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Jozef van Wissem: Transcendental Lute

Hear The Full Session From WNYC's Spinning On Air

Jozef van Wissem would like to open our ears to the gorgeous sonorities of the lute. But he feels his instrument has what he calls "a bad image: You stand under a balcony and serenade a lady, and then you get a flowerpot thrown at you."

Van Wissem would be very out of place at a Renaissance Faire. He wants to dust away the old associations that cling to the lute, and make it, he says, "more contemporary, more sexy." He composes new music for lute, and is happy to approach the instrument in ways a traditionalist probably wouldn't even consider. He plays it with a bottle neck on occasion, and sometimes blends its sound with electronics or recordings of airport ambience.

Van Wissem was born in Holland, but says that these days he lives in airports. He's frequently on tour on both sides of the Atlantic, not only playing solo, but also with contemporary guitar virtuosos James Blackshaw (with whom van Wissem plays in the duo Brethren of the Free Spirit), Gary Lucas, and Sir Richard Bishop. When he was 11 years old, van Wissem studied classical guitar, then played electric guitar in rock bands and later studied lute in New York City. The instrument he played recently in the WNYC studio in New York is a 24-string, early baroque-style lute recently built for him by Michael Schreiner. It's a magnificent instrument with a long neck and a big sound (see photos here).

As impressive as the lute itself is, it's really just a tool van Wissem uses to realize his musical vision. Simultaneously austere and lush, van Wissem's music draws inspiration from the repeating patterns of minimalism, provoking for listener and performer alike a transcendental state -- meditative, but exciting. As he states in this session interview, van Wissem likes it when he and his audience "get taken away" by the music. Van Wissem also enjoys what he calls the "thrill" of imperfect tuning, adjusting his strings just to make the sound bounce around all the more in listeners' ears.

With composition titles such as "how the soul has arrived at understanding of her nothingness" and "love is a religion," Jozef van Wissem seems to be far more interested in the eternal than the antique.

Copyright 2010 WNYC Radio

David Garland