Interview to Ernst Reijseger (Luigi Santosuosso)

photo © Susan O’Connor

In over 30 years of career, Ernst Reijseger has been single-handedly rewriting the rules of cello playing. To define him as a jazz player would be as limiting and stereotypical as saying that the Netherlands is the land of the windmills.
Ernst Reijseger’s fame is largely due to his association with the ‘Dutch Jazz Scene’, and, in particular, with some of its most highly regarded exponents, like Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. The eclectic range of extended techniques he employs and his relentless and omnivorous approach to music have enabled him to play practically anything and to continuously reinvent himself, thus reflecting in his art a gleaming personality. Despite one could as easily find Ernst Reijseger strumming the cello like a blues guitar as backing Sardinian choirs or African musicians, rediscovering neglected jazz standards with Franco D’Andrea or improvising freely with Hamid Drake or Louis Sclavis, his playing remains highly distinctive and recognizable regardless of the context.
This interview focuses on the various ongoing projects in which Reijseger is currently involved as a way to explore the many facets of this eclectic artist.

A common denominator seems to connect Ernst Reijseger’s career, the desire to go beyond preconceived notions about how things should be done and music should be played. This quest, however, has not been carried out with the affectation of those intellectuals that choose the ‘pose’ of self-appointed innovator, but represent the natural outcome of Ernst Reijseger’s desire to reflect in his playing how he feels about music.
To the occasional beholder, the choice of playing cello in an improvised music setup could denote Reijseger’s desire to defy stereotypes, but the Dutch musician is adamant in denying any pre-planned crusade against the established imagery of cello playing.

Ernst Reijseger: I never had the feeling that I had to fight to make choices about the music that I was going to perform. In the end, improvisation is just a method. It does not matter on which instrument you perform it. I have never been a person that says, “this is how it should be, this is my religious belief”. Improvisation is just a method that I keep using.
‘Fighting against’ established musical styles or formats? No, I never felt I was doing that. It’s an honor to be called a ‘jazz musician’. But I also play the cello, I come from Europe, I listen to a lot of very different music: pop, folk, kitsch music... We live in a very interesting time, having access to such diverse styles as listeners.

Cello, however, was not exactly the first instrument on which Ernst Reijseger started developing his musical skills:

Ernst Reijseger: I was given a recorder when I was 4, it was a silver recorder that I still have. I was one those weird kids that actually enjoyed playing with it. Actually I kept making music on it until I was 16… by that time I already played the cello and also the drums. However, at 7 I had started with the cello and I stuck with it.
I think I’ve used the recorder in one of the albums with the Michael Moore Quartet, “Négligé".

Having to start exploring some of Ernst Reijseger’s projects, it could be interesting to begin from his collaboration with the Sardinian choir ‘Tenores e Concordu de Orosei’, a rather uncanny project (even for the standards to which Ernst Reijseger’s fan have become familiar) that matches a radical improviser and group of singers that preserves and develops a musical tradition whose ancient origins have not been traced back with precision, even though there is agreement about the fact that it stems from the culture of the shepherds of Central Sardinia that followed the introduction of the Gregorian Chants in the beautiful Mediterranean island [a very interesting musicological study on this music by Emil H. Lubej can be found online at]

Ernst Reijseger: The ‘Tenores e Concordu de Orosei’ are traditional singers from Sardinia. “Tenores” refers to a kind of ‘worldly’ music - performed for dance and parties – whereas “Concordu” is the religious equivalent of that music. These singers from the town of Orosei, sing both kinds of ancient musics, a very unique thing, since most Sardinian choirs of this sort specialize in either one or the other.

The documentation of the Orosei choir on CD – as well as their collaboration with the Dutch cello player – have been possible also thanks to the usual ‘vision’ with which Winter & Winter’s producer, Stefan F. Winter, carries out his work. The interest of Stefan Winter in the Sardinian group was not at all shaped by the ‘hype’ that all of a sudden seemed to have surrounded other Sardinian choirs a few years ago [in 1996 Peter Gabriel’s label, Real World, released a CD by the “Tenores di Bitti” “S Amore E Mama” and others followed like “Ammentos” (Agogo - 1999) and “Intonos” (Robi - 2000) finally documenting on record a choir whose underground cult status ranked Frank Zappa among its most fervent supporters and Ornette Coleman and Lester Bowie among their partners in crime; other important Sardinian traditional choirs are the “Tenores di Neoneli” and the “Tenores de Oniferi], but – on the contrary – was completely accidental, as Reijseger recounts.

