York street life, busking, but more often standing still at street corners looking like a Viking version of Sun Ra in his cape, horned helmet and all. Yet his music won him the admiration of everyone, from Arturo Toscanini to Charlie Parker.
In a tribute to the 100th year of his birth, Toronto's Music Gallery presented a performance of his music by the famed percussion ensemble Nexus, plus a mix of original and Moondog compositions by the Mike Smith Company.
The evening was a delightful mix of both highly complex yet almost nursery-rhyme-simple compositions. Nexus' performance made use of marimbas, glockenspiels, percussion, voice and vibraphone in a dancing acoustic celebration. Their trademark virtuosity was softened by an obvious enjoyment of the nature of the music itself, amplifying its focus on joyful and sweet tonalities, fused with some pretty ferocious rhythms and counterpoint.
The distinctly acoustic tonality of Nexus was brilliantly contrasted by Mike Smith (vocals, bass guitar and percussion) whose ensemble included Jonathan Adjemian (vocals and synth), Robin Dann (vocals and electronics) and Rebecca Hennessey (vocals, trumpet, electronics). The group played Moondog compositions and compositions by Mike Smith, whose harmonic and contrapuntal excursions were more than worthy of comparison.
Both ensembles executed Moondog's music with care and precision, yet the difference of years and seniority made no difference to the execution and presentation of the works. While Mike Smith's ensemble of young musicians was definitely imbued with the electronics of the 21st century, it complemented the more traditional sound of the seasoned and senior artists of Nexus with integrity and verve. It's also worth noting that Smith employed a high degree of voice work in his compositions (especially some beautiful vocals by Robin Dann), which lent a more modern sensibility to his set.
The thing that fused both performances and also gave the evening a charming, childlike air was the use of "rounds" (think "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") employed by both Moondog and Smith in their compositions.
This was one of the most engaging and satisfying concerts of this year.