Graded on a Curve:
Jozef Van Wissem
& Jim Jarmusch,
The Mystery of Heaven

Noted film director Jim Jarmusch has a long thread of musical activity in his background that for quite a while has been expressed through the level of attention he gives to sound in his always distinctive motion pictures. Recently however, he’s teamed up with experimental lute player Jozef van Wissem in a full-blown musical collaboration, and The Mystery of Heaven is the most recent release detailing the worthiness of their endeavor. If the sounds they conjure often register as a soundtrack without a movie, the records stand up perfectly well and provide a rewarding excursion into the sensibilities of two very interesting contemporary artists.

The practice of cross-media artistic aspiration is a long one, and its flowering in 20th century presented a whole lot of interesting material for consideration. But very often, especially from within the realm of rock music, the tendency has been to relegate these attempts at formal branching out as mainly curiosities, e.g. John Lennon’s books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, and sometimes even folly, for instance Dylan’s much derided volume of experimental writings Tarantula and his sole work as an auteur filmmaker, the critically trounced and pretty much impossible to see (in acceptable non-bootleg quality, anyway) Renaldo and Clara.

Taking a cue (whether acknowledged or not) from the great rocker-poetess Patti Smith (who was herself working in the tradition of Lennon and Jim Morrison), the ‘80s underground rock scene saw a slew of musicians trying on different artistic hats, and some of them ended up fitting quite well. New York, New York was particularly fertile ground for this sort of thing, the city’s u-ground in this era being a fantastic (and essentially final) expression of its rich bohemian history.

Jim Jarmusch was part of that scene, and while he is mainly identified today as a movie director, in the early ‘80s he was also a musician, singing and playing keyboards in the obscure outfit The Del-Byzanteens. That band, a quite likeable if ultimately no big deal expression of late-No Wave sensibilities (they weren’t all that abrasive but instead rather quirky) released an EP in ’81 titled “Girl’s Imagination” and an LP Lies to Live By the following year.

It’s sometimes reported that Jarmusch turned to filmmaking after The Del-Byzanteens broke up, but that’s not true. His first picture Permanent Vacation materialized in 1980, and prior to that he’d worked as an assistant to the great director Nicholas Ray. Before studying at Tisch School of the Arts he’d been a musician. And so it goes that Jarmusch was very much a product of two artistic disciplines.

And this element has remained constant in his films from Stranger Than Paradise forward, though it’s an aspect of his work that gets sometimes overlooked. If Quentin Tarantino is more widely celebrated as a musically-minded auteur, it’s mainly because his union of sound and image is far more comprehensible in populist terms; if hip, Tarantino is very much of the people, the champion of critically neglected pulp cinema and a transformer of well established genres.

Jarmusch also works in genre, but his explorations often leave viewers indifferent or hostile, a reaction that can extend to his use of music; see Neil Young’s minimalist and arid guitar score for the masterful if divisive psychedelic Western Dead Man. While he’s occasionally flirted with mainstream success (Night on Earth and especially Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), he’s never really been an artist of the people. More accurately, he’s consistently been an artist of his people.

And Jim Jarmusch’s people include Dutch composer and lute player Jozef van Wissem. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, the reason mainly comes down to van Wissem’s mode as an experimentalist, though playing the lute, an instrument almost entirely associated with Renaissance and Baroque Classical styles, has surely limited his listenership while also lending him distinction through a bluntly expressed goal. For his informative website describes van Wissem as being dedicated to “The Liberation of the Lute,” certainly an admirable objective but one also not likely to resonate very far beyond adventurous sonic connoisseurs and/or those possessing some interest in Early Music.

But one way to potentially increase your following is to simply release some records, and van Wissem’s definitely been busy. He’s also been a frequent collaborator, teaming up with a wide range of avant-gardists from twisted Oregonian tribe Smegma to Japanese noise guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama to Irish experimental folksters United Bible Studies to expansive English guitar instrumentalist James Blackshaw to long-serving New York string-bender Gary Lucas.

And now Jim Jarmusch, a union that in a very short period has produced a handful of very absorbing records, works that have surely provided a huge boost to van Wissem’s profile. Earlier this year came Concerning the Entrance into Eternity, the first of these documents to give the director equal billing with the lutanist, a circumstance that shows their relationship to be one of evolution rather than just the meeting of two worthy principals.