Ernst Reijseger: We met through a series of coincidences. I recorded a solo album, “Colla Parte”, for the Winter & Winter label in a room of a beautiful Italian villa. For the last recording session I invited some of my Italian friends that lived in that area. One of them, Enrico Blumer – apart from knowing an incredible amount of restaurants all over Italy – surprised me as a music collector. That night, at dinner, he told me that he had this incredible cassette of Tenores from Sardinia. The producer, Stefan Winter, asked what that was and took this cassette to the car and listened to it. When he came back – with red ears – he said “I want to record these men”. Stefan, in fact, ended up recording two CDs with them. One was a CD of Tenores, the other one a CD of Concordu.
At a label showcase event in Venice in 1998, I ended up meeting these singers. At the end of the meeting they asked me to sit-in and play one of their songs with them. A quite substantial consumption of nice wines had preceded that, so the evening was very pleasant.
They remembered it and so they started to invite me to join their performances and asked the producer if they could do a project with me. It was their idea. Stefan Winter was immediately in favour of it. At first I was not sure; I thought about all these ‘world music misunderstandings’ that happen when jazz musicians invite musicians from other cultures and disciplines. It often creates more musical and cultural confusion than needed.
They really insisted, though, and so it became increasingly hard for me to say no to the opportunity of going to Sardinia and entering from the back door of their culture and to have a go at this new relationship. They were extremely open and let me prepare arrangements, make suggestions, cut part of the music etc. So, since the beginning, this has been a tremendous musical experience for me.

The collaboration with the Sardinian vocal group proved to be a two-way relationship since the first moment, rather than one of those guest-star gigs that Ernst Reijseger has systematically avoided throughout his career.

Ernst Reijseger: Well, life has some perfect moments. Many of those that I have spent with them, can actually qualify as perfect: they really let me ‘try’ things that appeared weird at first. I took my companion Scottish Drummer with me, Alan “Gunga” Purves.
The producer thought I was nuts because Gunga plays with lots of plastic objects and squeaky toys: he thought ‘what will happen having a crazy drummer with a traditional Sardinian choir’? I thought that it would be wonderful to have Gunga add some colors. In other words it
added some ‘disturbance’ in their music, in order to prevent that the music be spotless and pristine, but – on the contrary - engaging and challenging.
We’re still playing and touring and we’re now great friends: even though they knew that I am an atheist, whereas they are greatly devoted churchgoers, they invited me to record a mass with them. This is how close we have become.

A project that comes close to that with the Tenores e Concordu in terms of depth, spirituality and sheer energy is the collaboration with Mola Sila, a singer with which Ernst Reijseger has collaborated in various setups, the last in time being at the Moers festival with a concert in front of 10.000 people that had been chosen as the testimonial for the festival and the ‘image’ for the festival’s poster.

Ernst Reijseger: Mola Sila is a singer from Senegal. In 1987 he came to the Netherlands with his group, Senemali. I call him an angel. He has an incredible devotion towards singing and expressing himself this way. He is a Muslim man, Senegalese style. His father would wake him and the rest of the neighborood up every morning with his singing at 5.30: he sung prayers from the mosque. Now he improvises a lot and was the main guest at the Moers Festival with his project “Tukki” rooted in Senegalese pop music that included guests he met in Europe; in turn he himself was a guest of the large ensemble of percussionists led by Doudou N'Diaye Rose. So he’s highly regarded.
We sometime play completely improvised music. He fits melodies over what I come up with. I am not completely sure of whether he uses improvised lyrics or maybe a short predetermined text on which he then makes variations. Mola usually takes a little bit of time before he starts singing in our concerts. He starts playing with this little ukulele-looking instrument and I improvise with him. Only when he thinks that the time is right he then adds his vocals. He has a huge amount of patience.
He also plays a giant Calimba made of three iron sawblades on a box. That’s how he actually started to play music: making his own instruments.
During one of our duo concerts he sang to the prophet Mohammed. The power with which he sings is truly unbelievable.

Apparently at the (musical and geographical) antipodes from Sardinian or Senegalese music, are Ernst Reijseger’s various projects with Norwegian improvisers. After many years in which Norway has seemed somewhat confined within a ‘Nordic’ stereotype of jazz, a young generation of musicians – mostly alums of the Trondheim conservatory – have emerged and represent the vanguard of European jazz. It is perhaps not surprising that some of these musicians have sought very early on Ernst Reijseger’s services as agent provocateur and musical agitator. Conversely, it is perhaps not surprising that – despite the age gap – Reijseger’s has been immediately at ease with the innovative spirit of these improvisers. The collaboration with bassist Mats Eilertsen is the most recent venture in Norwegian jazz territory for Reijseger.

