Jozef Van Wissem

Posted on January 2, 2011


Space Between Notes 

It was when his American teacher told him to improvise on his classical lute and write his own music that Jozef Van Wissem began his interrelation between traditional lute, modern composition and field recordings. The composer / lute player works on an amalgam of backward performance of the melody, palindromes and gentle electronics, which he sometimes calls contemporary folk.

We talked to Van Wissem before his short but superb gig in between the deformed humans on Roeland Zijlstra’s exposition in the Martin Van Blerck art gallery in Antwerp. “A favour for a friend”, like he calls it. This cosmopolitan Dutchman alternately lives in New York and Amsterdam, and has been performing and recording with diverse musicians, everyone of them enlightened in their own genre. So far he has worked with Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart’s sidekick for some years), improviser Tetuzi Akiyama and Italian noise pioneer Maurizio Bianco, and there’s some stuff in the pipeline. Van Wissem has released several albums at the Dutch BVHaast record label and his own Incunabulum label. In everything he does there’s a deep respect for tradition. The name of his label etymological points out to the source, the beginning. At the same time he impressed us with his rock ‘n roll attitude, something that a lot of you – guitar-playing blown-dry crops of hair – can’t even imagine.


Lars Von Trier imposes himself restrictions with every movie he makes. Are you doing something similar?

Definitely in the way I compose, as I mirror my compositions. I write in Palindromes, which linguistically means that you repeat a sentence backwards. In the musical equivalent you can’t write too much notes. To stay in that comparison: I love Charles Bukowski who, with a limited set of words says a lot. It is harder to do an effective paraphrase than with an affluence of words. It means distinct language, a clear way of communicating. With Dogma, Lars Von Trier works with means that aren’t technical or extensive. I love restrictions. If you want to do something grandiose, you have to impose on yourself. People who make movies, told me that they like to play my music when they write, and by that they write very minimal scripts and dialogues. They, one way or another, translate that to their discipline. I’m also very interested in repetition. It captivates me enormously.

In the effects of it?

I can carry that far, by pointing out to Jacques Lacan and other philosophical stories. It fascinates me to repeat three notes and see what happens. That’s more interesting than masturbational soloing. Rather than being a fetish, it’s more about the effect of the minimal. I try to counteract that and I have had troubles with it from the beginning of my career. People who make so-called historical correct music, tend to a fetishist approach. By putting it in another context, I try to liberate the instrument. It wasn’t used in about 250 years, and the last 30 years there weren’t written any pieces. Purists exclusively claimed it, pushed it into a corner and almost killed it. I try to reanimate it. By the way, there is a substantial quantity of interesting lute-repertoire from the 17th century, on which you can unleash conceptions of minimalism and repetition. It makes them sound very contemporary and make them fit in everywhere. You can play them alongside dance music or metal. On my album A Rose By Any Other Name – Anonymous Lute Solos of the Golden Age I have chosen pieces that in my ears wear minimalism in them. For me it’s really about liberation of the instrument and the repertoire. “Less is more” as they say.

The lute is constructed in very fragile materials. Is the instrument limiting in that way?

It limits the way of playing. You won’t hear me play electric that soon. It’s an acoustic sound that I try to conserve and respect. I do electronic effects, but first I record the acoustic sound and afterwards I do weird things with it. But, as you said, the lute is a fragile instrument. The same man built all my instruments (Toronto-based Michael Schreiner, red). He builds it in accordance to my needs, wishes and body. It’s not like an electric guitar, as it isn’t mass-production at all. It takes a certain technique to handle the strings, as there are nine-doubles. My pieces are always idiomatic. They’re always based on Renaissance music, at least what the repertoire concerns. I do something else with it, but it comes from there. It’s not like I play a guitar lick out of the blue.

Your body also defines the sound of your instrument?

