Avant-Garde + Punk Rock: An Interview with Jozef van Wissem (Big Ears 2015)

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Avant-Garde + Punk Rock: An Interview with Jozef van Wissem (Big Ears 2015)

Jozef Van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch

In Only Lovers Left Alive, the 2013 film scored by Jozef van Wissem and written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a centuries-old vampire named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and his long-time lover Eve (Tilda Swinton) spend a lot of time thinking about art, music, and Einsten's Quantum Theory of Entanglement--what the physicist termed "spooky action at a distance." Right after Eve presents Adam with the gift of a lute in Tangier to replace the one he left behind in Detroit, Adam sums up the complicated theory:

When you separate an entwined particle and move both parts away from the other, even at opposite ends of the universe, if you alter or affect one, the other will be identically altered or affected. Spooky.

It's an idea important for the film, in which characters are linked through intuition, dreams, and the web of human history. It also works as a metaphor for how art affects human consciousness. We are moved by the artistic creations we hear and see, and we feel that somehow those works which resonate most with us continue to affect us long after our initial experience--we feel tied to them by a perhaps unfounded, but nevertheless deeply felt, sympathetic bond. We even imagine that if a work of art were to disappear or be defaced, or if our favorite artist were to give up making art, that we ourselves would lose something vital to our being.

Jozef van Wissem at Big Ears . Photo: Ali McGheeJozef van Wissem at Big Ears. Photo: Ali McGhee

The entanglement of art and life is key for Only Lovers Left Alive, but it's also a central element of van Wissem's music, which is just as much a part of the film as the narrative itself. Although he plays a number of instruments, including the 12-string guitar, the Baroque lute is his focus. In a way, his goal of bringing the lute out of the mists of time and liberating it for future generations is its own kind of "spooky action at a distance." It's partly a summoning, partly a veneration, and mostly a reimagining of an instrument that disappeared for 250 years despite its immense popularity during its heyday, which lasted from the medieval era well into the 17th century.

Van Wissem has ushered the instrument firmly into the 21st century. His music hearkens back to the lute's storied past, but his approach is infused with a decidedly avant-garde punk aesthetic that embraces the imaginative possibilities of the instrument. He plays in SQÜRL, the Jarmusch-led outfit that specializes in mostly instrumental drone rock. He's composed soundtracks, not only for Jarmusch but also for Chilean filmmaker Domingo García-Huidobro, whose surreal non-narrative Partir to Live (2012) is a perfect pairing to van Wissem's eerie, experimental score (just released on Sacred Bones Records). He also did the soundtrack for the recently completed Red Right Return (2014), the first feature-length film directed by George Manatos. His cross-media projects aren't just confined to film--he created a piece to pair with the Hans Holbein painting The Ambassadors (1533), one of the famous works of memento mori, and he created the soundtrack for The Sims Medieval, released in 2011.
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Van Wissem's most recent album, It Is Time For You To Return (2014, Crammed Records) perfectly captures his revolutionary attitude towards the lute. The gorgeously meditative album, which includes guest appearances by Jarmusch, García-Huidobro, and Yasmine Hamdan, as well as his own vocals, effortlessly melds the instrument's capacity for lyricism with the rougher edges of glitchy beats and fuzzy guitar. Enigmatic song titles (like "Invocation of the Spirit Spell") match the mood of each song perfectly, creating a resonance of the aural and the textual. Van Wissem often pulls song titles from the texts of Christian mystics like Emmanuel Swedenborg; the titles from his album with Jarmusch, Concerning the Entrance Into Eternity (2012, Important Records), is a veritable hit list of quotes from mystico-religious texts.

Van Wissem played an intimate set at this year's Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN, that was one of the highlights of the weekend. I sat down with him to talk about the history of his instrument, his approach to the music, and the projects he's working on now.

It Is Time For You To Return (2014)It Is Time For You To Return (2014)

Ali McGhee: Part of your goal has been to remove the lute from its somewhat cliched historical context (the medieval or renaissance image of a man serenading a scornful woman on her balcony). Do you feel you've been successful at this? What challenges have you faced?

