For some years, one of the odder recordings in my collections has been an LP issued by BVHaast in the early '80s called “The Busy Drone,” consisting of music by luminaries such as Breuker, Misha Mengelberg, Louis Andriessen and others written for Dutch street organs. These machines, which I guess still patrol Amsterdam byways, possibly are related to the American calliope tradition of the 19th century, although one imagines their Dutch cousins largely billowing out waltzes, hymns and light classical fare instead of circus tunes. The possibilities for avant-garde mischief offered by such creatures to the nascent Instant Composers Pool crowd were far too difficult to resist.
This disc at hand is largely a reissue, including the entirety of a long out of print Breuker album on the ICP label recorded in 1969, the two Breuker compositions from “The Busy Drone” (written in 1969-70, recorded in 1981) and a single new piece. The earliest sessions are a rough-hewn affair, recorded (appropriately enough) in the street with the accompanying fuzzy ambience, engine sounds and the comment of passersby. More, the music seems written by someone with little idea how to go about it. Much like a player piano, the street organs use a kind of perforated paper score fed through its innards. Breuker may have been trying to play things halfway, using his lack of technical knowledge in this field to produce some fairly brutal music and, if so, he succeeded. The compositions are strident and, despite small allusions to various popular and classical genres, largely unpleasant to hear. One would be hard pressed to identify the dedicatee of “In Memory of John Coltrane,” were the title not provided. He does get some rather jaunty, sarcastic rhythms going during “Before Og 15 KR II,” a fun little number. “Cross,” a mock religious processional, ventures into territory familiar to those who know Breuker’s soundtrack work from around this time for the films of Johan van der Keuken.
The two pieces from “The Busy Drone” are far more “accomplished” in a traditional sense, interpolating “Old Susanna,” the Hallelujah chorus and other favorites into waltz and march forms with Breuker’s standard panache. “Een Dagje Ouder (a little older)” also dates from 1970, though it was only recorded in 2003. It’s rickety (intentionally so), a little bit of a carnival joy ride on a fragile framework, tootling merrily along.
The problem is (and it’s no fault of the street organs!) the music just isn’t that rewarding. A fun, one-off project, I suppose, but that’s about it. Breuker completists will need it, but anyone looking to hear his work for the first time has about 30 or 40 albums to get before this one.
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