Rebels With a Cause

by Stephan Eicke
Author of ‘The Struggle Behind the Soundtrack’.
Producer of Caldera Record

Werner Herzog has worked with Ernst Reijseger for over 15 years now. The cellist has written the scores for ten Herzog’s films, some of which – such as The White Diamond – are among the most celebrated of the director’s works. By analyzing both Herzog’s artistry and his approach to his subjects in films, it becomes apparent why he and Reijseger work so well together.

Herzog has a well-documented disdain for intellectual analysis, for the established education system that is in place in the western world. He avoids reading the studies of scholars disseminating their views about his work as a filmmaker. In his interview book, A Guide for the Perplexed, he goes on the record saying: “The healthiest thing one can do is avoid that impenetrable nonsense.” Herzog has set up his own “film school,” a rogue academy which teaches its students practical things such as how to forge shooting permits. It is a reaction against “what is going wrong in film schools,” as he puts it in an interview I did with him in 2019.

Ernst Reijseger is a (mostly) self-taught cellist, certainly a self-taught composer. What attracted him particularly as a young man and student was improvising with other musicians, giving himself into the directness and immediacy that he so adored about this particular way of playing. Reijseger says, “I never finished my study of classical music at university. After two years of studying, my teacher advised me to follow my passion working with musicians of other genres and backgrounds as I did at the time. My teacher could train me as a classical musician, but he felt my interest for other kinds of music needed his support which was not on offer at the university at the time. He suggested I dedicate myself to improvisation with other artists, predicting our paths will cross later. We met in Montreal in 1992. We were booked as a double bill. We became friends.”

Like Werner Herzog, Ernst Reijseger does not accept any boundaries. Neither can impose a limit on themselves when it comes to their art. If Herzog is taken with an idea for a film, he will stop at (next to) nothing to see it come to fruition. If it means a five-year-long production which includes dragging a ship over a hill to put the tale of Fitzcarraldo on screen, so be it. If it means having to hypnotize his whole cast to achieve a dream-like effect in his opaque Heart of Glass, that’s fine. Let’s do it. What needs to be done, needs to be done.

Reijseger can empathize. Oftentimes, his cello does not sound like a cello at all – when, for example, he improvises to paintings on the album Crystal Palace, the instrument sounds like a didgeridoo at times. He plucks it wildly, bangs it like percussion, drives the flageolets sky-high, plays himself into a trance with wild arpeggios ever-increasing in tempo. If the range of the traditional cello is not sufficient for what he envisions, he has one built with five strings as opposed to four and which allows him to play a fifth lower than usual. He used his cello with five strings on Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

To date, Werner Herzog is the only film maker who has shot films on every single continent. From his earliest days as a young man growing up in Lower Bavaria, he was eager to quench his thirst for knowledge of strange cultures and traditions. He has explored them in his films ever since his debut feature Signs of Life in 1969. Among the people he captured on film are scientists in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World); a failed actor who lives in the wilderness of the US among bears (Grizzly Man); an obsessed mogul who wants to build an opera house in the jungle of Peru (Fitzcarraldo); an old man who refuses to leave the island of Guadeloupe despite an imminent volcanic eruption (La Soufrière); a geologist who wants to mine on Australian land that Aboriginals believe to be sacred (Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen); a bandit who is sent to West Africa in order to convince the rulers to resume the slave trade between their country and Brazil (Cobra Verde). Of course there are many more.

Ernst Reijseger has never been content sitting still. In the course of his career he has traveled extensively to work eagerly with musicians in Indonesia, Sardinia and Île de Réunion. In improvised and jazz music he has worked with, among others, Harmen Fraanje, Han Bennink, Misha Mengelberg, Steve Lacy, Uri Caine. From the genre of classical and baroque music he has collaborated with Yo Yo Ma, Giovanni Sollima, Erik Bosgraaf. From traditional music he has played with Trilok Gurtu, the Tenore e Concordu de Orosei, Groove Lélé, Nana Vasconselos and A Filetta. In 2017, Ernst Reijseger wrote and performed the music for a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at The Public Theatre in New York City. The production starred Oscar Isaac and Keegan Michael Key and was directed by Sam Gold.

