Conversation With Composer Jozef van Wissem

Recently I had the chance to talk with composer Jozef van Wissem. I discovered his work after Sacred Bones sent me his score for the film Partir To Live, which is in collaboration with Domingo Garcia-Huidobro of Föllakzoid. I immediately fell in love with it and have been absorbing the rest of his catalogue since. Each record captures a different range of emotions mostly through the use of lute and various stringed instruments. His compositions explore these instruments in new ways by disassociating their historical baggage and exploring their capabilities in a modern context. Below is an excerpt from our conversation via Skype on June 14, 2015.

MN: Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you are from.

JVW: I'm from Holland basically and lived in Holland, studied classical guitar there. First, I did classical guitar and then later the electric guitar in rock bands, experimental bands. I owned a coffee shop in the north of Holland. It was sort of like a punk rock bar and also a coffee shop at the same time so you could buy beer there. I did that for 5 years. I was then sick of it. Sold the bar and went to New York. That was like in 93'. I was sick of the rock `n' roll lifestyle and being a bar owner I went to New York, left my friends behind. I was by myself a lot, which led to an introspective lifestyle, so I picked up the lute. I studied the classical guitar when I was 11 or 12 years old. I remembered this repertoire and thought maybe I can do this instead. The guitar was not interesting to me anymore. So then I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a teacher; Pat O'Brian and he himself was an ex-guitarist and a former student of Reverend Gary Davis. I'm really proud of that lineage in a way, you know?

MN: That's really cool.

JVW: He did pass away recently. I tried to get lessons in Holland for lute, but there it was really strict. They only wanted you to play classical stuff. One of the first things Pat O'Brian said was, "if you want to make a living doing this you have to write your own material." That for me opened the whole thing up for me.

MN: So you were a kid and played classical guitar and lute, but then got turned on to punk and then took a lot of the stuff you learned from punk and just applied it to the instruments you played a kid. You learned all that stuff and how to deconstruct and re-contextualize instruments that are considered arcane.

JVW: That's a good way of putting it.

MN: Which brings me to my next question. I read a little piece you wrote about how you have a philosophy of updating arcane instruments. Can you articulate to me what this idea is?

JVW: Well, the idea is old instruments and to take them out of the cliché that they are. It doesn't have to be for lute necessarily, it can be for banjo in American music. It comes with this cliché I'm trying to get rid of. If you think about what the instrument is, it can be many different things. It doesn't have to be this baggage that comes attached with it. It can be something completely new and adventurous. Most people don't have the experimentalism or an open mind to change an instrument. So I thought it would be nice to curate a festival called New Music For Early Instruments and ask people to do something new with, for example, lap steel guitar or lute, you know. The idea is to free the instrument from the prison of its cliché.

MN: It's an interesting concept. Tell me a bit about this festival. This went off and you had some of your colleagues come up with new compositions for instruments that had to defy the clichés attached to these instruments?

JVW: Yes, the festival travelled all around the world. We did one in New York two days at the ISSUE Project Room as well as dates in Europe. So many musicians were part of that and it was a moment for a while. I still do this with the lute. A lot of people see me and they say, "The lute is such a beautiful instrument," and I don't really see it that way. I think it's a very intense instrument and very complete. You can do lots of things with it. For example, in a show, I will not sit still and act like a classical musician with that pose. I do lots of things with the instrument. I move it around the mic to get different sounds, stuff like that. It's about freeing up these ideas people have, especially the lute. You think about these ideas people have from Hollywood, which is terrible. It needs to be grown up.

MN: What do you play besides the lute?

JVW: I play electric guitar, 12-string, electronics, drums, on my last record, I sing. Although to me it's still about bringing the lute back to the people and out of the academic context on the one hand and also out of the Hollywood image on the other.

MN: Yeah, there's that image and the other one is of 16th century paintings.

JVW: That's cool. I love 16th century paintings. I don't like a set of rules like these specialists put forth on the lute. Like you are supposed to play it this way and this and that. It's ridiculous.

MN: It's boring.
photo by Bjarne Jonasson

JVW: Yeah, and there are no recordings of the time so how do you know how it would have been played?

MN: That's really cool. I noticed that your approach seems to be minimal and restrained at times. I've listened to almost all your records at least once. Some I've listened to several times. The Partir soundtrack is particularly my favorite because I think it moves in many directions. I noticed that a lot of your song titles are literary. They are very sentence based. I was wondering what kinds of books and ideas have inspired you to move your work in this direction?

