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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #226
Rounds and Floyds
David Gunn

We have a sad note to report today, and we're not talking about the G flat that the French horn player inadvertently made while clearing her spit valve during rehearsal of the Farafangana Orchestra Ltd. of Madagascar. Besides, that wasn’t sad so much as it was miscontextualized. No, the sad note is that composer Louis Hardin, also known as Moondog, died last week. He was 83. In the 1950s and '60s, Moondog was a mysterious and extravagantly garbed street musician in New York City, dressed in a homemade robe, sandals, a flowing cape and horned Viking helmet, and clutching a long hand-crafted spear. But his compositions, which merged jazz, classical, Native American and other influences, anticipated and influenced the minimalist movement. Though later acclaimed in Europe as an avant-garde composer, Moondog was perhaps best known for his unusually time-signatured vocal rounds. A rounds is, of course a musical composition for two or more voices in which each voice enters at a different time with the same melody. "Row Row Row your Nautilus Exercise Machine" and "Frère Jacques Cousteau" are two good examples. Moondog was a master of the round. He was, in fact, a perfectly round man, equidistantly girthed from a common center. When viewed from above, he was impossible to distinguish from a large, hairy blancmange. While in Europe, he attracted a following of composition students who had tired of the strictures of academic isms -- serialism, Pärtism, acoustoelectricianism, maximalism and even Yanniism -- and they eagerly imitated his style of roundwriting. Calling themselves moondoggies, these helmet-headed, spear-wielding acolytes at first tried to write similarly peculiar rounds. When critics panned many of the pieces as moondoggerel, some of the students bailed out and reverted to writing lucrative film scores. But others stuck by their gums, adhering to the glutinous gingiva like slug larva to a postage stamp, and eventually their music evolved to what we now know as Surface Music.

Surface Music is derived from the mathematical relationships of a geometric figure. Squares, rhombuses, acetylene triangles, parallelograms, oblongs, trapezohedrons, oxygons -- all create uniquely identifiable compositions when differential algorithms ply their dimensional waters. And while a round is not the first shape that comes to mind when geometry is discussed, the surface musicians liberally embraced the form anyway. Likewise employed were ellipsoids, ovules, globules and potholes, though the amorphously squirrelly dimensions of these geometrically lean shapes produced less successful pieces. Still, they were magnum opuses compared to one form so ill-conceived that it had gratefully languished in well-deserved oblivion until the Kalvos & Damian Research Junta stumbled upon it. That form is the floyd.

A floyd is shaped like the eye of a hurricane. And like the eponymous storm that recently dampened many a slab of East Coast asphalt, it is frequently a disaster in the making. Similarly, its harmonic incongruities mirror the meteorological disparities and low barometric pressure of a tropical depression. In essence, it is a contrapuntal form that goes awry. A melody is heard first in one voice and then imitated by additional voices, usually at the unison. The voices may enter upside down, backwards or disguised as a tuna casserole. Eventually, one by one the voices contract the musical equivalent of prostatitis and the melody becomes inflamed. Compositional indigestion occurs, and the voices shirk their imitative qualities and settle into a kind of circular static loop. A musical death inevitably follows. As an example, here is a 12-measure, 47-note six-part floyd played on a plastic harpsichord by Sun Yun Moondoggie. (FLOYD)

That was a six-part floyd entitled "Example of a Floyd." Did you note how its logically contrapuntal beginning was not enough to save it from devolving into chaotic loops of low barometric pressure? Well, we did, we being the agents provocateurs of this 226th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, through whose miscontextualized musical potholes we hope to pick up a crumb or two of canonic wisdom from Kalvos.