Herzog became aware of Reijseger’s music for the first time by listening to a recording of the cellist. It was a record called Colla Voche. On the album, Reijseger can be heard improvising on his cello to traditional Sardinian music sung by shepherds and construction workers. As the director recalls: “I was fascinated by Sardinian voices, the traditional shepherds in the mountains who would gather and sing songs. It’s a very ‘prehistoric’ way of voices and singing. I wanted to have one of these CDs as a birthday present and for endless time it didn’t arrive. Finally it arrived at Christmas. It transformed into a Christmas present. There was a cello playing together with the Sardinians, and I thought, ‘I have never heard anything like this! Who is the person who plays the cello? That is unheard of! This is unprecedented!’ That’s how it immediately alarmed me, and I immediately stretched out my feelers. That’s how we met.”

Ernst Reijseger’s works for Werner Herzog showcase the cellist’s blend of avant garde, jazz, improvisation, ethnic music and minimalism perfectly, but of course he wisely refuses to label the pieces that he has recorded. Some, if not the majority, of them are improvised. In his score for Herzog’s idiosyncratic feature My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done pieces such as Flamingos, Intrusions, State of Siege and Book of Job were not notated before the recording. Still Life, on the other hand, was written down – though without dynamics since Reijseger does not appreciate spoon-feeding his musicians, robbing them of the freedom they enjoy. As the composer explains: “Sometimes I only give sound ideas. For the cellists I wrote down a little bit. We looked at each other and I requested a certain length because I had an idea how long that certain scene was. 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 [Sylla] what to sing. I look at him and ask, ‘Can you sing here?’ Usually his first idea is great. Mostly it happens in the first take. […] In music, I work with people because of their personal creative input. It’s not the professional way where you hire a whole orchestra. I don’t write dynamics in my scores. I want the musicians to hear the dry material first. In the rehearsal we start to add dynamics.”

Reijseger’s work with his musicians is as fluid as his work with Werner Herzog. Oftentimes, the composer starts developing ideas while the film is being shot, before he has seen any footage. During shooting, he and Herzog then exchange material. While the director may send a clip he just captured, Reijseger may show Herzog a sampled demo of a cue he developed based on the director’s script, descriptions or clips. In post-production, the elements are combined, though Herzog sometimes spontaneously decides to use a recording of Reijseger’s in a different scene than originally planned or even to replace it with a pre-existing piece, as happened on My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done. Although Reijseger had written a piece for the opening credits, Herzog had fallen in love with the voice of Chavela Vargas and would not rest before he had licensed her music and inserted it into his film. For Herzog, such decisions are not of intellectual nature; rather, they have to do with his gut feeling, with what he feels helps best to convey a particular mood. When asked questions about motivations behind his approaches, Herzog can’t help but shrug his shoulders. Why he places certain songs and pieces in specific moments in a film is not something he is willing or able to verbalize: “I know I have always done it well and better than all the others. Apart from that …,” he says and the sentence trails off. If it works, it works. Sometimes it is as simple as that.

Their unorthodox approaches make Herzog and Reijseger rebels in the eyes of the conformist, conservative society with its preconceived, established rules and regulations. Their self-taught endeavors, their refusal to accept limits and their eagerness to explore foreign lands and garner experience to quench their thirst for knowledge are unusual. But would Reijseger be a typical hero in one of Herzog’s films? In fact, he was the subject of the short Ode to the Dawn of Man, shot by Herzog during the recording session for Cave of Forgotten Dreams. But there are also differences between Reijseger, Herzog, and the characters in the latter’s films. In the book Herzog on Herzog, the director describes them thus: “I have always thought of my films as really being one big work that I have been concentrating on for forty years. The characters in this huge story are all desperate and solitary rebels with no language with which to communicate. Inevitably, they suffer because of this. They know their rebellion is doomed to failure, but they continue without respite, wounded, struggling on their own without assistance.”

Of course, neither Reijseger nor Herzog are desperate or solitary. They are rebels who know how to communicate through their art and have therefore found a way to succeed as opposed to fail and suffer. In that sense, they are opposites of the heroes in Herzog’s films. They show the lives people like Kaspar Hauser, Stroszek or Woyzeck could have led had they found a way to communicate.  What Herzog’s characters have in common with the filmmaker himself, and indeed with Reijseger too, is an unbreakable spirit. They just continue, undeterred in their quest to see their dreams become reality. It is a spirit Herzog has always admired, and nowhere has he put it as bluntly as in a video interview about skateboarding: “That’s kind of my people. […] You have to accept trial and error, and I see them doing a certain jump or trying to slide on a metal rail and they do it 25 times and fail. 26 times they fail. 30 times they fail, and it’s good that you accept failure and you don’t give up. Finally you land the right jump and you keep sliding and screeching down the handrail.”