Ernst Reijseger: Mats Eilertsen, is a very young – 26 years old – bass player who just called me and invited me to a recording session. I asked to other friends that knew him for advise. They all told me that it was a fantastic idea, and I should definitely go ahead with it, because even though his music is close to a more ‘jazz sensibility’ he is very open-minded and likes to experiment in all sorts of ways in his hunt for musical experiences. From day one, in the studio, it was really a wonderful experience.
The recording session took place in Oslo last February. We spent one day to record his written pieces. So we had an additional day left to record completely improvised music. It all came up great, but - a few days later - I received a phone call and they told me that, while transferring the music from one hard-drive to another, the engineer had inadvertently deleted everything. So the studio had to pay to fly me back to Oslo and have a new recording session. But we had such a great time together that it was possible to recreate something interesting, even though rather different than the first session. This time we really made the engineer crazy. For each composition we did two or three versions, and we’d say always to the engineer that we thought that the first session was the best to “rub” it in. We were terrible!

The other important ‘Norwegian musical joint venture’ is that with multi-instrumentalist, virtuoso, child prodigy and label-mate Stian Cristiansen.

Ernst Reijseger: Stian called me for a project that was going to be performed in a Norwegian festival. He asked the drummer of his band Farmers’ Market - Jarle Vespestadt – also one of the main members of the wonderful band Supersilent – to join us. Both musicians are frighteningly skilled and walking musical encyclopedias, as I would have discovered later. Stian Carstensen is famous in Norway since the age of 10, when he would play on national TV virtuoso classical pieces on the accordion. He’s one of the rare persons that did not receive traumatic repercussions from early experiences like that on the rest of their lives.
He carried on playing the accordion he is now also a virtuoso on guitar, banjo (kentucky style), and at one point – I discovered – also on the cello: once he wanted to show me how to play a certain passage, he took my cello and played it and I was stunned by how good he was. He could play with certain techniques I had never tried before. In other words, this guy is a phenomenon.

Many of the projects mentioned so far are rather recent. Ernst Reijseger however has been involved in many long-lasting groups, the most famous of which may be the Clusone Trio, which is now disbanded. One of the most fertile enterprises, however, has been the association with Georg Graewe and Gerry Hemingway, a collaboration that has gone through various formats and whose chemistry is probably best represented in two live albums like “Waltzes, Two Steps and Other Matters of the Heart” released by GM Recordings two years ago, and the very recent CD from the Texas-based Nuscope Recordings, “Counterfactuals”, which capture this very international trio at the peak of their interplay.

Ernst Reijseger: I like to think that things develop. It’s always hard to speak about music, because it is an intangible means of expression. Our first record was from 1989 and “Counterfactuals” is the latest CD that has just come out. In between we’ve had quite a few concerts and 6 CDs. If the music keeps moving and developing, then we don’t need anything else to decide why we keep playing together. We still believe there is music in it. I really like this trio. We seem to come to a musical chemistry which is very peculiar.

One of the most unique concepts that Ernst Reijseger likes to explore – when circumstances and finances allow – is a very large cello orchestra. At a festival in Piedmont the orchestra counted on 35 players; in other circumstances the ensemble was smaller. In all occasions, though, the music was vibrant and engaging.

Ernst Reijseger: The first time I tried this format was at a cello festival and I was invited to do this special project with tens of cellists. They ranged all the way from professionals to young and not very experienced players. I really liked that aspect of it. I like to show them a melody and then have it completely deteriorated by one kid just playing that wrong note in it.
We worked on playing in general and on this piece for four days in the beautiful surroundings of Piedmont, Italy. In order for the musicians to get used to the concept we were working on, I decided that there should be no charts up to the very last part of the rehearsals. On the contrary, I would show them phrases to play, and therefore they had to look and listen to me, and copy me.
I saw these 35 cellists like a big pie. I cut it in different parts, I make signs and show what they have to do while maybe I introduce another melody which is then taken over by another part of the orchestra. So I get this amazing possibility of playing ‘live cross-fades’.
Then we performed in a large piazza overlooking a valley with loud dog barking in the distance… it was wonderful.
In all this I take advantage of those players in the group that are more ready to respond to my inputs because they’re more confident. Often – however - it’s kids that are more responsive and immediately react to my prompts, in a highly improvised way, even though they may not know a lot of cello techniques yet. They do like to throw noises back at the noises I throw at them. This way the diversity of the players produces a wonderful mix.
This group was just another way for me to experiment on the expansion of techniques and vocabulary for the cello. For people that are trained in a classical way these techniques are not used, especially because I like to focus on using extremes. Things that may sound bad, boring, dirty or extremely loud: these are techniques that I do not want to neglect at all. I see those ways of expression as a quality, you can work, have  to work on.