Van Wissem: There are two sides: there’s the Hollywood side…this serenade/Robin Hood thing, which is sort of a bad image for the lute, and on the other side is this really academic approach. And I think both of these keep the lute in a museum. On one side, the academics do, and Hollywood just basically doesn’t take the instrument seriously. Because it’s a beautiful instrument. I think I’ve been quite successful now in making it more mature, or getting it to have more serious recognition in music. But also I think that it should be a pop instrument, because it used to be a pop instrument--it used to be everywhere. You could see it in bars, at court, but also in people’s houses in the 1600s. Then it disappeared for 250 years.

After that there was a serious academic movement which has a set of rules regarding how to play the instrument, and that just keeps it in the museum. So I think it should be a pop instrument. I put it in the Sims Medieval game, so there are all these kids that know it now, or are at least familiar with the sound. Which I think is great. So I think it’s working, this instrument is becoming less esoteric. And also of course in the film, Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive, the main character plays lute.

AM: Why did it disappear for 250 years?

Van Wissem: Because it became too difficult to play. They were building it with too many strings, so it became really difficult to tune, and in general it was also a fragile instrument. And it really became too complicated, like a lot of things that disappear because they become too complicated.

Jozef van Wissem at Big Ears. Photo: Ali McGheeJozef van Wissem at Big Ears. Photo: Ali McGhee

AM: I know there are several styles of lute (the medieval, renaissance, and baroque). What kind of lute do you play?

Van Wissem: The Baroque lute. My lute has 24 strings. There are lutes that have more strings--that have 36. The lute started out really small in medieval times—with 4 courses, and it gradually became more complicated. The lutes became more complicated, but also the repertoire became something for virtuosos to play. So that’s the reason it disappeared. And they’re also very fragile so they’re hard to keep.

AM: There’s a way in which the lute still, even when you’re playing it, has a nostalgic quality. It’s almost transportive in a way that seems to take you back to these earlier eras. It seems like in your performances and compositions you’re both embracing that quality but then you’re also thinking about innovation. Do you see a tension between these two directions? How do you pull these strands together?

Van Wissem: I wouldn’t call it nostalgia; to me it’s more imaginative.Because you can think, “How would this have been played 400 years ago? This melody could have been played like this.” Which is what I like to do with the listener, have them question, “Oh, is this a new piece or an old piece?” So I’m playing with that imagination. And that to me is it—the lute is really about imagination. What I do, playing two chords on it and repeating that for a long time, is a contemporary thing. And then I’m interested in what that does to the listener, more as a listening experience. So that’s a contemporary thing I do with it, but still it’s based on medieval and renaissance tonality. But in a way the approach is avant-garde, the approach is maybe punk rock, with that attitude, but it still quotes history.

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AM: It also seems really archetypal. There’s an inflection of mythology in music and in the instrument itself. Other people seem to pick up on this as well. One example is the video for “The Sun of the Natural World is Pure Fire" (above, directed by Diego Barrera) which is so dream-like.

Van Wissem: That’s a quote by Swedenborg. I’m interested in history in general but also in Western spirituality, so I use these titles for my music and I like it when people get interested and look them up. The traffic goes both ways. I’m informed by the history but I also like to share it, and sort of emulate it, to emulate the historical meaning or the historical text and make it into something new, but in a way that’s it’s accessible to people. Like I said before, I like to put it more into the modern context, but also in the popular context. I don’t want to really hide it or make it too complicated, because that’s why it disappeared in the first place.

AM: Film seems like a good vehicle for that.

Van Wissem: The film audience—their way of listening is different from music people because they have a more imaginative, visual idea of music. So they have different ways of associating things, which I like. I like those people also coming to my shows and putting the music in the context of films. They relate to the character in the film [Only Lovers Left Alive], a vampire, and they relate the film to what’s happening on stage. So I like that.

AM: Can you talk about your collaborations (with Jim Jarmusch and others) and collaborative projects in general? What are the challenges and rewards of collaboration for you? What do other artists bring to the table? How does the process work?

