Early in his career, Dutch musician Jozef van Wissem switched over to the lute after years of playing classical guitar. He decided he would shake things up a bit, however, to make the standard repertoire — French, German, Italian, English and Spanish pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries — a little more personal by writing the pieces down on paper, backwards, and playing them that way.
“My attitude came from listening to avant-garde music, coming more from that direction than from early music,” said van Wissem, who spoke with me by phone from his home in Brooklyn. “Most early music players were doing something that’s safe.”
On his website, van Wissem, who performs on Friday at 756 Chapel Street in New Haven, laid out what he called a “new music for early instruments manifesto,” suggesting that “in order to update the instrument, to make it mature and give it it’s recognition it deserves one needs to put it in an entire different and contemporary context.” “The idea,” he continued, “is to drag the lute out of the museum, out of the safe hands of a small group of specialists and give it back to the people.”
Van Wissem’s stance, arguably, is as much punk as it is avant-garde, and given his background (at 16, he played classical music concertos with orchestral ensembles by day; at night, he played in punk bands), that’s not surprising. He quit playing the electric guitar and took up the lute — “getting into more introverted stuff,” he said — when it got boring. “I was also sick of the rock and roll lifestyle. There was not much to learn anymore.” But don’t expect van Wissem to bust into a lute arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” His compositions are challenging and hypnotic, tackling Biblical and mystical topics with a No Wave swagger on recordings with intense titles: The Wolf Also Shall Dwell with the Lamb, It Is All That Is Made, The Joy That Never Ends, and so on.
(It's also worth mentioning that Sting did a whole lute album and tour, and much of J.S. Bach's music that's now played on the guitar was originally composed for the lute.)
Sensing the considerable resistance he’d come up against by playing the lute, an instrument with ties to Europe that pre-date notated music (and, prior to that, the Middle Eastern oud), in a modern way, Van Wissem chose to study in New York, with a teacher named Pat O’Brien, rather than in Europe. “The way that Americans look back on European history is more open,” he said. “In Europe, there is more baggage.” O’Brien taught van Wissem to improvise, and he also instilled in him the idea that, if you want to make a living as a lute player, you have to write your own pieces. Van Wissem obeyed; now, his music, which frequently employs musical palindromes or “mirror pieces,” is sometimes referred to as minimalist, full of drones, repetitive phrases, electronic sounds and spacious reverb effects. In live performances, he’ll sometimes allow his strings to tap against the microphone placed in front of the lute, creating spacey pops and crackles.
Early music specialists, van Wissem believes, by sticking with what they’ve decided is a historically accurate way of approaching the instrument, by not updating the lute repertoire to reflect contemporary musical tastes, have inadvertently created a small, elitist society. “It doesn’t bring [the lute] out there to the people who play it,” he said. “And it’s a great instrument. My feeling is that people should take note and listen to it... If you only study lute and only study early music and pop music that’s very mainstream, then you don’t have the imagination to write new material. If you aren’t into contemporary instrumental music, then you can’t write stuff for the instrument in a way that connects with a contemporary audience. You can’t update it with new life.”
Van Wissem’s approach, he said, has since spread to younger players, and audiences on both continents respond favorably. “I play for a lot of different audiences in churches, bars, galleries, theaters,” he said. “One day I’ll play for the mayor of New York and another in a club. I really like the American audiences who are really nice and respectful. Europe has that too, but it depends. People are usually very quiet and attentive.”
The lutenist has enjoyed satisfying, long-standing collaborations with fellow iconoclasts, including ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Italian noise artist Maurizio Bianchi, and filmmaker and composer Jim Jarmusch, with whom he’s released two recordings. “When I was in Europe, we’d send each other stuff,” he said. “We met here in New York and I gave him some of my work, and he was really into it. He was really supportive and was really behind it.” Over the years, Van Wissem and Jarmusch have worked together by sending each other material, recording new parts over each other’s pieces, building and then continuing to improvise when they could meet in person. “It started out as an exchange. I also have to say that we are really good friends on a personal level. We have a lot of interests in common: English poetry, William Blake, history in general. We talk a lot about early music... He’s like a sponge. He’s searching a lot... We also hang out as friends and it’s a different vibe than if you just collaborated as musicians... There’s this eruption, then no storyline. I like something that you can build on. It’s a real dialogue, and that makes it more interesting.”
His work with Jarmusch also allows van Wissem to get back to the electric guitar. “I play a 1965 Danelectro 12-string,” he said. “It looks like a lute. It has this one lipstick pickup, and I can get a nice dirty tone out of a Vox amplifier.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun