In the late 1960s, a curious figure often haunted Manhattan's Sixth Avenue in the west 50s: a tall, gaunt, hollow-eyed man, garbed in Viking costume (including horned helmet) and carrying a long spear.
He would sleep on the sidewalk, sometimes cushioned by a sack full of a street person's treasures. Or he might sit for hours, contemplating the traffic passing by. Sometimes he would stand on a corner selling his poems, which he kept in a large leather pouch. He was called Moondog, and to New Yorkers who passed him on their daily midtown rounds, his life was as mysterious as his name.
In the early 1970s, a recording of his songs appeared -- including as collaborators a couple of obscure young musicians named Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Moondog, it developed, had a banal name like everyone else -- Louis Hardin. And his essentially simple music might have been hailed as a precursor of minimalism, except that the term was not yet in the general vocabulary.
Last night in the Washington Cathedral, five of Moondog's songs appeared on a program otherwise dedicated to music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. As performed by the Washington Camerata (a group of four voices and four instrumentalists), his may have been the most interesting music of the evening -- not that he is a composer superior to Monteverdi, Machaut, Dufay or even Morley, but because of the anecdotal interest of the music's origins and the charm of the Camerata's performance. The songs were short (sometimes a single line, such as "All is loneliness here for me") but given duration and some complexity by canonic treatment in the voices and the addition of some pungent percussion.
Otherwise, the program was a fairly standard early music offering, with a lot of attention to songs about animals or birds and a few very kinetic dance numbers. The four singers fared well enough in ensemble work, less so in solos. The cathedral's tricky acoustics often diluted the music's impact in the vocals, less often in instrumental work.