Van Wissem: Well I only work with friends, really. Jim is a friend of mine and we share more than music. I don’t like collaborations for the sake of collaboration, and they never work anyway. You know, it’s like when you’re young and you play with friends. It’s about adventure. And that’s what I try to have when I work with somebody. It’s just two people who are doing something exciting, and I want to keep that “boy’s dream” or “girl’s dream” kind of thing that you have when you’re young. When you start to make music it’s like, “Oh wow, there’s this instrument and its effect and its sound," and that’s really exciting. So to me it’s more about adventure in the first place. But I also have to get along with somebody and have things in common. Like Jim and I, we talk a lot about historical things but also about film, or life in general. We share the same interests, which you do with friends. So that to me is the collaboration. "Collaboration" to me has this meaning that’s associate with business, which I don’t like. The sum is more than its parts. With a friend it’s about other things too. It’s also what you share about your personal life. It’s a more emotive approach, which the word collaboration doesn’t imply.

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Concerning the Entrance Into EternityConcerning the Entrance Into Eternity

AM: Yeah, it’s about being comfortable enough with somebody else so that you can have--and share--that emotional experience?

Van Wissem: Yeah, it’s an exchange of emotions in a way, which you would do with a real friend, and when that ends there is no collaboration and there is no adventure. That’s the way I see it—it’s a very fragile thing. I’m quite happy with [the work I've done with Jim]. We did a few albums and this film, and now I play in SQÜRL, which is taking this further. I play a 12-string guitar [in SQÜRL]. But it’s basically about friendship.

SQÜRL with Joseph van Wissem, Big Ears Festival. Photo: Ali McGheeSQÜRL with Joseph van Wissem, Big Ears Festival. Photo: Ali McGhee

AM: Going back to your titles and their references to mystics like Swedenborg--is that the case for all of your titles? Do you choose them? Can you talk about the title of the song you did with Tilda Swinton for Only Lovers ("The More She Burns the More Beautifully She Glows")?

Van Wissem: That’s from Mechthild of Magdeburg. Magdeburg is a town in Germany, and she was a spiritual writer, a Western spiritual writer [in the 13th century]. It’s a very intense text. There are a bunch of female writers like that—basically what they talk about is their relationship to God. It’s religious, but basically it’s a woman writing about a man. So there’s an erotic undertone, and it’s very intense, which I really like. But it’s also contained, which I also like. So it’s a very intense text, and Tilda loved it, and she read it for us and that’s how it ended up on the record. To me that song is about the traveling of the soul coming closer to God. It's about being female, getting closer to this male character, and that trip—losing yourself to that, into that feeling. It’s being in love with God. And that’s what she’s really talking about.

There are more women like that, like Marguerite Porete, who was in this cult, the Brethren of the Free Spirit. That was also the name of my band, a project I was working on. It’s this cult that says you can be a sinner if you believe in God, so they condone a lot of things. If you kill somebody it’s ok as long as you believe in God, which is very strange obviously, but this was a sect. She was burned for that, actually. For writing these things.

Jozef van Wissem, Big Ears Festival. Photo: Ali McGheeJozef van Wissem, Big Ears Festival. Photo: Ali McGhee

AM: You received the Cannes Soundtrack Award for Only Lovers Left Alive. Did you also choose the other songs that play in the film? How do you feel like your songs work with the other tracks?

Van Wissem: No, I didn’t choose them, but I think they work well. It’s a long film about a musician, so obviously there’s a lot of music in it, which I didn’t all choose myself. It was more Jim, which is fine. Also he had to edit the film. It was much longer and he had to edit out maybe 40 minutes, which is a lot. So a lot was changed from the initial tracking. But I’m cool with that. It’s his film. He had this idea. But I think it worked well. I didn’t watch the film when I wrote the pieces, so it was more like I started with these 8 pieces before anything was shot, and I gave that to him and that was the basis of the soundtrack. Then we built on that and added more tracks. I wrote a classical piece after seeing it, and I wrote a piece with Zola Jesus after seeing it and put it in later, so creating the soundtrack was a longer process.

AM: It seems like the film is the perfect vehicle for your own goals and music. It’s about vampires who love older music but also have this complete punk rock mentality and know something about everything (history, art, music, etc). What are your feelings about the film?

Van Wissem: What I like about the film is that is criticizes contemporary society. The characters talk about the oil wars and the water wars, and the zombies [the vampires' term for apathetic humans]. And I really like that. There’s a lot in there that I actually could have said myself, and I wonder sometimes if I did. Jim always writes stuff down when he’s around, and there’s a lot of talk that goes on that sounds like the way they talk in the film. One example is when they go see a band, and [Adam] likes the band but he doesn’t want to be introduced to the band members, doesn't want to meet the musicians. That’s sort of typical. I wouldn’t want to meet them. You want to keep the imagination of the music, you don’t want to meet the people.