Apart from the now-defunct Arcado String Trio, in which he replaced Hank Roberts, another all-string (and Winter & Winter) project Ernst Reijseger has been long associated with is the Amsterdam String Trio, a group that too often has been described as a sub-unit of the ICP Orchestra, but that – as Ernst Reijseger clarifies here – was completely independent as far as its birth was concerned.

Ernst Reijseger: We came together in 1984. The bass player, Ernst Glerum got us together to play in Amsterdam. We rehearsed and had a great time. The concert was supposed to be open air because the venue – the Bim Huis - was being renovated. Of course, the day of the concert a heavy rain came down and the concert never started.
Since then we’ve been playing for 10 years. Then a hiatus of about 7 years. And now here we are together again.
The Trio is not a sub-unit of the ICP Orchestra. This is what everybody seems to think. It’s true that we all ended up in the ICP but the trio existed independently form the ICP. Both me and Maurice Horsthuis – the viola player – were members of the ICP and the trio. Only at a later stage also Ernst Glerum joined the Orchestra.

In your recent duo performance with the Italian piano player Franco D’Andrea, one of your most interesting recent collaborations, you have been playing also older compositions, like for instance Lennie Tristano’s “WOW”. Are you interested in standards? Do you listen to them often; do you like to radically alter them?

Ernst Reijseger: I like to listen to everything. I am just too bad to study and memorize all the famous standards. It’s also that they have been interpreted to such a degree that they’ve been covered under all possible facets, so I thought that I should not burn my hands on something that has been dealt with in almost all possible ways, almost like classical music. I only know some ‘obscure standards’ – excuse me for this contradiction in terms – that I ended up practicing for who knows what reason. There have been so many wonderful pieces by Tristano that I don’t know how to play and have been excellently covered by Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Sal Mosca and others. But I like “Wow”.
So: no, I do not play standards regularly.

Another uncanny Winter & Winter production is the collaboration with Fumio Yasuda.

Ernst Reijseger: Fumio asked me to have a ‘free role’ in his work. I did not know him but he knew my music so well that he could literally quote some of the passages from my albums. It was quite frightening.
He is a composer that has worked for visual performances. And this is how Stefan Winter met him: at a photo exhibition of the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki for which Yasuda had prepared the accompanying music. Araki is known for some naughty pictures. Actually that was a video/slides show, and Yasuda composed music. For the Winter & Winter album, “Kakyoku” they exchanged roles: Yasuda composed the music and Haraki made pictures for it.
I play only on five or six tracks.

Regardless of all the very interesting projects described so far, it cannot be doubted that one of the best ways to experience the art of Ernst Reijseger is to see one of his solo performances, because they represent a concentrate of all the qualities and virtues that he displays in the various projects he’s involved with. In a little more than one and a half, the audience has the opportunity to discover the musicality of Ernst Reijseger, often through tunes that have been recorded on his latest solo album “Colla Parte” – a collection of musical pearls that range from the haunting to the lyrical with the usual dose of good-humored moments.

Ernst Reijseger: I don’t have a clue about how I approach a solo performance. I just play. You may call it whatever you like it but all I am focusing on is the ‘audio’ side of the performance. I am hunting for music. Most of the times I have fun with it.

In the above-mentioned album “Colla Parte” there is a track entitled “Giocoso” - the Italian word for ‘playful’ - a wonderful short sketch of beautifully drunken music. To define Ernst Reijseger’s performances as ‘concerts’ would probably be a limitation, as the visual part constitutes a fundamental component. Many people (not your writer, though) seem to have questioned this common feature of Dutch Jazz musician, their penchant for theatrics that seem to be on one hand distracting from the music and thus undermining its role, and on the other hand so recurrent to raise doubts about their spontaneity. So one is left wondering whether it’s a premeditated gimmick or rather an additional means of expression. Ernst Reijseger defends the role of these meta-musical moments but at the same time puts them in perspective as a way to underline, rather than distract the audience from, the music and the role of the musician.

Ernst Reijseger: All I do on stage is not premeditated. Everything is improvised. I like to doubt things. I do realize that we, musicians, get ourselves involved in some very weird circumstances: there are all these people that sit in these chairs in front of you listening to such abstract music and sounds made at such a different and distant time than the one I perform in, and I intend to absolutely avoid the unwanted religious side of music. So I like to underline how ridiculous the situation you get yourself into is. Due to your own choices… putting yourself on stage, playing this weird instrument producing sounds that seem to please me. So yes the child in me gets worried and starts looking at the funny side of things.