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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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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Monday, Oct. 20


Amateur pictures from World War I are on display for only one more day at Rosphoto’s exhibition “On Both Sides,” chronicling the conflict through the eyes of observers on both sides of the trenches. The price of entrance to the exhibition is 100 rubles ($2.50).



Tuesday, Oct. 21


The Environment, Health and Safety Committee of AmCham convenes this morning at 9 a.m. in the organization’s office.


Take the chance to pick the brains of Dmitry V. Krivenok, the deputy director of the Economic Development Agency of the Leningrad region, and Mikhail D. Sergeev, the head of the Investment Projects Department, during the meeting with them this morning hosted by SPIBA. RSVP for the event by emailing office@spiba.ru before Oct. 17 if you wish to attend.


Improve your English at Interactive English, the British Book Center’s series of lessons on vocabulary and grammar in an informal atmosphere. Starting at 6 p.m., each month draws attention to different topics in English, with the topic for this month’s lessons being “visual arts.”



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