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Ernst Reijseger at Chamberfest: reinventing how audiences see and hear the cello

Cellist Ernst Reijseger has a constant passion for music and for musical invention (seen here with vocalist Mola Sylla at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival) ©2014 Brett DelmageErnst Reijseger was exhausted.

The celebrated Dutch cellist and composer had just finished two back-to-back recording sessions for film soundtracks, one for Werner Herzog's latest documentary and the other for an American feature film, when OttawaJazzScene.ca interviewed him on July 15.


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But one thing did energize him – the thought of just playing, in a series of concerts at the 2016 Ottawa Chamber Music Festival from July 23 to 26.

“Just taking my cello and playing – I'm really looking forward to that.”

This week, he's in Ottawa for the very first time, playing four concerts (two free, two ticketed) at the festival. They'll range from a short introductory concert and interview, to a solo show for children, to a celebration of the cello with 11 other cellists, to completely free improvised jazz. But all of them will be informed by Reijseger's iconoclastic approach to the cello and the different sounds he creates with it.

In his 61 years, Reijseger has taken the cello to highly unexpected places. Equally fluent in jazz, free improvisation, world music, classical music, and film scores, the Dutch composer and performer has re-envisioned the cello. Instead of sitting still bowing the instrument, he walks with it, he swings it, he twirls it, he plays it like a guitar and like a drum – all in the service of creating different sounds in different combinations.

He's played with the cream of avant-garde jazz musicians, but is equally well-known as a classical performer and composer for everything from string trio to symphony orchestra. His long-standing world/jazz trio with pianist Harmen Fraanje and Senegalese vocalist/percussionist Mola Sylla released its second album in 2015, and he released the soundtrack to Herzog's film Salt and Fire in March – adding to his huge discography of more than 150 albums. He's provided music for films, modern dance performances, and plays – even for the first Dutch broadcast of Sesame Street.

An immediate, "greedy" love of the cello

At age 6, Reijseger started playing the cello. He had been playing the recorder, and just happened to see someone play the cello. “And I wanted it. It was greediness, I guess. Six-year-old greediness. I've played the cello ever since.”

He took lessons, but he was always improvising on the cello, even though he'd never heard of the word 'improvisation'. “I grew up in a protected environment and having fun, you know, with the instrument. There were no restrictions there, so it went quite naturally, like the development of vocabulary even out of repertoire, just by playing it myself.”

“It's just like I just improvised always and I listened to jazz. And then I started to listen in high school, at 13, I started to see live jazz and I heard new music and ethnic music and blues.”

He was also influenced by music from Dutch colonies like Surinam, and Cuban music, “and it all sort of melded together as part of my musical interests. … There was never a theoretic idea like 'Let me try to make the cello sound different'. It was more like I had a cello and I listened to all this music, and I was bound to find ways to use it in different circumstances, to find solutions.”

One solution came from playing with a guitarist: he started playing the cello like a guitar, realizing it added possibilities that would be difficult on the upright cello. “Upright is also interesting – it's like I'm not dissing it. But you have limitations with your wrist. It's ergonomic if you want to play a chord – it's much easier to play pizzicato chords to play it [using] guitar technique.”

He added more sounds by moving while he played.

“Those are not – I wish – really conscious decisions, It's much more that I went with the sound. To make the sound travel, you have to move! And especially when an audience is static. The effects it creates, and also the reflections you have if you move around the space, you can really try out what works in a space, which notes reflect better than others, than if you're only static on a chair yourself. You have suddenly a whole set of options.”

"I always dreamed of having a five-string cello"

For the last six years, he's been playing a five-string cello, with an additional low F string, instead of the more common four-string. It's something he'd deeply wanted for years, and “I was so lucky that it actually turned out, being such a good one, that could really speak and really added another dimension – another fifth, to be exact [he laughs]. A really usable and playable instrument as well. It's also loud. It's made for me.”

It's a long-term loan from the Dutch Instrument Foundation (Nationaal Muziekinstrumenten Fonds), which loans out quality instruments, usually to students of classical music. And it came to him through an unexpected encounter and misunderstanding.

“I did a solo concert in 2008, and a woman came up to me after the solo concert. A gorgeous woman. I'd had my first beer – I'd just played two sets of 45 minutes [each]. She was standing next to me, and she said, “After such a concert, you have nothing more to desire, do you?” And I was so much in the music and completely unconscious of her deeper meaning there, that I said, 'Well, I always dreamed of having a five-string cello, with a low F.' And she disappeared.”

“But then I got a phone call the next morning from the director of the Dutch Instrument Foundation, saying, 'I overheard what you said, and I spoke with my board, and we decided to go for it!' ”

The deep process of writing film scores

Reijseger is particularly well-known for his film scores – for example, for Herzog's documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This month, he recorded two scores, which he had been composing for months. He'll be flying to Canada for Chamberfest immediately after a mixing session in Germany for one of them.

