Unlike many other cellists, Ernst Reijseger is looking for the widest possible variety of sounds from his instrument – and is willing to take risks to get them.


Ernst Reijseger twirls his 5-string cello on his finger to create new sounds at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival ©2014 Brett Delmage
Ernst Reijseger twirls his 5-string cello on his finger to create new sounds at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival ©2014 Brett Delmage

“I always like other things in my vocabulary than only the aim for the most beautiful tone, and impeccable intonation and technique. I think there are qualities in trying to play [a] boring [passage], or there are qualities in trying to make ugly sounds … because they really give you the opportunity to have a much wider palette of expression – if you are able to also play really convincingly bad. And people don't practice that.”

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The renowned Dutch cellist will appear in four concerts at the 2016 Chamberfest. He started improvising as a child, almost soon as he picked up the cello – and he's always surprised that many instrumentalists don't practice improvisation, “or making up notes themselves, or an order of notes, or rhythmical structures. In the classical world, it's stunningly not part of the training, to think in phrases of more than eight bars and to be able to fill them with coherent phrasing.”

“Why not? I never understood why instrumentalists never learned how to compose. It should be part of the basic curriculum, I think. But who am I?” he laughs.

When OttawaJazzScene.ca editors heard Reijseger at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival, he played the cello conventionally with a bow – but also unconventionally. He played it like a guitar, swung it through the air, rapped on it like a drum, changed the sound of its strings with clips, and even twirled it on his finger – all to get the unexpected sounds he was listening for.

And he wasn't afraid of creating dissonant sounds: “it is a great contrast to whatever next beautiful thing you're going to want to present. The problem is that if you become predictable with your instrument, the [audience's] yawn is closer than the concentration. The concentration might fade.”

“I'm not really talking about effects, but I'm talking about really convincingly looking for other ways of expression, and understand that that can be deep, too, a deep experience. But for people who have had no experience, it's quite hard with to accomplish right away. You don't do that right away – it's a process that goes over the years and it has to go together with understanding and with maybe conviction, even, and some form of decisiveness, I guess.”

“It's easy for me to say, because I'm really addicted to music and to this process of the creation of it.”

He's never been like other “highly skilled” musicians, he said, who have been “so drilled already that it becomes a real profession. You work and you have free time and you go to the café or the pub, you know. I never did that.”

“I like to drink wine, it's not that,” he said, but his work – and his curiosity – never stop, or fit into a schedule.

“I just try to get as much energy as possible to go for the next day doing what I'm doing. And I know a lot of people that do that. But I also know a lot of people that don't. [laughs] I'm very fortunate to know a lot of people who do that.”

Some of the ways he plays – for example, twirling his cello by its scroll on one finger – could be described as showmanship, but Reijseger says they're more than that.

“Well, the twirling is a form of music-making. You don't get that sound if you do it differently, if you do it otherwise. You don't get that. And for me the showmanship, it's like there's always two stories going on at the same time.”

“Of course, it looks ridiculous if you're only used to see an instrument treated with the uttermost care. Don't you find that ridiculous? Why? Why does everybody always make it into a holy thing that it's not? They are pieces of wood, glued together, hopefully with some care and love and passion by its builders – and that's it! They're tools, and they're great tools. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with them. They're actually, over the years, very highly-developed tools. But you have to use them. The way that they've been treated as holy instruments, I think that's based on a misunderstanding [he laughs].”

The only problem he's had with risking his cello is in transport, he said – and occasionally walking off the stage. On one stage, he said, the wings were pitch-black, and he walked straight into an iron gate on leaving the stage.

“But usually on-stage I have no bad experiences. Yes, I have broken a string, but you can buy these things and just put them on. For the rest, it's in my interest that it doesn't break.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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