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Jozef Van Wissem @ Whelan’s


The last time we encountered the tall, black-clothed figure of Jozef Van Wissem it was at a holiday camp in the southeast of England. The lone lute player delivered a unique set at the final ATP festival in December of last year. On that occasion he had just provided the soundtrack for Domingo García-Huidobro’s film Partir To Live, which premiered at the festival, but his collaborations with another director have garnered more attention in recent times.

Jozef met Jim Jarmusch in New York and gave him a CD of his work. Both have a history in New Wave and noise bands (“I’d rather talk about The Ramones”, Van Wissem jokes during the Q&A that precedes his set), and the encounter has so far resulted in two albums and Van Wissem’s award-winning soundtrack to Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive.

The one-of-a-kind custom-made black lute he tells us about doesn’t make an appearance on this occasion, but to the untrained eye it’s still a fine specimen he sports as he takes a seat at the front of the Whelan’s stage. Sparing, measured notes emanate from the many-stringed instrument as Van Wissem nurses it in his lap, angling its neck and shifting its weight around as he plucks out the melodies. From the root of the bass notes spring various motifs, moving into brighter movements on the higher pitched lower strings as the fretwork becomes busier.

‘He Is Hanging by His Shiny Arms, His Heart an Open Wound with Love’ from the first Jarmusch collaboration follows a piece from the latest film, with the flurry of Van Wissem’s little finger eliciting rapid-fire doubled notes. Throughout the set repetitive motifs are gradually, skilfully augmented by rich resonant tones; darkly baroque passages give way to trilling melodies, one gaining dominance over the other only to be reined back in for a new theme to take over.

He rises to his feet for the final number, leaving the microphone and walking to each side of the stage as he plays, holding the lute aloft and leaning into the crowd. Moving it around as he meanders, he lets the natural sound of the instrument ring out over the all-seated venue.

The abiding silence and subsequent reaction when his atmospheric selection ends is testament to the esteem in which Van Wissem is held, and his earlier statement rings as true as the natural sound of the instrument’s final, unamplified flourish – “My heart is in the lute”. Justin McDaid

Photos: Isabel Thomas