Directors And Their Composers
Werner Herzog & Ernst Reijseger
by Stephan Eicke
In this series, we will examine the relationship between directors and their composers. Via interviews, prominent filmmakers will detail how they work with their composers and use their compositions in their films. Composers will respond by sharing their view of the creative collaboration and how they see the working-relationship with directors.
Ernst Reijseger is an internationally celebrated cellist. His music knows no boundaries and is therefore hard to categorize. Reijseger rejects labels such as world music despite the fact that he has worked for over a decade with Senegalese singer and poet Mola Sylla and Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje, with Indonesian and Sardinian ensembles, accompanying their traditional folk music with skillful improvisations on his instrument that at times sounds like a didgeridoo, percussion, but rarely like a cello, so inventive his playing is. Is it world music? Is it jazz? Is it avant-garde? Does it matter? It’s unlike anything you have ever heard.
Since 2004, Ernst Reijseger has worked together with filmmaker Werner Herzog. Their collaborations are as idiosyncratic as Ernst’s albums are. Often, Reijseger records his music prior to editing, prior to shooting even, to give his director recordings to use during principal photography. That way, his music influences the visuals, sometimes determines how the camera moves. Herzog then uses original recordings by Reijseger improvised and/or (partly) written for the film, pre-existing tracks by Reijseger and his ensembles, as well as songs from other artists. As a result, Herzog’s films are sonically rich and stimulating, a fountain of musical textures and styles that work together as a homogeneous whole. Ernst Reijseger’s life as a world-touring cellist is inseparable from his existence “in the cinema.” It is a collaboration unlike any other.
Stephan Eicke: You studied classical music but eventually decided to abandon your studies to devote yourself fully to master the craft of improvisation. Is that right?
Ernst Reijseger: Nearly. I never finished my study of classical music at university. After two years of studying, my teacher advised me to follow my passion and work with musicians of other genres and backgrounds as I already did at the time. My teacher could train me as a classical musician, but he was overwhelmed when it came to my interest for other kinds of music. He suggested I dedicate myself to improvisation with other artists first and then come back to him later. I never came back to him as a teacher, but we became friends. After my studies at university I played New Music or music by little known artists in classical concert halls. I enjoyed it, and I still do.
Did you ever regret not having finished your studies at university?
What attracts you to improvisation?
Its directness, its immediacy. For me, improvisation is a way to make the kind of music which I myself enjoy and which I can use for my own purpose. Improvisation allows the audience as well as the musicians to be surprised. The music lives in the moment. You can change things spontaneously, or you can leave certain phrases open. […] Of course you can also surprise the audience with written music. A good musician who plays from a score needs to trick us, the consumers. With his playing, he must make us believe that a certain part of what he is performing is a completely new idea of his – an idea we have never heard before, an idea that is not part of a written score that was composed 300 years ago. The musician needs to surprise us. The music needs to make us forget our lives – regardless of whether it’s written or improvised. For me, improvisation just works beautifully.
You also improvise for Werner Herzog’s films. How did you meet him?
My story is that Werner heard the recording I had done with the Tenore e cuncordu de Orosei in Sardegna. The album is called Colla Voche. I heard from Werner that he heard me and he wanted my music. But he didn’t want the percussion that was on that album. I said to him, ‘You are my dream, I would love to produce music for your films. The kind of work you produce is totally inspiring to me and you want something I recorded already without percussion. I can’t do it. I want to do something special for your film!’ [Werner Herzog was working on The White Diamond at the time, preparing to shoot.] ‘What do you suggest?’ ‘Well, there is Mola Sylla from Senegal and the Tenore. I would love to record with all of them.’ Then he said, ‘Let me hear what he sounds like,’ so I sent some recordings of Mola to Werner, and he went along. Then we went to Paris to record the music. Werner hadn’t shot The White Diamond yet. Afterwards, I contacted Werner and said, ‘Can I just do a few more things solo because I think I am missing something. Now I see what you are making and I am missing certain things. There are things I can offer that I would love to play to the screen!’ And he said, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ He wanted me in the studio within a week. We went to Bauer studios and we recorded solo there.