The first was for Herzog's latest documentary, Into the Inferno (about active volcanoes), recorded with a Spanish Baroque orchestra. The second was for an American indie film called Walking Out, directed by Alex and Andrew Smith, with a smaller ensemble of recorder, piano, organ, percussion, and three cellists performing in a wooden church.

Creating scores is an opportunity to write his own music, Reijseger said. “I'm so fortunate that I'm pretty autonomous in making musical material. It's not like to-the-second tight-fit music that has to only serve the image. I'm given the opportunity actually also to lay on top.

“It's a great way of collaborating – it's like working with other musicians, that's how deep it can go if you are able to work with people on that level, on an equal level. Sometimes in productions it's a little hard because producers still think that music is post-production, you know, instead of involving you already in the process of film-making when they start, which is the perfect world. But these projects have been good.”

But very intense work. “Writing this music in a relatively short period of time and then recording – only three days recording and wanting to have it all there. I'm a little tired now, but I think we have some very nice music made there, and so I'm really hoping to see how it turns out.”

“So I'm full of that, but still, thinking ahead, I'm going to really enjoy offering music for cellists and playing for kids. It will be nice.”

What compositions will work for Cellobration?

At Chamberfest, Reijseger will be contributing at least five of his own compositions – including most likely the theme to the film Salt and Fire – to “Cellobration!” on Tuesday, July 26, at Dominion Chalmers United Church. This celebration of the cello will feature 12 cellists, including Reijseger, as well as other instrumentalists and a vocalist.

It's not the first time he's played with many other cellists. In 2010, he worked with 140 young cellists, who eventually assembled into one orchestra, the Mega Kinder Cello Orkest, for the Amsterdamse Cello Biënnale. In June, he participated in 100 Cellos, the biggest cello ensemble of the world, in a series of concerts in Ravenna, Italy.

“If you put a lot of cellists together, you almost have already an orchestra You have such a diversity of registers and options and sounds, and you can really make an orchestra just out of a whole lot of cellos. It's really possible.”

The Chamberfest show will have three rehearsals, Reijseger said. Because he's been writing a lot of new compositions and arrangements lately, he's bringing more material than will fit in the concert, and then will choose what works.

“I want to see in proportion what is also comfortable and playable by the cellists that I'm going to meet. I don't want to make them do things that are too challenging for them for the amount of time that they have to work on it. And I can only figure that when I'm there. So the first rehearsal is sight-reading and trying things out, and then the second rehearsal is probably having fun and then I have already made my choice for a few pieces, and the third rehearsal is like the pieces we will play for the concert.”

It's going to be a busy night. Immediately after that concert, he'll perform a completely improvised concert with two Canadian musicians he recorded a CD with 2014: Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart and Toronto baritone saxophonist David Mott, at 10 p.m. at La Nouvelle Scene [read our story about this trio concert].

Children are direct and can concentrate on music

But even more challenging may be his free Monday afternoon concert for children, at Ottawa City Hall.

“It's an afternoon concert which is not my favourite part of the day for playing for children. Because they already had a whole morning behind them and they might be in their concentration dip and they are just tired. I don't know how many will come, I don't know if their parents are there. Usually it helps if their parents are there, especially when they're very young. So it's a challenge."

Reijseger said he liked playing for children because “they're direct. They don't take any [expletive] from you, to say it bluntly. And at the same time, you never know if their concentration is well, if they're not too tired.”

He plays his own music – not particular children's music. “But it's the order that counts and I try to react to their curiosity and their natural ability to concentrate – even much better than we can, adults. Their concentration span is shorter, but they can concentrate much more in detail for the short span they have. That's how they pick up information that they can keep their whole lives.”

He said he's talked to 30-year-olds who remembered “things I played – in detail – from [concerts] when they were three and four years old. They knew exactly what I'd been doing. So it's a very responsible discipline, playing for kids, I find.”

An almost-Ghostly experience

After Chamberfest, Reijseger is flying to New York City, where he's participating in a workshop and creating a sound design for a new production of Hamlet in The Public Theatre, directed by actor Oscar Isaac. It will be a new experience for him.

“My idea is that they compose, with my help, their own sound design. And they make their own music. So all the actors do everything ... They all create it out of nothing.”

Isaac had asked him to actually be part of the production, playing the Ghost of Hamlet's father. Reijseger sounded wistful as he talked about what a great part the Ghost is, and how he could have played his cello while striding about the stage, doubling his voice with the cello.

“But I'm too old to be away from my family for four months. I would have loved to do that. But here you go, you cannot have them all. [he laughs]. It's just not going to work.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Ernst Reijseger will perform in Cellobration! at Ottawa Chamberfest at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26, at Dominion Chalmers United Church. He will also play a free concert for children at Ottawa City Hall at 2 p.m. on Monday, July 25.

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