JVW: There are two things that inspire me a lot. One is Western spiritualism, but also visual art - Something like Bas Jan Ader. His titles have really influenced me. Also Lawrence Wiener, his sentences on walls was very direct language.

MN: There's an element of semiotics in your work.

JVW: Yeah, definitely.

MN: I suppose you dig Wittgenstein right?

JVW: Yeah, that's ok. When I make a record I try to sort of make a concept I guess and then the titles fit together. So then the whole record means something so the titles have layers that fit together. It depends what I'm reading at the time, how the record comes out and what the titles are, and what it's about really. Sometimes it can be one writer, for example one western spiritual writer like Jacob Bohme with the last record. With Jim (Jarmusch) and my Jewel work, it was Swedenbourg. It just depends on what I'm into at the time and what I'm reading. In that way, it becomes a way of documenting my life in a way of what interests me. I just try to get people interested to read the stuff too in a way. Then they look up the titles and see the world that's behind that.

MN: That's cool. I suspected from the song titles that there was some kind of idea like this behind it. You just confirmed that suspicion that it was closely linked to literature or philosophy. I do the same thing. I tend to crib titles from whatever I'm reading. I've always liked that band, Anal Cunt and how they use a long sentence for a title on a song that is 15 seconds long. So funny.

JVW: (laughs) Yeah, that's funny. I like that too. A very long title and its two chords.

MN: Right, right, it's so funny to me. (laughs) There's a lot of parody in that. Tell me a little bit about your working relationship with Jim Jarmusch.

JVW: Well, in the beginning, when I met him I gave him some of my work and really liked him. We started to hang out and then I gave him some stuff. He would add to that and I would add to that again, which we still do. Later, we started to do shows together and rehearse. With the writing I give him new pieces. He adds electric feedback or voice sometimes. That's sort of the musical thing. In the beginning, when I first met Jim in about 2007, he wasn't doing a lot of music. I'm sort of proud of helping him get back into music. He has a few projects and I think that's great. Then there was the film of course, which he already asked me for a long time ago. I guess it's a bit the same way. We send each other stuff and add to it.

MN: That's interesting. How did you get into soundtrack work? Was that the first one or were there others before that one you just mentioned?

JVW: I also did a medieval video game a while back. So there's actually a lot of people who have heard my stuff without knowing it. Especially kids (laughs). With Jim, he had this idea for a vampire film which he wanted lute for, which made him interested in lute in the first place. That was sort of the thing that started going to make music together and playing out, playing shows and developed this whole friendship.

MN: That's great. I love that record.

JVW: Thanks, man.

MN: That's all my formal questions for you. I also wanted to discuss what you are working on next. What's new?

JVW: I'm working on more on new records. I'm working on new stuff with Jim. I've been also asked to score a silent documentary called Nanook of the North, which will premiere at IDFA, which is a documentary festival in Amsterdam.

MN: Yeah, I read about this. 1922 was when the original came out, right? I read an article yesterday in the Washington Post about documentaries and they mention that movie in passing.

JVW: They did?

MN: I think the author was comparing the reenactments in Errol Morris's films to Nanook saying that was the first time reenactments had been put in a documentary. I thought, "Oh wow- I don't know anything about this. I will have to look into it."

JVW: So yeah, I'm scoring that. There have been people asking me for films. I will have to see how much time I have and what I would like to do. I'm working on new records and there will also be some electronic stuff for 12-string which is more of drone type stuff like Partir to Live. It's still more of a trance thing, but yeah, I have to take off for a while to record.

MN: So it's pretty much a touring and recording schedule for you these past few years right?

JVW: I also want to get into film more. Jim's brother, Tom Jarmusch, is a friend of mine and told me about this really great Super 8 digital camera that just came out.

MN: It's a super 8 with a digital back?

JVW: Yeah.

MN: That's wonderful. Are you coming back in July or August?

JVW: August, yeah.

MN: Let me know and we can get together for a beer in the neighborhood.

JVW: Yes, let's have many beers in Greenpoint.

MN: Many beers in Greenpoint. That sounds fun, man.

In closing I should mention Mr. van Wissem will be releasing a compilation of pieces from his soundtracks called Cool Hand Lute, creating more soundtracks for filmmakers, and will also be conducting Black Lute Masses on a global scale. Stay tuned.