Laughing at the edges 

Early in this century, witty French composer Erik Satie meant for his "furniture music" to be ignored – but when the Willem Breuker Kollektief brings its joyful noise to the Workbench Furniture store as part of Edgefest ’99 in Ann Arbor, it’ll be pretty hard to ignore the unconventional nature of the proceedings and the surroundings. Along with the Breuker Kollektief performance, the third annual Edgefest – an ambitious fest of avant-garde and modern musical artists held at various locations around Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown – boasts headlining sets from such luminaries as Myra Melford, Tim Berne, Bobby Previte and the Vinny Golia Quartet.

Somehow, it seems so wrong it’s right that the Breuker ensemble is to perform in a modern furniture showroom. And though the Kollektief could pull it off with the same aplomb they’ve displayed with work by composers from Mozart to Morricone, the music of Satie will probably not be on the bill.

Rather, the group will be presenting a program entitled, "Kurt Weill to New Dutch Swing." For part of the set, Kerrytown Concert House regular Deanna Relyea will lend her mezzo-soprano talents to the Kollektief’s charts of Weill’s progressive theater music. The "New Dutch Swing" portion comes from one of said genre’s inventors: group leader, composer and saxophonist Willem Breuker. For 25 years, Breuker has led the Kollektief – mixing influences from jazz, classical, film and theater with an invigorating dose of humor – and, in the process, making it a paradigm of creative energy.

Typically unfazed by the unorthodox setting in his near future, Breuker says, "I can play in any place in the world. We’ve played in small cellars for 16 people. But we’ve also played in the streets for 35,000 people, like in Italy and Montreal and Toronto. I don’t care at all. We just play. And we’re a band that can come to a place and play in 10 minutes."

The Kollektief plays more than 100 concerts a year and, for its members, the group’s a full-time commitment. Still, Breuker finds the time to write music for film, theater, solo musicians, symphony orchestras and more. He lectures on music and art, and he runs his own label, BVHaast, which, appropriately, translates to "The Hurry Company."

"So don’t talk too much. If you have an idea in mind, just do it. I know so many people that talk a half a year about an idea, and it never happens, you know. My idea is that if you have a good idea, just do it. Or if you have a bad idea, if you have the possibility, do it anyway, immediately, and then you see what it’s worth, or not," explains Breuker.

And he’s been just doing it for more than 30 years. Breuker confidently reconfigures musical conventions, much to the dismay of the tight-ass, purist audience contingent, but to the delight of those who enjoy their avant-garde tempered with revolutionary performance ideas. His crisscrossing and transgression of genre borders compels Breuker to call his art "music for human beings," rather than "jazz" or "contemporary classical." On his first time out as a leader – with a 23-piece band – he caused quite a controversy not only because of his wild music, but also because of his political content, inspired by a labor strike. Back then, in the mid-’60s, Breuker could be found alongside such Dutch innovators as Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg. These musicians pioneered the modern Dutch avant-jazz sound, or "New Dutch Swing," to quote the title of Kevin Whitehead’s comprehensive survey of this scene. Breuker also popped up on such landmark recordings as Peter Brotzmann’s over-the-top blowout Machine Gun, and a couple ESP recordings.

He continues to be an innovator in improvised and composed music, preferring to work with larger rather than smaller groups ("I write too many notes," he says, poker-face-voiced. "I cannot play my music with three or four musicians. I need more musicians."). And, like his compatriot Han Bennink, Breuker is an innovator in the field of musical comedy. Absurd skits, sight gags and purposefully flubbed notes all work together to stir up the combination of high and low culture in the Kollektief’s music.

This comedic element to the Kollektief arises from Breuker’s involvement with theater: Since the ’60s, Breuker has written both music and text for numerous plays. As he explains, "Most of the time they were about the political situation and about (art grant) subsidy systems in Holland, and about the way the whole cultural field was working. So that gives us a lot of inspiration to make a piece. A lot of laughing was involved, because people saw themselves on stage, or saw the political system so clearly on stage."

But, even though there’s a lot of joking around, Breuker and company maintain a serious commitment to keeping open (and opening minds to) performance possibilities. As he theorizes, "Always the thing is open and free, with a lot of questions. After a concert, we never discuss what actually happened. It always has to be fresh and unclear. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that we exist now, 25 years on and we still can go on. Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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