Later, he asked me to record the music for Grizzly Man within a week. I couldn’t do it because I was on tour with a very good Russian pianist. [Werner] couldn’t reschedule and I couldn’t drop the tour. That film became a big success. It can be unlucky.
The White Diamond is about a man trying to make his dream come true by flying over the jungle in a diamond-shaped contraption. And yet your music is tragic. There is nothing heroic about it.
It’s a human story. It’s tragic. And yet most of the music was recorded before the film was shot. Do you remember the scene with the birds and the falls? Werner told me that the cinematographer had my recording of the Kyrie on the headphones when he was shooting the scene with the swifts going underneath the falls. It’s a beautiful story. I cherish that story. It feels good that my music was in Guiana before it was even in the film. Werner knew that he needed this music for this film. [When we recorded the music] he talked about what he was going to shoot. Then the story unfolded there. The story about the guy who had died wasn’t known to Werner before.
How does Werner talk about music he wants from you?
Interestingly enough, the information he gives is quite limited. He is not talking so much about the composing process. The privilege of working with Werner and other film makers I have been able to work with is not the talking but getting involved when the film is not finished. As a musician, you usually come in during post-production. Werner, though, often involves me in a much earlier stage when a lot of the shots haven’t been finished yet. While he is busy shooting, I can start imagining musical ideas. It’s more like that.
What are the benefits for you as the “composer” when you start working during the shooting period?
There is the time factor, of course. But that can also go wrong. I had both experiences now. Let’s take Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage as a comparison. They were preparing their parts simultaneously, but they didn’t rehearse and so didn’t see each others work before the performance. They got together and they put it together. I imagine all the time that they must have put it together with great joy. I am a positive thinker. There are moments where it feels like a perfect world. Those moments are very brief, though. That happened with Werner. He tells me about what he is doing and I tell him what I am doing. I send him my CDs. At the end of the process he will come to the recording session. Okay, I get the credit as the main composer and I do imagine and conceive the music. But I gather musicians around me that have very special capabilities, and a lot comes from them. Of course the Dutch Chamber Choir you have to tell what to do. You have to write the music for them. Harmen Fraanje played the organ on Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He is a piano player. I had to convince him to play the organ. Initially he didn’t want to do it. But this guy is a totally inventive spirit. Luciano Biondini is a great accordion player who can be heard on My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done and Salt and Fire. I give these people the material and they are able to make it their own. Alan ‘Gunga’ Purves is a total wizard in making sounds with percussion. I can not tell him what to do at all because that will confuse him. I make him comfortable. I go to his home and tell him, ‘You bring this equipment to the studio,’ and then he gathers it and says, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Just listen, man, and then you do something when you feel like it.’ Sometimes I will say, ‘Can you try to play on this instrument now?’ I am trying to direct him, but I am directing very vague, while trying to guard the vibe. Everybody must feel they are collaborating on something and that they are not only hired.
Some musicians do receive written scores then?
A musician like Alan ‘Gunga’ Purves comes up with his vocabulary. By eye contact I acknowledge if this is a good idea. The same goes for Mola Sylla, who can be heard in The White Diamond, The Wild Blue Yonder, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done, Salt and Fire and Nomad. I am very happy with that soundtrack. Erik Bosgraaf plays on Salt and Fire, as well. He is a total champion recorder player and once performed an amazing piece by Pierre Boulez. He has a classical background, and I asked him to bring his IKEA flute, which is what he calls it. It is a bass flute that looks like an IKEA cupboard. It’s very soft. He makes all these wind sounds on the recorder, he can improvise, create an atmosphere and also play really complex written scores. I wrote a little alto recorder concerto for him in Salt and Fire, which is really virtuoso. He can play it. I am a self-taught composer. Everybody always tells you, ‘You have to make sure that the wind players can breathe,’ and all this kind of stuff. They are preconditions, rules. I thought, ‘No, forget that.’ I kept writing 32nd,16th and 16th triplets for Erik Bosgraaf. I wanted to let him decide where and when to breathe. He knows his own phrasing and his own capability much better than I do. Why should I tell him where to breath? These inventions are part of the musical process. With the Volcano Symphony, on the other hand, I had to be very precise in the writing, because that was performed by the Forma Antiqva. This work is written out. I am the only free agent – and to a small extent Alan Purves is one as well.