I think it’s generally a personal film. I know Jim included a lot of things that he loves, and I’m ok with that. I think all great art should be personal. Maybe it’s even a difficult thing for him or for people to watch. There's quite a lot of cultural name-dropping. I like the film. It’s difficult to talk about because I saw it too many times, it’s sort of a work thing. But I think it turned out well. And I’m really proud of the music. When I play live shows a lot of people come up to me and thank me and say they really loved the music. It’s almost like a religion or something, it’s crazy. And that’s really cool. I had not expected this kind of reaction.

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AM: I know you also did the Soundtrack for Partir to Live (which was just released on March 31; trailer above). How did you get involved in this project? Have you been performing the live soundtrack since its release?

Van Wissem: I was introduced to Domingo García and he became a friend of mine. We started to work together: he did some videos for me, and he did beats on my solo record [It Is Time For You To Return]. And he asked me to do the score for his film. There’s not really dialogue, so I had a lot of room to do psychedelic stuff. I did electric guitar, and more electronic stuff. I think he’s a really talented musician and film director. And it was a completely different approach. I did another soundtrack with this Brazilian director Emilia Ferreira, which is called The Erotic Fire of the UnattainableIt’s more a female psychology film, so I gave the characters each a theme that returns in the film, and that’s an extra storyline that the music creates. It's a whole different approach from the dialogue film.

AM: Your songs don’t seem to convey a narrative. More often they possess the repetitive, palindromic structure that has become a trademark of your compositions, which gives them more of a mood or tone. When you compose, do you go in with a narrative in mind, or do you start more with a feeling or a flavor you want to express? What is your composition process like?

Van Wissem: The narrative is more the pieces coming together on the record. Otherwise I see composition more as channeling. I pick up melodies that are around me. I try to open myself up to what’s around. It’s really a process of deep concentration where I’m either really bored--so I’m completely empty—or I have a hangover, which could be the same state. But I have to completely empty myself and then open myself up, and then these things then come to me. And then there are the melodies. The songs are basically repetitions of melodies. I think it’s really difficult to write a good melody. It's far more difficult than to play a lot of notes, what other people would call narrative. To me narrative is more imagination. Compare it to a white room. If you sit in a white room, where everything is white, you lose sense of time and place, so you don’t know how long you’ve been there. And that’s what I’m trying to do with the music, with a few chords over a long time. You have no idea how long you've been listening—if you’ve been there for 4 minutes or 8 minutes. It sort of does something to you, this repetition. And that to me is how I approach [composition]--it’s more about the listening experience.

Jozef van Wissem, Big Ears Festival. Photo: Ali McGheeJozef van Wissem, Big Ears Festival. Photo: Ali McGhee

AM: You did the soundtrack for The Sims Medieval. That's one of the ways you're getting the lute out to a wider, younger audience. Are there other ways you’re trying to get the lute out into the public eye more? Do you do any teaching? I know you've done lectures on "lute liberation"-- how do these work?

Van Wissem: I have done those lectures. I talk about how to improvise on the lute and how to put it in a contemporary context. This is geared more to students at universities.I haven't done those lately. I called it the Liberation of the Lute. I never know, I might still do that later, or lecture on something like modern lute composition, but now I don’t really have time. I like to go and play out, play everywhere, travel the world, and make film soundtracks. Teaching is nice when you want to stay home (laughs).

AM: What’s next for you?

Van Wissem: The Brazilian film [The Erotic Fire of the Unattainable]. My next project is a multimedia work based on a historical character. I’ll be doing some acting in it. I’ll direct the film and write the music for it. So it’s going to be the length of a record, but also with images. I hate to say I’m directing a film, but I’m making a music piece with images. That will be out at the end of this year. I did some acting before, in Red Ride Return. I played an ex-junkie, it was not very difficult to play (laughs).

I’m touring, traveling the world. I’m also playing with SQÜRL, and we’re doing some more shows and a recording. We’re doing a show at Third Man Records in Nashville, and we'll probably also do some studio recordings. I’m ready for that. That’s a lot of fun, because I can be really loud (laughs).