Backstage with Willem Breuker
A jazz rebel who's more than a little offbeat
Amsterdam, a city where the tasteful rubs shoulders with the tawdry, should be a bottomless font of inspiration for any artist with a roguish sense of adventure. Willem Breuker is one such artist; for over four decades, the clarinetist, saxophonist and composer has been busy criss-crossing genre boundaries.
by David Cronin, 13 July 2007
His frolicsome works fuse jazz and classical with the music of circus tents, cabaret halls and ale houses. He combines conventional instruments with soccerreferee whistles, typewriters, chunks of timber and a xylophone made from bottles. Not surprisingly, Mr. Breuker's critics have resorted to extraordinary comparisons when trying to convey the unique experience of his concerts; one went so far as to claim that his 10-piece band, the Willem Breuker Kollektief, seems to be "conducted by Daffy Duck in a Gestapo uniform."
Now in his 60s, Mr. Breuker remains prolific. This present live performances of his 2003 soundtrack to F.W. Murnau's 1926 film 'Faust'; and release a DVD on his own label, BVHaast. Though titled simply 'Two Oboe Concertos for Han de Vries', the latter disc is anything but prosaic. Featuring recordings of a Dvorak-influenced piece Mr. Breuker scored for a classically trained musician, they capture an audience at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw mesmerized by an elegant arrangement of string and wind instruments, then startled by the invasion of a pipe-band in full tartan regalia. Born in Amsterdam in 1944, Mr. Breuker first came to public attention in the 1960s. In 1967, he formed the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) with the pianist Misha Mengelberg and percussionist Han Bennink. After leaving his two elder cohorts in 1973, he founded his Kollektief a year later. Today, he has more than 500 works to his credit and is hoping to release some of his less wellknown compositions on disc.
Q: What are the strongest memories of your childhood?
"Poverty. After the Second World War, people here in Amsterdam had nothing. There were very big families so parents didn't just have to fill one mouth, they had to fill seven or eight mouths. My father never had a chance to study. He used to tell his two sons: 'I was born in the wrong period, but you have to study so that you don't end up like me, a laborer for the rest of your lives.' My brother became a doctor and I became who I am. My father didn't understand music so he didn't know what to do with me."
Q: I understand that as a child, you wanted to learn piano but that you couldn't afford one so you chose clarinet instead.
"Yes. I was 11 when I started playing clarinet. I had my first training at school but I wasn't interested in studying music. I just studied enough so that I could play to the end of a page. I was too lazy to turn the page, so I would improvise the rest."
Q: How did you team up with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink?
"They were playing in a postbop style and couldn't find a way to come out of it. They needed a certain kind of power and I had a lot of power. I played long and very loud and for a lot of people here in Holland that was very shocking. In 1966, I played in a jazz contest that was broadcast on TV and that created a big scandal. The front pages of many daily papers said that this was the end of music. But this meant that my name was in print and it had a very positive effect for me."
Q: Why did you eventually part company with Messrs. Mengelberg and Bennink?
"They were not interested in the things I was doing, like writing pieces for the theater. I was playing very often in Germany and other countries in Europe with the Gunter Hampel Quartet. [Messrs. Mengelberg and Bennink] said to me, 'If you go outside the country, we want to know.' I had to ask their permission, so I left them. In 1974, I formed my own group and it is still going today."
Q: You freely mix jazz with other types of music, including classical. Are you trying to make classical music less elitist?
"There are no rules to music. Or if there are, they are made by other people. If you don't like the rules, play without them or make your own."
Q: What is the attraction for you about writing music for the theater?
"People who go to a performance want to understand it immediately. Nobody goes to the theater or to a film 10 times to find out what something really means. So you have to be as clear as possible to the audience. That doesn't mean the music has to be easy or stupid. People like to listen to all kinds of strange music, if they can hear an intensity or a heart behind it."
Q: Critics often describe your work as 'playful'. But I would imagine that if children heard your records they would laugh one moment and be scared the next.
"We have done concerts for children. And we do things onstage that children would not be allowed to do by their parents. I've walked around in a monkey costume, playing the bass clarinet. We've done very easy magic tricks that people don't understand, like sawing people in half. We had a special case built that all of the musicians could fit in,
so that they could be cut in half."
Q: You have your own record label. Why have you never signed with one of the major companies?
"Anytime I got a call saying, 'Would you like to make a record for a famous label?' they would immediately afterwards tell me what I could and couldn't play. And they brought nothing with them. No money, for example."
Q: Do you find it difficult having to take care of the business, as well as the creative side?
"I'm not a businessman. I've always had people working with me to do the practical business. When I'm on the road for two weeks, somebody has to answer the phone. I wanted to be free to bring out whatever I wanted. I hear all the time that I have a kind of name in record business land. But I do this more for artistic reasons. Other people take care of the business of selling."
Q: What is the situation with Klap op de Vuurpijl, the annual festival that you have been organizing?
"It finished last year, after 30 years. The city of Amsterdam didn't want to give us money. All of the money in Amsterdam now goes to the Van Gogh museum or to the Concertgebouw. To 'serious' art."
Q: But in the past you have lobbied successfully to secure public funding for your music.
"Yes. It was quite normal that classical composers or ballet companies got subsidies. So I asked the authorities, 'Why don't we get subsidies?' The first thing they said was, 'Do you have a diploma?' I told them, 'I come from a dustbin, I have no diploma.' But after a while they saw that people like me could write music for classical ensembles. They took us more seriously then."
Q: Even though you have an anarchic spirit, you have been given various honors, including being made a Knight of the Order of the Dutch Lion. How do you reconcile being a rebel and part of the Establishment?
"With the little money we get, we are really the ambassadors of Dutch music outside the country. The authorities don't want to understand me; they have to read papers outside the country to know how important the things we do are. I don't regard these honors as mine. But I do take pride in how they make other people jealous."
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
"We're bringing out a new record in the next few months. It will be a combination of different recordings that have never been used before. I've also been commissioned to write a violin concerto. It's like going on a journey without knowing where it will end."
Q: Do you intend to keep making music as long as you are physically capable?
"Yes. Otherwise, I'd become a criminal."
For more information, see www.xs4all.nl/~wbk.
Reprinted by permission of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE, © 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. all rights reserved worldwide.