Barbara Rusnáková
9 min

Unhip and unsexy, yet heart-breaking

The lutenist and a spectacular person Josef van Wissem visited Košice for the first time. As a star guest of Kino Úsmev and Košice Story Hotel, he stayed in the room on film noir and well, it surely wasn't a mismatch. If you missed his concert, here is a modest digest of who Josef is.

Hotel Centrum. Cold afternoon. Lukas Berberich from Kino Úsmev, who was supposed to call me, has no phone. He drove Josef to the hotel where Josef took a rest. Waiting in the lobby I cleaned my shoes with a brush which made my shoes dirtier than before and I looked up to discover Josef van Wissem; standing tall, dressed in black, holding a weirdly curved guitar case, somehow dazed with travel lethargy.

I knew he was someone of a significant importance for the world of lutes. Someone who took this very instrument out of the academic circles and translated it to the contemporary audiences. Someone who learns from the ancient roots of history and understands the importance of its reflection. And someone who you wouldn’t initially associate with fun but, in fact, has a sense of humour just waiting to shine through.

Whilst stalking Wissem previously (you may call it interview preparations), I saw a video with only handful of likes. Josef performed his minimalistic tunes, combing his way through the audience, encroaching on people‘s personal space while his mind was seemingly floating on another plane. So I asked him: Where are you when you play? Josef tells me this:„If it goes well, I am in a certain trance which is hypnotising, both, for me and for the audience.“ For his music naturally results in an intense concentration, I wondered if such concentration is also required during the creative process of writing music. Following the topic, Josef added firmly: „You know. The melodies are floating around and you just have to pick them. If you are too involved in other stuff then you don’t get inspired. That's what the creative process is like – you have to be completely blank and empty.“ Some may even call it meditation, but whatever you call it, you had better remain clear-headed to be able to hop on a creative stream of inspiration. Josef put it very much to the Eastern-Slovakian liking: „Sometimes I just get really drunk, then I do the dishes, very hangover, and after that...when my mind is completely blank, I start writing.“ Nodding to occasionally loving hangover days too, he continues being even more brutal in his genuineness and wit: „I also like to compose when I am bored. That’s one of the reasons why I like to work in Holland. Yes. There’s nothing to do, so I don't get distracted.“ Coming from a one-street village, this made me laugh very much. Josef is though, a Brooklyn lover, and a passionate traveler. He did not forget to mention how much he liked High Tatras (so thumbs up for Slovakian nature and the modest wilderness leftover.)

It is very riotous to play the lute. Frankly, hardly any boy would choose the lute to charm a lady sitting by the fire. How did you come up with such stuff?

I was eleven-ish and my classic guitar teacher introduced me to the repertoire of lute pieces. I saw she had a lute in the corner (note: he was really imagining the lute in the corner). I found it really interesting, but I spent a long while playing loud music and leading a crazy lifestyle... Once that was over, I remembered the instrument. I found a new teacher and it has became my obsession for a long time.

Did you also get inspired by other genres of arts, such as poetry?

Not so much poetry but rather history, writing and certainly visual art. Growing up in the Netherlands, I kept seeing the paintings with the lutes by the Dutch School painters. It is true, I tend to be inspired better by other fields of art as they offer me new kinds of learning opportunities. When you study music, you have to master the techniques but then you have to lose it in order to be able to write simple melodies. Which I really like to do. 

Now I understand better why you were commissioned by the London Gallery to create a „soundtrack“ to the painting by Holbain – the Ambassadors. How is it possible to make a soundtrack to a picture?

There’s a movement in that picture. If you study it, the painting was supposed to be hanging on a staircase so you would be passing it by regularly. There is this strangely drawn white block, which appears as a skull when you pass by. I tried to put that movement into a music.

Combining two different forms of art and letting one influence the other, I couldn’t help but wish he had arrived a day earlier. Once a week, Kosice musicians and dancers meet to improvise together, letting their genres affect each other. Josef, though, was strongly influenced by the classical Baroque music. Listening to his songs, one may notice that his melodies are altered for more contemporary rhythms: „Antique Baroque in itself is very kitschy, so you have to do something with it to make it listenable and modern for the contemporary listener.“ He said convincingly.