It really gets together in the recording studio. If you only have digital contact with the director, you haven’t met in person and then the director is not there during the recording session, something is missing. If film makers want to work with me, please don’t use any temp music. You don’t know how heavily you are influencing yourself, to the extent that you cannot accept any other music to the same scene anymore. […] Of course what has happened a few times now, for example with Walking Out, is that the directors are inspired by my piece Shadow of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. They put it in the movie as a temp track. Stop! Don’t do this! I understand that it works for this shot, but I don’t have the sync rights. You can’t just do this. If you want I will write something new for you. You have to wrap your head around the new sounds I come up with. It is very hard for a director to get used to new sounds.
Has Werner ever shown you temp tracks?
No, he never showed me the temp tracks the way he used them. I know that Werner is a person who believes in his first hunch. That is something I can appreciate. Most of the time this is the way he scores. He thinks the first idea is always right, not the second or third one. I do disagree with that, though. The moment you start filming you start to capture life experiences, life events – life! You can also attempt to take another angle to see if that gives you more or if it gives you less. Try to take a different perspective. […] [For Werner,] it’s like a beautiful lady walking by. He falls in love with her. Then there are ten more beautiful ladies walking by, but he doesn’t see them because the first one touched his soul. That’s what Werner does, like any other human being. For My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done I wrote the music for the opening scene with the train passing by. [The scene was eventually accompanied by music from singer Chavela Vargas.] I still have the scene with my music on my computer and I still think it’s cool. But I have no say in it. Werner fell in love with Chavela Vargas. I fell in love with her, too.
How much information does Werner give you then prior to recording? After all, he can’t show you the movie if it hasn’t been shot yet.
As much as he can, really. He is enthusiastic about the projects he is doing. I hadn’t seen the rough cut of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Instead, I saw his own little video from his first visit to the cave. Then I saw footage of all the cave paintings, but at that point I had already written the music. On Salt and Fire I had the script. The same thing happened on My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done. There was a script and a story.
Are there sometimes surprises for you, moments when you realize, ‘Oh, the film is quite different from the script’?
No. From the story I knew where he was going to shoot. I knew Werner was going to the Bolivian salt planes [for Salt and Fire]. I was kept in the loop. The first shots he sent me were a drone shots of the salt planes. It’s totally beautiful. I had one long shot. That’s all I had and then I started writing the music. Usually the director is really quick getting in contact with me but until the deal is made and I am certain that I am actually going to get the gig I have to gamble. Getting an agreement signed takes so long. With Salt and Fire, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done and Cave of Forgotten Dreams I was gambling when I started writing my music. I could have written all this music for nothing. I couldn’t start with some parts because I didn’t know what kind of musicians I could afford. I couldn’t book musicians.
I am always surprised, but Salt and Fire was recorded with the screen in front of me. We recorded all the music in sync with the scenes and then we recorded a lot of extra stuff without the screen. I had seen the film before we recorded the music. In the case of My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done I was on the set in San Diego while we were still negotiating. At that stage it was still unclear whether I would be able to write the music for the film. There was nothing. I was hanging out with Michael Shannon and Willem Dafoe for a few days and that was fun. They were both there with their wives. I played in a few scenes. I also played for the actors on the set without cameras. These kinds of social things were going on, but I only saw the whole movie when I recorded the music.
