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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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Friday, Oct. 31


Put your grammar and logical thinking to the test in a fun and friendly environment during the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening starting at 5 p.m. today. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.



Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at today’s Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nation’s premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the city’s elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s latest film “Mommy” at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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