Yeah, it affects the sound. If you’re smaller, you’ll have a smaller keyboard. It’s also rather psychical. The instrument is more related with harpsichord than with guitar. The relationship between guitar and lute is based upon misunderstanding.

Awakened aggression

In which way has Jacques Lacan influenced your music?

The happening excessively absorbs Lacan when the child for the first time is confronted with his mirror image. In his lectures he says that the child stirs some kind of aggression when seeing itself and when confronted for the first time with a congener. Animals in complete solitude don’t develop genitals, but if you put a mirror in their cage, they will. It’s called Mirror Stage Theory. For me it’s about the effect of the mirror image. In the end it’s some kind of distorted, some kind of aggression that is awakened. I make a musical parallel of this. By invariably repeating the mirror image I hope to conduct the same thing. On Stations of the Cross I think that I have succeeded in the summoning of alienation and aggression very well, because I have repeated that over and over again. The whole album is written in Palindromes. You don’t need to be a philosopher or a musicologist to be aware of this playing with the material, and to sense that it’s some kind of mindfuck. I try to walk besides the beaten tracks.

We remember our own aversion when we read about that lutist who manipulates Renaissance-music.

Well, I play some Renaissance-pieces every now and then, in between the others. It’s just less obvious when I do (guffaw).

Is making music a way of speaking?

Yes, it’s a form of communication with the audience. Making an album or doing gigs always is semantic. You are involved with titles for example. My latest album is pretty layered. At one side it’s about immigration and the gathering of people in stations, which I compare to the Way of the Cross. People travelling, meeting and experiencing is almost religious. At the other side there is also a parallel with nature for me, as a lot of the sounds that you hear on airports and railway stations are in some way connected with it. Just listen to the sound of the wheels and hear the similarities with bird sound. I see that as a very peculiar way of relating to nature, sort of contemporary nature. Stations of the Cross means contemporary alienation. In concerts I discover that it’s an international language. It comes across very well. A sound of silence, because it’s as much about what you do as about what you don’t do.

There are three ways of applying language: reflexive (expressing known or existing meaning), intentional (expressing what the speaker tries to say) and constructionist (constructed through language). Which one do you obtain when you compose?

I like people to use their imagination. I don’t want to spell out something. I rather prefer that the listener gives his own interpretation to the pieces. That’s why I try to compose very layered. It’s not an intentional process though. The imagination is the limit.

You’re not in search of the truth? Another link to Lacan?

There are a lot of truths. I find it very beautiful when people give their own interpretation to my music. For me nothing is ever finished, it’s constantly developing. If I would have made these latest recordings before 9.11 for example, it would have had a completely different connotation. And it could change in a minute. When I began to play classical pieces backwards (retrograde) in 2000, I wasn’t aware of the link between my music and Lacan. I was a kind of madman who worked in a very esoteric way. I’ve always been very open to other forms. Right now, I’m putting it into another context.

Highbrow Culture

In relation to the other, you’ll find need. Is it fulfilled in accordance to the audience?

In fact, with live concerts I’ve discovered a kind of satisfaction. It’s really a process of exchanging, even more and more lately. I play a lot live right now, compared to some years ago. I think that the dynamic communication is also related to the younger audience that visits my gigs most recently. At a certain moment I consciously stepped away form the more serious musical corner, so to speak, more in the direction of pop enters – also as a consequence of my collaboration with Gary. It took away a threshold and it worked so much better. When you play in formal churches there is the barrier of an elite Highbrow Culture. I really dislike that. I prefer that as much as possible people take notice.

So, the lack of knowledge from the audience is liberating?

That’s nicely said, yeah. There is of course a lot of stock-in-trade and I could talk about it for hours, as there’s a lot of interesting history. And I like it when people who never heard about it, dig into that history. But you don’t have to know anything about it to like the instrument. I’m not the teacher in front of the class.

You’re always respecting tradition.

It is idiomatic what I do. I’ve studied the lute and I respect it. It just works out better when you put things into another context. I also think that you win people over. That was one of the first things I learned when I studied in the States, that I have to compose myself and liberate the instrument.