The interdisciplinary approach of mixing these genres reminded me of the intriguing names of some of his songs. A few of which are: THE MORE SHE BURNS THE MORE BEAUTIFULLY SHE BURNS. Or, HOW HER SOUL CAME TO UNDERSTANDING OF HER NOTHINGNESS. Josef, that’s so beautiful: „Those are titles of the poems taken from mostly female mystiques from around twelfth century describing the process of getting closer to God.” told Josef on his inspirations from the medieval dark ages. But then explain the song: PLEASE FEEL FREE TO PISS IN THE GARDEN: “Oh, that’s not my title. I would never name a song like that.”

No? Why?

It is ridiculous.

I like it.

Do you? Tell them you like it. I like to make people read books. This sounds tacky but there's so much wrong with this world that if you read history you can see why. Mistakes get repeated.

I smuggled one question on the filmmaker, Jim Jarmush, which personally, interested me greatly. I knew they had once met randomly in one of the tiny Brooklyn streets and Josef had handed his CD to Jim. Just like that. I wondered what the probability was that Jim and Josef will ever collaborate, whether it was a sheer coincidence or if Josef had already had the idea of working together: „It was a strange moment. I call that one of the energy days, when you have a lot of energy. He was just there and I gave him my CD. I didn’t expect anything.” 

Do you always carry around your CDs?

Back then I did, yes. I had a job in a record shop. Besides, it wasn’t so strange to carry around CDs with you, but it is a good question. His films impressed me a great deal and I asked whether he’d like to hear my work. (A small pause for thought.) I was obsessed with collecting everything. In the pre-internet era there was nothing like YouTube where you could look up videos and connect with artists. You really had to study everything, with a teacher. There were only vinyls and maybe CDs. It was sort of romantic. And also nobody was playing the lute as it was a super unhip, unsexy instrument and hardly anyone would gravitate towards it. In the beginning I was a village fool. Lute was only attached to academia, so when I started I got really bad reviews. But I think it was for the stigma not because of what I wrote.

Do you ever get anxious when you perform?

I don't get anxious, I like to see the audience and I think the performance should be a dialogue. When I play I look at them, they look at me, there is some sort of exchange. But I am not anxious as I don't care about the technique or if something goes wrong. I am not there to be a virtuoso. But for me it is very intimate. I am in the room with 200 people and there’s no one else on the stage but me. And it’s really quite concentrated from both sides and maybe I start being anxious when the connection doesn’t work. Something that Belgians call the Dutch disease. It means that people talk and drink during the show. And that happens a lot in Holland. Not in places like Poland, Czech Republic, Russia or Ukraine where people really and deeply care for art. You know?

What is the most embarrassing moment of your life?

Let’s say the most embarrassing thing is not letting people into the country. 

Are you referring to the recent Trump’s ban?

Well generally - people fleeing from the war, striving to be accepted by the neighbouring countries so they won’t get killed, and they won't let them in. That’s the most embarrassing thing I can think of right now. It happened to me, it happened to many people.

And what would you say is your biggest fuck-up?

Failing at soccer because I hate sports. And my parents made me play soccer and I really hated it. That was not successful.

Haha :D Josef thank you for your interview. I wish you had a pleasant audience. By the way, recently I have read how Augosto Boal found a way to enhance audience engagement by performing for miners right in the mine. The miners had to hold the lights themselves to be able to see the show. For Augosto, it was a very good reflection whether his show was interesting or not, as the audience dimmed their lights every time they got bored. I really hope you will have a nice audience here in Kosice. 

I hope they are too and don’t throw rotten eggs at me.

Actually, now that you say, I wish they did. I hardly ever see audiences truly reacting to something they don't like. We clap even if we don't like something.

Lol, come on, who ever says that! Thank you! :D

The time was up and we were both in the upbeat mood about the performance in Kino Úsmev. I will only add that the concert was astoundingly moving and powerful, and I wasn’t left with a single dry eye.