Artists On Albums: AOA#37 (Colleen on Moondog 2)

Colleen on…

Moondog’s Moondog 2 (Columbia Records, 1971)

Moondog - Moondog 2

Moondog – Moondog 2

I first encountered Moondog’s music around 2001, discovering him – like so much other music in my life – at a time when going to the music libraries of Paris had become an essential part of my life. I had just finished my studies and had very little money, so my favourite way of discovering music was going to those incredibly well-stocked libraries where I borrowed frantically, eager to soak up everything, at a time when I still naively thought that I would one day be familiar with all the music in the world!

My favourite library had Moondog records, but mostly from his mid and late periods: H’art Songs, A New Sound For An Old Instrument, Elpmas… but soon afterwards I discovered the Columbia Moondog album. From the start I related to what I heard (acoustic instruments, repetitive, relatively minimal but very melodic music… exactly the sort of music I felt like making myself and had just started making, very tentatively).  It was only some years later that I finally decided to track down (almost) everything that Moondog had done, eager for not a single gem to escape me – and Moondog 2 has turned out to be the most beautiful of these for me.

It is one of those rare albums that works on multiple levels and for which each new listen yields new insights and rewards.  The music on Moondog 2 is so melodic and the combined voices of Moondog and his daughter (his warm and Robert Wyatt-esque, his daughter’s crystal clear) so pleasantly intertwined that a first impression could be one of benign pleasantness. Indeed, the album is sometimes dismissed as a collection of ‘ditties’ and is even considered by some as tiresome and repetitive.  I personally think that this can be your impression only if you’re listening to the music in a very superficial way, and indeed, if you’re doing something else at the same time, the songs probably won’t even register, since most don’t even hit the two minute mark. Start paying close attention to the music and lyrics and it soon becomes clear that the album is anything but repetitive, each song a finely wrought miniature.

Though the album was released in 1971, Moondog had written a great majority of the material in the early 50s, and of course, if they feel even more ancient than that, it’s because the composition method (that of the round, a simple canon) is a very old one. In the album’s notes Moondog gives ample explanation of how his particular rounds work (the different numbers of ‘parts’ and metres used) and you find out that each round is in a different key. If you own the original vinyl, you can follow the music score printed on a beautiful separate booklet, and indeed it’s often a very challenging game to try and follow the various musical lines as they wrap around each other.  As is customary in Moondog’s music, among the varied acoustic instrument arsenal and the voices shines the stellar percussion performed on his trimbas: warm and crisp at the same time, and instantly recognizable.

It is in great part because I was so fascinated with the ‘mechanisms’ at work in this album that I started to learn percussion in early 2012.  Having reached the point where I just felt too annoyed with myself for not understanding how metre works, I decided to do something concrete (learn some percussion instruments) to get ‘physically’ into that world of rhythm which I couldn’t apprehend from a theoretical point of view.  That’s another story and this is not the place to tell it, but it’s been life-changing for me, as it’s opened up more musical avenues than I could ever have hoped for.

What makes Moondog’s famous snake-time rhythm (5/4) and rhythms in 7/8 even more interesting is that they provide a sense of imbalance countered by the perfectly intertwined melodic lines, giving a sense of simultaneous tension and relief. In other pieces, such as “Sadness,” the voice itself, with its ‘halted’ delivery, feels like part of the rhythm, and I find a more upbeat number such as “Behold” plain irresistible, a perfect example of music and lyrics complementing each other:

““Behold, the willow bows before me – But not the oak I’m uprooting” remarkt the wind.”

And this is the second major way in which this album helped me at the time of making my new album The Weighing Of The Heart: it threw a clear light on how very sparse lyrics could be used to maximum effect.  At least half the songs on the album could be used as examples: “All Is Loneliness,” “Why Spend A Dark Night With You,” “Down Is Up” and “You The Vandal” are all wonderful examples of how evocative and striking Moondog’s lyrics can be.  His originality also lies in his sense of humour and self-deprecation, evident in “Maybe” and “Imagine,” and in his ability to keep the mood varied, having the fast and worried “I Love You” followed by the delightfully laid-back and unexpected “Nero’s Expedition”.

Last but not least, Moondog 2 is also a superbly recorded album. Put your ears near the speakers and the voices are in the room with you; listen on headphones and it becomes a real stereo trip. When I was in the final stages of mixing The Weighing Of The Heart, I followed a well-known piece of advice for mixing which is to have a couple of so-called ‘reference recordings’ at hand to try and compare your own mix with the sound you’re potentially trying to achieve.  Although my album is by no means meant to be some kind of ‘take’ on Moondog 2, it was the only album – of all the possible reference records which I’d put on the side – which I actually decided to play, and I don’t think this was out of laziness on my part.  In the end, that record seemed to encapsulate all the qualities which I was trying to capture in my music: the coexistence of instruments and voices, rhythm and melody, a close yet richly layered sound coming from all angles of the stereo spectrum, and a sense of experimentation combined with playfulness – and I’m glad this album was there to help me get closer to that ideal.

Notes On The Artist:

Cécile Schott (AKA Colleen)

Cécile Schott (AKA Colleen)

Erstwhile Parisienne Cécile Schott – who trades under the guise of Colleen – is one of the most innovative artists that her country has exported in the last decade or so.  Since her 2002 Babies 7” debut on French label Active Suspension, there have been three full-length Colleen albums (2003’s Everyone Alive Wants Answers, 2005’s The Golden Morning Breaks and 2007’s Les Ondes Silencieuses) and an EP (2006’s Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique) for The Leaf Label, a limited live VPRO session release via Mort Aux Vaches and a healthy spread of compilation appearances through other outlets.

After a lengthy sabbatical from making music – which included learning the crafts of ceramics and sculpture – Cécile has returned Colleen to active duty with the release of The Weighing Of The Heart, on the almost made-to-measure Second Language.

Colleen - The Weighing Of The Heart

Colleen – The Weighing Of The Heart

Mainly recorded in 2012, in her latter-day Spanish environment, The Weighing Of The Heart is one of the most redemptive reawakenings of recent times.  Whilst retaining the elemental essence of her past forays into minimalist electronica and post-classical explorations, The Weighing Of The Heart captures Cécile finding a range of cohesive new voices both literally and metaphorically.  Aside from sparingly introducing her previously unheard elegant vocals (which would sound near-perfect on a guest-led LP by Second Language-ringleaders Piano Magic), the album spreads Cécile’s multi-instrumentalist skills across remarkably wide yet impossibly intimate vistas.  Although incorporating globalised polyrhythms, serene strings, plaintive woodwind and subtly glistening electronics, which seamlessly join the dots between Moondog, Snow Palms, Four Tet, Steve Reich, Klima and a gamut of non-Western influences, The Weighing Of The Heart has a character distinctly bespoke to its author’s own rich inner-imagination.  Taken as a whole, its fusion of meditative melodies and rapturous rhythms marks out The Weighing Of The Heart as unquestionably the best Colleen album to date.

To celebrate the release of The Weighing Of The Heart, a select series of Colleen live shows are scheduled for May and June across Portugal, Spain, Ireland, France, Scotland and England.  Amongst these carefully chosen dates is a special Second Language label showcase at Café Oto, with equally inventive labelmates Directorsound and Áine O’Dwyer in support.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I had the pleasure of writing a text on a favourite album of mine, Moondog’s Moondog 2, for Artists on Albums series. Moondog 2 played a key role in my work on the new album and you can find out how, as well as why I like it so much, here. […]