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Jozef Van Wissem's Compositions Bring the Lute Into 21st Century

Published: May 18, 2014 (Issue # 1810)



  • Van Wissem, right, performing with film director Jim Jarmusch in New York, 2012.
    Photo: Stinker / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Brooklyn, New York-based musician and minimalist composer Jozef van Wissem, the winner of last year's Soundtrack Award at Cannes who played for St. Petersburg audiences at the SKIF festival on Friday before heading to a concert in Moscow, has always been an oddity in the circles he has played in. A towering figure always dressed in black, he looks more like a heavy metal guitarist, and while surrounding himself with avant-garde musicians, he wields a medieval lute as his instrument of choice.

A master of the lute, an instrument popular in the Renaissance and baroque periods, van Wissem has managed to make an old-fashioned instrument sound very contemporary, even adopting innovative approaches like palindromic structures in his compositions. On stage, he mixes compositions by Robert de Visse, a 17th-century lutenist who played in the court of French kings Louis XIV and Louis XV, with performances on 12-string electric guitar and electronics.

On his first lute record in 2000, "Retrograde Renaissance Lute: A Classical Deconstruction," he played the scores backward. "I felt I had to personalize the lute repertoire to make it my own. The Renaissance pieces all end resolved, which I think is boring," van Wissem explains.

"Later I started to quote baroque lute themes in my compositions and play them backwards creating mirror images as palindromes, sort of medieval sampling in a way. I am still into repetition of a few chords. That is more interesting than playing 100 single notes," he continued.

This approach to the instrument and to music composition is perhaps why van Wissem is often seen sharing the stage with avant-garde and experimental musicians, even though he comes from a classical music background. At age 16, he was already juggling duties playing Vivaldi pieces on classical guitar with the Limburg Symphony Orchestra and guitar in punk band Mort Subite.

Born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, van Wissem owned a music bar and played electric guitar in an experimental group but packed up and moved to New York in the early 1990s after receiving an invitation from an American producer to go there. "I got sick of the rock and roll lifestyle," he said, and began a period of introspection, returning to the acoustic guitar.

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Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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