Perfect Sound Forever

Jozef Van Wissem

Interview by Jason Gross
(February 2010)

You wanna talk old-school? Then consider the lute, an ancestor of the guitar. Its history may stretch back thousands of years. Usually associated with the Middle Ages, the lute made its way in various forms throughout the world. Dutch composer Jozef Van Wissem dusted off this classic instrument and dragged it into the 20th century, adding electronics and tape edits to his music. He has also collaborated with guitarist Gary Lucas, lectured about his music at several American universities, and even taken a commission to create a musical response to a picture in London's National Gallery. Many of his albums have come out on Important Records, including his latest, Ex Patris.

I recently interrogated Van Wissem via e-mail to discuss his unique technique and philosophy of music.

PSF: Going back a bit, before you started playing music, what artists intrigued you and made you think that you'd like to play music yourself?

JVW: The Velvet Underground, Andres Segovia, Ry Cooder, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly.

PSF: How did you first get interested in the lute?

JVW: Well, I started out as a classical guitar player at age 11. When you study classical guitar, they give you lute music to play. Music from Shakespeare's Time, it was called. They were lute pieces transposed to guitar, although lute and guitar are not related as musical families. In fact, lute technique has more in common with harpsichord technique. After I moved to New York, I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a lute teacher. I called him, and it became this obsession.

PSF: Could you talk about the difference between playing the guitar and playing the lute?

JVW: The right-hand technique is totally different. You strum the open unfretted basses with your thumb. Like the left hand on a piano. Then you use the rest of the fingers of your right hand to play the chords or melody line. Totally different from guitar technique. And then there's the difference in sound.... I haven't played guitar in 14 years.

PSF: As you've been touring now, what kind of audiences are attracted to your music? How do they react to it? Has this changed over the years?

JVW: The audience on this tour varied in age, but there's a new young audience since the last 5 years or so. The thing that is different is that they don't label the music or discriminate. They don't care if it's called folk, classical, or rock. So they are more open-minded. Another thing is that many of them have never seen a lute, so they are really surprised and come up to me after the concert and ask about the instrument. They also really concentrate, so the experience becomes quite intense and more like a Mass even. You will see people sitting with their eyes closed. Since the internet is so important now, people are quite informed, and they come for the music and really want to take it in.

PSF: Has your audience changed in terms of demographics or how they absorb the music? If so, how so?

JVW: Yes, the audience has changed in how they experience a concert. It used to be much more specialist. You used to play in a jazz club for just improv fans or in a church for only classical-lute lovers. Only people who were into a certain niche would come out to listen. That is not the case anymore, thanks to the internet. Specializations are now known to a larger, more informed audience. For example, people who have downloaded my pieces for free will want to buy a “real CD” of said pieces, and they do so during my concerts. And the questions they ask me are quite idiomatic. Really great, actually. I try to kind of get in a trance playing, and the audience joins me if the feeling's right. It's quite an intimate experience, quiet but intense. I leave a lot of silence as well, and that can get claustrophobic but in a good way. It's a catharsis for them.

PSF: How often do you find that the mood that you project matches how the audience ultimately reacts to it? Also, what do you find is the best way to get them to synchronize their mood with yours? Is it through the trance state?

JVW: To synchronize their mood with mine depends on how focused they are on the show. If they are really concentrating, the room is dead quiet. If they are somewhat loud, you play really quietly or wait until they are quiet. That has always worked for me. They shut up and then the concert is a build-up to this trance. Mostly, though, they are quiet. I think the lute as an instrument has that effect as well.

PSF: It seems that you're usually not playing for a traditional classical crowd but for more of a rock and mainstream crowd. How do you feel about that? How have traditional classical outlets and audiences reacted to your work?

JVW: It's still kind of mixed. To me it's important to release the lute from its Robin Hood image. To rid it of its caricature, so to speak. Playing for just classical audiences will not achieve that. I have gotten great reviews for the classical CD I made, A Rose by Any Other Name, from traditional classical outlets. And that's OK. I also still play classical pieces for classical audiences sometimes. The liberation, however, in writing new works for lute and taking it out of its traditional context, to me, is more important. Otherwise, it's only a museum piece. The classical lutenists who compose for lute don't reference any avant-garde, though. They reference Sting if you're lucky. To me, writing for lute is emulating my roots and influences. My roots are Northern European, and my influences range from Harry Partch to Morton Feldman to industrial music. It seems though that lately even classical audiences are more open to that.

PSF: To continue on this line of thought: Do you think the classical world faces an inevitable decline, or can it be revitalized by modern composers?

JVW: If the classical world can actually shed its model and adapt to modern ways, then it has a future. I think large orchestras will disappear. The revitalization by modern composers is already happening, from the outside.

PSF: What do you see as possible new models for this? Also, I'm wondering which musicians nowadays you see as kindred spirits.

JVW: Well, the new model shapes itself, doesn't it? The only model is playing live a lot and selling music during the shows. It's all about presence, and if you can actually captivate an audience, which is a more honest way. Kindred spirits are people like United Bible Studies, David Tibet, Smegma, Cursillistas.

PSF: What is it about UBS, Tibet, and the others that makes you feel that they're kindred spirits to you and your work?

JVW: I would say their attitude and intense work make me feel they are kindred.

PSF: Could you talk about your "cut-up" method to composition? How did you arrive at it? How are you seeking to transform your sources?

JVW: When I was confronted with the huge amount of Renaissance and Baroque solo lute repertoire, I figured I had to find a way to personalize the material. So I copied the tablature (lute sheet music) of all these minor pieces from the end to the beginning. I found that most of the classical lute repertoire ends resolved, which I thought to be uninteresting. So by starting at the end you remove that and the pieces end more like a question. It's done in classical music. In Gregorian chant, they will repeat the given melody (cantus firmus) backwards in the fourth voice, for example.

After I had done this, I cut and pasted the different themes together, much like William Burroughs did with his words. The group of compositions that followed were also mirror images, palindromes. Lately I have written a lot of layered lute palindromes, like on my releases for Important records, It Is All That Is Made and Ex Patris.

You stack so much tonal material that, in the end, it starts to sound oblique.

PSF: What kind of feedback have you gotten from the audience that regularly listens to music from that period? Were there supporters and detractors?

JVW: In the beginning, when that CD came out, it was kind of difficult to convince classical lute lovers of the importance of writing new compositions for the instrument. After a while that changed, however. Like I said, earlier my classical CD got a lot of positive response from the specialists. I think by now it's safe to say that even diehard early music fans listen to avant-garde lute.

PSF: If you had to guess, what other directions do you think this music might take?

JVW: This music will emulate a lot of other influences. You name it. I believe it's important to emulate one's roots in art. And not to imitate foreign examples. Only then something original will come of it.

For more about Jozef Van Wissem, see his MySpace page

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