Jozef Van Wissem

Retrograde Renaissance Lute: A Classical Deconstruction

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Some of the most basic lessons in any composition class are: First, a composer needs more than one idea to base a piece on, and, second, if more pages in the same mood are required, simply turn the music that has already been written upside down. The technique works particularly well with the mathematically precise music of composers from Bach's era, so why not Renaissance lute music? This Dutch performer, who plays an instrument called a ten-course Renaissance lute, may seem to have an obsession with backwards music, as he followed up this recording with another disc in which the compositions were partially based on palindromes. It all may seem a trifle precious and arty, yet the concept of backwards and forwards are important in music as well as traffic flow, cropping up in many different genres. The '60s rock generation spent hours trying to play Beatles records backwards to find out what they really meant, while the 2002 autobiography of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson includes an account of just what he did to vanquish another hotshot keyboard man in a cutting contest: Peterson took one of the fellow's pet tricky phrases and played it backwards. Yet one of the lessons of the aforementioned composition class technique is that the reverse gear does not create anything particularly new within the music in terms of content or movement. Thus, while the music here is credited to Van Wissem, it very much sounds like something written centuries before his time. Subtitling the album as a "deconstruction" might also not provide the right impression, as this phrase usually is used in conjunction with a much more radical assault on a musical format. These new pieces play as delicately, evenly and freshly as Renaissance lute music does when moving in the proper direction, which is a lot more than can be said for the average American car in reverse gear. Van Wissem improvised the rhythmic movement within the pieces he chose to subject to his theory of retrograde motion. This may have been neither necessary nor conceptually sound, but adheres to a law that perhaps is not stressed enough in composition class: that the composer has the right to do whatever they want to. Here's hoping Van Wissem keeps doing just that, as his contemporary take on the lute makes for relaxing as well as refreshing music, right up the alley for the fan of all acoustic string music, not just classical.

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