|New release from baroque conceptualist and improviser, Josef Van Wissem, who, for more than a decade, has been quietly but surely reinventing the vocabulary of that most unlikely of instruments, the lute. With the exception of the odd Renaissance preservationist context, the lute, which was once the most popular portable instrument in the Western world, has all but disappeared from our musical landscape. Despite the arcane associations of his chosen instrument, Van Wissem is no revivalist; his compositions often marry a deep and self-conscious knowledge of the instrument's weighty history with a rigorous post-modern sensibility that has encompassed everything from appropriation to minimalist free improvisation, electronic manipulation, and the mirrored or palindrome musical structures for which he is perhaps best known.
These palindrome compositions, a group of which are collected on his latest solo release, Stations of the Cross, are compositions that, like the words "radar" or "wow," or the phrase, "Madam, I'm Adam," read the same forwards or backwards. Each composition progresses through a series of notes to the midpoint of the piece, where the sequence then reverses and the pitches are played in retrograde order back to the compositions starting point. The effect is strange and subtle, and oddly psychological -- there is a sense that time expands and contracts back to the point of origin, while the exact moment of reversal is difficult to detect. Compositional expectations are similarly, subtly undercut and, being that the beginning is always also the end, these pieces tend to come to a close without resolution, which gives them a quietly unsettling, question-like quality. To make things even more interesting, these mirrored structures are often superimposed onto field recordings of airport terminal interiors which are digitally manipulated into mirrored structures of their own. These recordings lend an eerie, impersonal atmosphere, the specificity and contemporary nature of which stands in stark contrast to the timeless, esoteric quality of Van Wissem's gut stringed lutes. Stations is a record of quiet, stately beauty and concept. [CC] (June 7, 2007)