Did your encounters with the actors help inspire your music for the film?
I already showed up with ideas in my head about what kind of music I wanted to write. That movie has such an absurd vibe to it. Reading the script by Herb Golder and Werner already gave me an idea. You just have to go. You have to not think and go. You just write stuff and then think, ‘Yeah I hope this ends up in the movie.’ We musicians have not much to say about it. The director decides where the music goes and with what kind of dynamics. I gave up on having control there. The only thing I can do is be as concentrated and inspired as possible and hope that that rubs off. Something like that. When you are inspired you might have the mirror neurons working their way towards other people. There is some evidence of that happening. A scientist did some tests recently. A piano player and the audience had EEGs on their heads while they listened to this piano player. The brain activity of the audience showed incredible similarities with the brain activity of the pianist. Even the motorized part of the brain showed similarities with the audience, especially if a member of the audience was also a pianist. The audience’s brain activity was almost as active as the motorized part of the pianist’s brain. How about that?
Is it fair to say that everybody – all the musicians – improvise under your direction?
In My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done there are pieces that are completely improvised and there are also pieces where I gave cues to the musicians. On that project we had four or five cellos, percussion, and Harmen Fraanje, Alan ‘Gunga’ Purves and Luciano Biondini. There are definitely parts where I wanted complete improvisation. Flamingos is one, Intrusions is one, Still Life on the other hand was written. State of Siege, Book of Job were also improvised. I had seen the film at that point already. Sometimes I only give certain sounds. The cellists I told a little bit. We looked at each other and I said, ‘I want a piece that is about this long.’ Flamingos is totally improvised but I attached a few pins to the strings of all string instruments beforehand. I directed them while I played cello.
I never tell Mola what to sing. I look at him and ask, ‘Can you sing here?’ Then I say, ‘No, it’s too loud because you over-blow the balance. Do it again.’ But I have to say these kinds of things very rarely. Usually his first idea is great. It has to happen in the first first takes. That’s the trick. […] In music, I work with people that I really rely on and trust. It’s not the American way where you hire a whole orchestra. I don’t write dynamics in my scores. I don’t like to do that. I want to hear it first. I want the musicians to hear it first. Then I say, ‘What do you think? Should we go really soft here?’ In the rehearsal we start to add dynamics. You deal with it on the spot. That means that sometimes the instructions change, like they did for the choir in Krakow when we recorded, played the score of Cave of Forgotten Dreams live.
You played the score on a cello with five strings…
I always wanted a five-string cello. I had hoped the instrument would be ready in time for the recordings. Luckily that was the case and I could use it just the way I had intended. That had not been certain because the people who built the cello had had less experience with a five-string-cello.
You had conceived your music for a cello with five strings without knowing whether you would ever get one, let alone be able to use it?
Yes. But we musicians are experts in adapting to situations with which we are confronted. I traveled often as a young man. I played with dance- and theater-groups, used a cello made of plywood which had been manufactured in the DDR, in East Germany. I could not afford a better cello. I didn’t even have the money to buy a good bow. Because of that, I just played with a big bow for double basses which had just enough hairs to play “arco.” After a concert, the cello section from a youth orchestra from university came to me and wanted to know how I had learned to play cello and why I was playing with a big bow for a double bass. They thought it was a creative decision in order to evoke specific sounds.
Why did you decide to use a cello with five strings for Cave of Forgotten Dreams?
A cello with five strings can play lower notes than a normal, traditional cello. I can play the low F, which is just half a note above the range of a double bass. It can play a fifth lower than a cello with four strings. It gives the instrument a different face, a new character. When I pluck the strings (pizzicato) I get the function of a bass. The cello has become more diverse.
You mentioned that you like to exchange with Werner during shooting. He sends you some scenes, you send him music – but a lot of your music is improvised. How does that exchange work?
