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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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Thursday, July 31


Develop your leadership abilities during a lecture by famous Russian author and coach Radislav Gandapas. The event starts at 9 a.m. at 5 Lodeinopolskaya Ulitsa. The price for entry is 20,500 rubles ($570).


Relax and enjoy a Parisian atmosphere with some romantic and laidback jazz tunes during the Night of French Music at Lenny Jam Cafe, 63 Ligovsky Prospekt. The entrance fee is 250 rubles ($7).


The Women’s Business Club is hosting a Beauty Brunch where participants are invited to discuss the latest news in the beauty industry and listen to lectures by professional stylists in the business.



Friday, Aug. 1


Bikers from all around the world will gather to take part in a parade, extreme shows and rock concerts during the International Biker Festival that revs its engines today and runs through Aug. 3 near Olgino Hotel, 4/2 Primorskogo Shosse.


The Peter and Paul Fortress will be turned into an open-air cinema today and tomorrow as part of the 5th International Short and Animation Film Festival. A huge screen across the fortress walls will air short films non-stop with board games, photo sessions and other activities also on offer for visitors. For more information, visit www.opencinemafest.ru



Saturday, Aug. 2


Gatchina Palace Park Museum will host its second annual Night of Light, an impressive audio-visual show across the night sky. Tickets are 600 rubles ($16).


If graphic design is more your thing then check out Illustration Day, where you will be able to visit an exhibition, attend lectures by professionals and even show experts some of your own work. The event starts at noon at Zona Deystvia, 73 Ligovsky Prospekt. The entrance fee is 350 rubles ($10).



Sunday, Aug. 3


History lovers shouldn’t miss the chance to see reenactments of World War I battles in Pushkin at noon. Besides exciting war scenes, visitors can enjoy live music, historical costumes, an equestrian show and a fancy-dress parade starting from the Moscow gates.


Garage Sale, the popular and growing flea market where nothing is priced over 500 rubles ($14.11), starts today at noon in Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt. Be sure to get in early to score a bargain. Entry costs 50 rubles ($1.40)



Monday, Aug. 4


Continue the working week with a calm and steady mind with a free yoga lesson at 7 p.m. in the Bukvoyed store at 23A Vladimirsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, Aug. 5


Visit The Romanov Dynasty doll exhibition today, where more than fifty porcelain dolls depicting Russian rulers, and made by Olina Ventzel, will be on show. The exhibition continues through Aug. 31 in Sheremetyev Palace, 34 Fontanka Naberezhnaya.



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