As a late-night crowd squeezes onto the main floor of Santos Party House, the nocturnal vibe of this archetypal Tribeca dance club suits the occasion. It’s a concert to celebrate “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s new rock-and-roll vampire movie starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as eternal bohemians whose love for each other is matched only by their exquisite taste in music and literature.
The movie’s feel for refined esoterica also saturates its soundtrack, which features everything from art-damaged rockabilly to ecstatic Arabic pop — and a mother lode of lute, the Renaissance and baroque instrument beloved of Hiddleston’s character, a guitar player and instrument collector.
When the room dims and Jozef van Wissem comes onstage, lanky and garbed in black, engulfed in red, green and blue spotlights, the Dutch composer cradles his custom-made 27-string lute and begins to play a simple, haunting melody. Quite suddenly, the audience is vaulted back 400 years, hearing echoes of what Adam, the wan, romantic musician played by Hiddleston, must have known in his days as a human.
“It was the pop music of the 17th century,” van Wissem says a few days later, sitting in the garden of a cafe near his apartment in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although Hiddleston might have modeled his undead character, to some degree, on the musician, the likenesses go only so far. Van Wissem has yet to evaporate under the bright afternoon sun.
He’s obsessed with an instrument that may strike many as an arcane novelty, but for him it is utterly contemporary. “I want to update it and also make it sexy again. It’s not interesting to a lot of people because it comes with all this baggage, this set of rules that these academics gave the instrument, that keeps it in a museum.”
To that end, van Wissem often performs in rock venues and could easily pass for a Nordic metal overlord, with thigh-high black leather boots and long, dirty-blond hair. Athough he’s often collaborated with fellow sonic outliers — from tradition-steeped avant-gardists such as guitarist Gary Lucas to the Japanese noise hero Keiji Haino — van Wissem can captivate a room on his own, as unafraid of spare beauty as he is of experimental gambits. At Santos, when he plays the title track from his 2011 album “The Joy That Never Ends,” the melody’s delicate glimmer freezes the moment, begging the listener to come closer as he steps away from the microphone. Van Wissem holds the instrument in front of his chest as the natural sound resonates inside the lute’s boatlike cavity. He’s not only liberating the lute, as he suggests later, but also asking his audience to liberate themselves from accustomed approaches to music. Imagine the 17th century, van Wissem says. “People were smaller then. There was no noise. There was a whole different way of listening.”
Thanks to this week’s release of the movie’s soundtrack album, featuring guest appearances by indie-rock star Zola Jesus and Lebanese vocalist Yasmine Hamdan, the lute may become more liberated than ever. The music van Wissem wrote became integral to the conception of “Lovers,” which evolved during the past seven years as Jarmusch sought to fund the production. “I know the way [Jarmusch] makes his films is kind of like a musician,” he says. “He has music in his head when he’s writing a script so it’s more informed by a tonal thing than it is by anything else.”
The performer first met Jarmusch in 2007, on the street in SoHo. He gave the director a CD, and a few months later, he got a request to send his catalogue. The two became friends and then started playing together. “He was very inspirational in getting me to make music,” says Jarmusch, who collaborates with van Wissem in a duo and also invited him to play with his dirge-rock band Sqürl, whose version of Wanda Jackson’s 1961 hit “Funnel of Love” opens the film. “Now I’m going to be making music for the rest of my life. I can’t not anymore. It’s such a great release for me. Filmmaking’s very hard, and it takes years to get something to show someone, and music’s so immediate. So it’s really helping my psyche.”
Van Wissem’s work on the film resonated with his own reasons for playing the lute, which he began studying 20 years ago. In the early 1990s, weary of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, he sold a bar he ran in Holland and moved to New York. After a year of reflection, he began to study lute with Pat O’Brien, a teacher he found through a Village Voice ad. Trained in classical guitar as a child and a veteran of various punk and experimental scenes, the performer still seemed to find in the lute a new way of life. “I feel that I’m sort of political,” he says. “Jim’s film is anti-contemporary-society. And the lute goes against all technology and against all computers and against all the s--- you don’t need.”
He credits O’Brien with some career-making advice. “He said, ‘Write your own pieces,’ which really opened it up for me,” van Wissem says. To make things more interesting, he composed one album backwards (2000’s “Retrograde”) and has played palindromic songs that reverse at their midpoint. Although he released classical material (such as the anonymous pieces on 2008’s “A Rose by Any Other Name”), van Wissem prefers the art of what he calls “medieval sampling.” “Quoting pieces, using a melody to make the listener think or feel that it’s something that could be written a few hundred years back,” he says. Along with that, he incorporates a deep affinity for the 1960s tape-loop minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and the intricate marathon repetitions of composer Morton Feldman, to create a kind of harmonic tapestry unique to every venue and performance.
“Performing with him is always very exciting because he has the vocabulary and skill of an erudite classical player, but the open mind and emotional response of an experimental musician,” says Zola Jesus (a.k.a. Nika Roza Danilova) in an e-mail. “It makes for a powerful collaboration to work with someone who is firing on all cylinders.” (During the concert in Tribeca, the singer joined van Wissem on a “pseudo-Gregorian” piece written for the film and a more recent, unrecorded collaboration.) “While the music he makes is very introverted, the sentimentality of it all reaches out to the listener and pulls them into a trance. It’s very special stuff.”
Despite the fragility of his instrument (he maintains five lutes), van Wissem is often on the road, something else that he has in common with his peers from the Middle Ages, who might have traveled for days on horseback. “That was part of the trance,” he says, referring to those journeys. “The performance begins when I leave for the airport.”
He also senses a kinship with a more contemporary vagabond. “Willie Nelson says: ‘The only thing that makes me happy is making music with my friends.’ It’s like this boy’s dream. When you’re 11, ‘Oh, the guitar!’ You have that feeling. And that’s what you try and keep. You have this feeling of adventure. What else is there?”
Only Lovers Left Alive Opening in area theaters on April 18. Rated R for language and brief nudity. 123 minutes.
Dollar is a freelance writer.