The first evidence of their collaboration came last year on van Wissem’s album The Joy that Never Ends and was limited to a single song. The second was Apokatastasis, a limited edition LP on the lutanist’s own Incunabulum label, with sides split between van Wissem solo and in tandem with Jarmusch on electric and acoustic guitars and tape loops. Concerning the Entrance into Eternity quickly followed on the prolific Important imprint, and now comes The Mystery of Heaven on Sacred Bones.

While all this activity is indicative of a growing musical partnership, it also appears to be heading toward a very specific place. Van Wissem is slated to score Jarmusch’s upcoming film Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire story with Tilda Swinton in the lead, and in fact the actress appears on The Mystery of Heaven’s fourth track, narrating a theme that seems quite close to the subject matter of the director’s next film.

For that matter, so does the title Concerning the Entrance to Eternity. Vampires live forever, y’know? That album also featured a brief narration delivered by Jarmusch himself on its splendid final track “He is Hanging by His Shiny Arms, His Heart an Open Wound with Love.” These thematic and operational elements assist this meeting of august minds in rising far beyond the offhand; The Mystery of Heaven is the latest documentation of a joint venture of impressive ambition realized through obvious communication and a shared engagement with the work.

By comparison, describing The Mystery of Heaven as cinematic feels positively lazy. But it is an accurate insight into the way the album works, opening with the moody and concise “Etimasia”, the structure of van Wissem’s lute anchoring the piece as Jarmusch employs slow-motion waves of controlled feedback to expand and deepen the atmosphere. Along the way the music doesn’t want for images but rather inspires them; it could be the sounds accompanying a solitary figure that’s slowly travelling along an empty sidewalk in a mysteriously deserted urban setting, for just one instance.

That a brief reprise of “Etamasia” sits in the middle of side two only increases the album’s connection to the scoring of motion pictures. And track two, the eleven minute “Flowing the Light of Godhead” also returns with the parenthetical titular additive “Eternal Sun” to close the album with a version noticeably different but equal in length. On both versions van Wissem lays down the lute and picks up the 12-string electric guitar, the duo providing serpentine cascades of melancholy feedback and simmering, shimmering sustain.

While certainly abstract in conception the textures are also methodical enough to appeal to risk-taking rock fans (as was the soundtrack to Dead Man), so the release of The Mystery of Heaven via Sacred Bones makes a tangible kind of sense that will likely bring an increased following to van Wissem’s earlier work.

The title cut, placed third on side one, is essentially in the mode of “Etimasia” but is longer and more meditative. The lute again serves as a melodic anchor in the proceedings, but overall, the near ten minute duration of “The Mystery of Heaven” is far more devoted to well-rendered sonic drift. It’s indicative of the track’s success that the hugeness of Swinton’s speaking voice at the beginning of the following entry, “The More She Burns the More Beautifully She Glows,” is somewhat jarring when heard in the uninterrupted flow of digital listening. But on LP the cut opens side two, the specifics of format allowing for a necessary pause and helping the piece to stand apart without disrupting the album’s spell.

Swinton’s appearance, apparently based on a text written around 1260 by medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, is a brief one however, and the majority of “The More She Burns the More Beautifully She Glows” unwinds as a rough blend of the instrumentation of “Etimasia,” and the method of “Flowing the Light of Godhead.” It fills out a very satisfactory album, one that finds Wissem and Jarmusch in complete command of their creative aspirations.

After some reflection I will state my preference for Concerning the Entrance to Eternity, but it’s not like there’s a major qualitative gulf between the two. And if Concerning offers more variation than The Mystery of Heaven, I can also easily imagine instances where Heaven’s stricter environments would prove to be preferable.

It’s a record that easily vindicates Jarmusch’s expressiveness in different (if very compatible) artist forms, but the real revelation continues to be van Wissem. He’s another fine example of the relevancy of the current avant-garde, working in a tradition that persists in enduring long after the low-rent boho enclaves that produced artists like Jarmusch have disappeared through the bittersweet inevitabilities of progress.


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