I will send him some of the written music. ‘This is a digital version for strings,’ I will say, ‘but I have these instruments that I want in it as well.’ There is an example for the piece called Face of God, which is written. It’s a nice piece, I really like it. There was one piece I had written before but I felt it really would work for that movie. Werner called it Heaven on Earth after recording. It had been sitting on the shelf in a completely different format. I thought, ‘Ah this is where it goes.’ We recorded in 5.1 right away with the whole ensemble. It’s an ensemble recording. I tell him what the instrumentation is. My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done took ages before we were certain about the budget for the session. It was quite stressful. I was constantly asking, ‘Do I have the gig or don’t I?’ It was terrible. When it finally happened, we found this great recording space in the last minute. The church in Haarlem with a wooden interior for great acoustics.
Do you approach Werner’s documentaries differently from his feature films?
No. The documentary can give such a deep dramatic effect just as a movie or the other way around. So, those are just titles of formats that don’t say anything about the content or the storytelling that’s taking place in it and in my way of expressing music I’m very conditioned in my way of feeling intensity. That means that I am probably hired for what I am in music rather than what I am not.
I know you don’t appreciate labels, but just for the sake of it: oftentimes you employ what could be called world music, or traditional or folk music for scenes which take place in metropolitan areas. For example, you record Sardinian singers for scenes that have nothing to do with the area whatsoever. It’s about the emotional impact. Were you ever afraid that the employment of folk music could pull the viewer out of the story? It’s very specific music from a very specific area, after all.
I am a great admirer of a lot of great traditional music. I am convinced intense experience can be reached through a lot of different components. I have worked with groups of musicians from different places, the singers from Sardinia, for example, and the musicians from Île de Réunion. They are magical musicians. If I had a say in this, I would love to do a project with them and a classical orchestra to stage an opera with people that come from a strong tradition of music and that have an incredible vocabulary and are open to collaboration.
I have been working with Harmen Fraanje and Mola Sylla since 2007 as a trio. We recorded the album Zembrocal Musical in 2010. I met these guys in Île de Réunion by coincidence. It is a personal story. In 2008 our first baby died just a week before birth. I have a friend who moved there. She is a journalist raised in Paris. She fell in love with a math teacher. It’s a French island and a French district between Madagascar and Mauritius. When she heard that our baby had died, she said, ‘Please come over here. I have a studio here and you can stay and recuperate.’ She was showing a photo of herself on a little boat. Three days later we were on that boat, whale-watching. We actually swam with them in the Indian Ocean. It was a most wonderful experience. I had a call with Naná Vasconcelos, the Brazilian percussionist who is a great friend of mine. Naná and I played in London 30 years ago and toured through Europe. He said, ‘Where are you? You were supposed to have a baby! You are in Île de Réunion. You have to meet Willy Philéas, who is with a group of called Groove Lélé. You have to meet these people.’ Willy and I then started working together, played in Bordeaux and recorded it live. […] If you want to call it ethnic music, fine. It is part of my life. I was raised as a white guy until I was about eight or nine years old. Then my brother gave me my first album of John Coltrane. It went wrong from there. When I was 15 years old I played my first paid gig with a percussion player from Puerto Rico who lived in New York at that time. I met Franky Douglas in the Amsterdam scene in the late 60s, early 70s. He had a big influence on me. Franky is a guitar player born in a Curacao, the former Dutch colony, and his parents were from Suriname next to British-Guyana. They are amazing musicians with that kind of history, living in Amsterdam. The good thing about Amsterdam is that people actually interact, talk to each other. I was welcome in the home of Franky. He had very little money but there was always tea on the table and there was always a joint to smoke. We would always rehearse music. He can’t write his own music, but his head is amazing. He remembers very complicated scores, he can sing independent melodies and play amazing rhythm guitar. He had an even bigger influence on me than any conservatory ever had on me. That’s my admiration for people from a different background.
Thank you very much for your time.