The need for, has it also influenced the fact you work in duo quite often?

Gary for example does what he does with Country Blues. With Akiyama it’s more improv, a totally different angle. Next Thursday (June 28th, red) James Blackshaw comes to Amsterdam, in order to record. I’m very proud about that. We’ve also made a compilation with other people for Important Records. It’s about communicating between different backgrounds.

Is it a clash of cultures?

Yes, also a type of an agreement, a hybrid of two styles, which is very interesting and original. It’s a complex way of discovering each other’s world.


Should the initial idea of a piece be clear?

It happens that I explain my pieces in the liner notes and I tend to construe about how I write and where it comes from in interviews. In the first place it’s something to keep myself intruiged. But in the end it doesn’t matter if people don’t know anything about it. To myself there’s a mainspring needed. I won’t play just for playing. When I make a record, I work very conceptual. My idea always comes first and then I build everything from that.

Does that mean that you don’t practise anymore?

It happens that I study classical pieces, but not as much as I used to. I have been very busy doing all these projects. It’s like the turn of the year. You make a few records and afterwards you quit playing for a while, which makes it inspiring.

When have you for the first time discovered that you are susceptible to music?

(Firm) At eleven. I listened to Ry Cooder a lot. When I was 12 I was already playing Vivaldi with a symphony orchestra and at the same time I played in a punk band. So in the beginning I was performing punk and classical music already. That discrepancy was very important.

I guess your parents didn’t support the punk-thing?

Indeed. They looked at it as some kind of wasted energy. They weren’t too happy with it.

Have you become a musician or is that something you’ve always been?

I see a parallel with writing pieces. There’s not something you create, but in the first place something you channel. It goes around, and it’s like you are an antenna. I feel that very firmly when I write something really beautiful. Last time I felt like I made something that already existed, that the notes and music were already somewhere, and that I just had to write them down. In a way it’s a category of predestination. You come back to minimalism in that way. You write from your unconsciousness, with the lesser chords the better. Akiyama said that he listens to the note before he plays it. It’s a rendition of something that floats in the air. You are a musician, it’s something internal. But it’s also something that you develop.

Can you develop too much as a musician?

Oh yeah, you can go to far with the technical side. It can be contraproductive at a certain moment. I myself have little in common with music like for example Frank Zappa – a mush of notes and styles.

You are curious to new media too. That’s also a kind of development?

I just did that at a certain moment, first with a garageband program. I found that very interesting to work with. It just developed itself and it became more and more complicated. I just applied that to the lute. Right now I’m pretty occupied with big spaces between the notes on the first track I record. You see exactly where and what you have played. It means that you can synchronise on the other tracks. But again, I don’t want it to become a fetish. I could explain it to a little child. I discovered mostly myself and I’m proud about it. I was able to mirror the field recordings. That’s something you can do right now with computers. It’s a DIY-mentality in a way, very punk. Anyone can do what he wants with limited amounts of money. You can make qualitative recordings with a simple setup, which is the ultimate liberation. The power of record labels is gone, which is a very good thing. That’s what made new developments possible. It’s back to basics, doing your own stuff, some kind of renewed romanticism. I really don’t believe that renovating and experimental bands or artist can gain by signing a major.

You also said that the artist is a determined creature?

You’re a sort of sponge, as you suck in everything that happens. That you hopefully will criticize. In any way, if it’s good, you deliver something that is a comment on what happens around you. Every expression needs to be peppered with your ow ow n experiences. In that light the artist is really determined. What you often see, is people doing imitations. I think it’s wrong that Belgians or Dutchmen do something in the American style. I started classical lute because that’s my roots. It’s where I come from. You should do something with your environment and history. You can confront that with other influences. But you should manufacture that with your own political or other background. Of course you could also cheer everything!

Article by Peter, June 2007


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