Looking for a film score, Jim Jarmusch found a music partner and fellow mixed-mystic junkie instead
The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch stood near the stage at ISSUE Project Room Friday night and watched as Jozef van Wissem, seated and dressed all in black, played the 13-course swan-neck baroque lute propped on his knee; van Wissem plucked a melody of short musical phrases that rose up around the Corinthian columns and coffered ceilings of the renaissance-style room.
Jarmusch, also all in black, his suit hanging loose from his tall, gangly body, stayed on the periphery of the stage, but kept his back to the audience. He held an electric hollow-body guitar, and slowly began coaxing from it a drone that backed up van Wissem’s tune. He walked slowly, in a sidestep, over to some small tube amplifiers set up on a table. He lingered among the amplifiers, then lifted the guitar over his head as a sharp peal rang out of the amps and pierced the air, while still making room for the sound of the lute.
The sold-out performance, held at ISSUE Project Room’s new and improved space at 110 Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn, also served as a record release party for Van Wissem and Jarmusch. The album, titled Concerning The Entrance Into Eternity, began as a search for a soundtrack. The two met in 2006, but their relationship took hold when Jarmusch was looking to have van Wissem score, or do part of a score, for a film he had been trying to make for years, what he called a “crypto-vampire film” about two lovers, outsider types who have been in love for hundreds of years. Jarmusch felt that the sound of drones had a direct relationship to the narrative arc, but that it needed something else, some complimentary sound, and sought van Wissem’s assistance making something that would fit.
This is not a big surprise since Jarmusch has played in bands on and off since the '80s, and has often been deeply involved in planning and composing his film’s scores. His band Bad Rabbit (now called Sqürl) provided some tracks to Jarmusch’s most recent film, The Limits of Control. The film, which was the impetus for their collaboration, will be shot this summer. Van Wissem said he wasn’t sure whether the pieces on the album would actually make it into the film, but it seems they’ve taken on their own life.
Van Wissem’s composition style, which involves simple, repetitive musical phrases, and allows for much contemplative space between the notes, is very much of a piece with the tradition of avant-garde minimalism, and as such lends itself well to Jarmusch’s stark cinematic works. The two had a lot in common, and so a collaboration was born.
“We started sending [each other] stuff in the mail,” van Wissem told me after Friday’s performance. “Snail mail. C.D.s, basically. That’s how it started. But since I’m in New York, we [also] record together and played together a couple of shows.”
Their first was in the same space, 110 Livingston, in October of last year, where they appeared together for a van Wissem-curated concert program called “New Music for Early Instruments.”
As we spoke, a young woman came up to van Wissem, tearing the plastic off her copy of the album and asking him to sign it. “My name is Libby!” she said smiling. Even Renaissance-era-instrument players have fans.
The idea for the album developed organically from their live performance. Trading those C.D.s turned into trading musical ideas, and the two musicians felt natural layering their sounds—Jarmsuch’s guitar and van Wissem’s lute—over each other. They even recorded the album in the space they’d first performed together in; the Beaux-Art building, originally designed by McKim, Mead, & White, was ideal, as it had originally been built as a European-style concert hall.
“The acoustics are really nice,” van Wissem said. “There’s a six-second echo. For a lute that’s really nice. It can sing. It’s not echoey.”
“It’s nice, it’s resonant,” said Jarmusch, who had joined in. Both men were imposingly tall and dressed all in black. “When Jozef plays,” Jarmusch continued, “the lute, it’s so crystal and beautiful in [the] room. And my sludge”—he paused here for effect and held out his hands as if he were going to catch a ball—"my sludgy stuff sounds big.”
Jarmusch has said that he considers these songs as van Wissem’s compositions, and sees himself as someone filling in the background to Jozef’s foreground, like the “scenic” on a film shoot, the one who paints the backdrops.
Some of the songs that appear on the album were already written by the time of that first October performance, while others took shape soon after, and coalesced amid a swirl of ideas and influences traded between the two musicians. They all bear mystical titles like “The Sun of the Natural World is Pure Fire,” and “He is Hanging by his Shiny Arms, His Heart an Open Wound with Love.”
“The titles of the songs are Swedenborgian mostly,” said van Wissen, referring to the religious movement that developed from the teachings of Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who, after a spiritual awakening, claimed he could visit heaven and hell and speak with angels, demons, and other spirits. Van Wissem said that he had been reading a lot of Swedenborg, and took “like a sponge” to the mystic’s language.
“It’s funny,” Jarmusch said, “because he’s like a Swedenborg freak, and I’m a William Blake freak. And he’s a William Blake fan, and I’m a big Swedenborg fan. So we mix our mystics.”
As they performed, they seemed to follow a kind of slow dance. Van Wissem performed mostly while seated, gathering up his lute between his knees and torso, tensing and releasing as he plucked out his melodies. Jarmusch moved about the stage, creating his low, rumbling walls of thunderous feeback and intermittent, jarring squeals, his bright white hair standing on end. Occasionally Van Wissem would get up, and he and Jarmusch would move narcotically through the dimly lit space like a couple of underworld specters shrouded in a murky reddish glow.
Though they each performed individual sets (van Wissem at the beginning and Jarmusch at the end) their collaborative effort was most powerful and affecting: the mellifluous clear ancient strings matched with the heavy resonant electrified drone. On their final piece together Jarmusch left behind the electricity. The acoustic duet was capped perfectly by Jarmusch’s recitation, in his deep resonant voice, of some lines from another Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross, from which one of the titles of the songs derives:
“He is hanging by his shiny arms, his heart an open wound with love. Set your eyes on the cross. Set your tongue to speak about his passion.”
Later, out by the concessions stand, Jarmusch stood by a small table that displayed the five sample bottles of drinks on offer.
“Orange Crush, orange soda,” he said to the skinny young man in a wool hat behind the table. “The autistic brain craves orange soda.”
He walked back through the arched doorway and the heavy brass doors were slid closed.