How Not To Play the Lute, pt. 2

3

January
2011

[For an introduction, have a look at part one.]

Last April, WNYC Public Radio (and subsequently NPR) aired an interview with Dutch lutenist and composer Jozef van Wissem, who played his own works on a modern copy of a Baroque lute.

After listening to a couple of his pieces, I’d describe them as New Age minimalism. They have no discernible melodies, but plenty of slow-moving texture—mood music, if you will—one that could hardly be described as virtuosic. Interviewer David Garland used the word “austere” after a first impression.

Part of Wissem’s musical goal in playing modern compositions on the lute is to fight we he believes is a stereotype—the lute is a silly instrument that people associate only in caricature.

I’m not sure where he gets that notion because it’s a completely new to me. If true it would mean that there are many more people out there who generally know what a lute is, and can recall (from where, I’m not sure) the scene he describes as the culprit.

“You stand under a balcony and serenade a lady, and then you get a flowerpot thrown at you.”

Sounds like vintage film to me, or perhaps something got lost in translation. Maybe it helps to sell his music and the instrument to an audience which has no expectation beyond what they’re told.

Being an underdog sells, doesn’t it?

I can get past these things, sure, but the proof is always in pudding and it comes down to the way he plays a period instrument.

Wissem is very candid about wanting to make the lute “more contemporary, more sexy,” which is great, however, making virtue out of questionable technique—bad intonation and poor touch*—is unacceptable.

It doesn’t serve the music or the reputation of the instrument.

Whatever philosophy he’s taken on, its worth listening for yourself, if only to see what I mean: “Jozef van Wissem: Transcendental Lute” (National Public Radio).

Learn More: Who is Josef van Wissem?

(A Baroque lute; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

*How the instrument is plucked.

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