Scott Foust asked me to write about this record for his latest Swill Radio catalog. This is an expanded version, complete with photo…

Anton Heyboer – Rules of the Universe (Kye)

Anton Heyboer was a Dutch artist best known for his paintings and prints. A promising career artist in his youth, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1951 upon witnessing a dying cat. During his recovery, he developed a personal philosophical artistic system aimed at showing others the innocence of their lives. By the mid-80’s he made a break with the commercial art market, and retreated into a world of his own making, producing stunningly raw paintings, living with his many brides, and merging his life and his art as completely as he could.

In 1976, EMI released the LP She and She as One, a mysterious-sounding recording for harmonium and voice. Now, nearly thirty years later, Kye issues Rules of the Universe, a double vinyl collection of private recordings made between 1993 and 1995. For a label that has regularly favored field recordings and the sound of the everyday, Rules of the Universe may stand as the most legitimately documentary entry so far in the catalog. According to one of Heyboer’s wives, Lotti, “He played and sung sitting on his beloved red couch, while one of us would be cooking or doing the dishes, the dogs all around, phone ringing, doorbell, whatever. Joke, the one who looked most after him, simply turned on the cassette player. Preferably without him knowing it. Sometimes though he liked it, that we found it important enough to record it.”

And so we are cast into Heyboer’s strange world. Rules of the Universe consists primarily of Heyboer’s voice, joined by wheezing harmonica, atonal guitar, occasional harmonium, and the sounds of the life around him. Doors creak and close, dogs bark, phones ring, and yet he continues, unperturbed. The sense of wonder is both endearing and enduring. The harmonica playing is forlorn and lonely, aimless without worry, pleased with each breath. The voice moves from trembling falsetto to weary, low, near-mumbling intonations, at times swinging unexpectedly to full-bodied, almost operatic confidence. He alternates between vocal personas – the droning old man, the wildly ambitious operatic, the cynical whining misanthrope. 

What Heyboer calls “innocence” could perhaps more appropriately be understood as a particular and gentle sort of individuality. Innocence, at least in his conception, is a state that is entirely impossible to achieve in the context of current cultural life, and so he pursues and expounds innocence through removal. His negation of the world-as-given is not a nihilistic death wish, but rather a dive through the looking glass and into a realm of truly particular being. His method is brave and confounding. The context and scope of his program, its sheer openness, is both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw, and as such contains something of real interest.

He can’t possibly be held up as exemplary: the very concept of “example” seems to crumble as soon as it touches his ideas, he’s far too singular, and yet what he creates from this place can serve as a lesson to all of us. His cry for innocence is little more than a call to everyone who hears him to be fully themselves, to exist in the world as freely and individually as possible. Heyboer’s rejection of the art market is a rejection of a monetization in no way aligned with his vision of what the function of art can  be. To truly engage with art is to constantly be willing to think outside of its structures and, more importantly, to build new ones. Remember the hacienda.

Rather than working his way towards or against predictable musical forms, Heyboer sounds as though he is somehow discovering music for the very first time as a possibility. The set ends on one of these notes, the voice slowly coming to a pause, its quavering silenced, if only for now, seemingly in awe of what it has created.

This collection casts a spell. We are sent beyond what we are able to conceive of as the everyday or the expected. It represents a tear in the fabric of what is generally considered to be reality, and in so doing throws open a door to an entirely different series of concerns. It is there in the story of the artist, in the quality of his voice, in its innocence and its wisdom. “Do you know what it means to love in art?” Heyboer asks. Well, do you?