Exaltatio utriusque mundi
Potlatch P 203

Le Ventre Négatif
Meniscus MNSCS 011

Hands down the most impressive percussionist who moves between the twin poles of improvisation and New music, Lê Quan Ninh is as unflappable in a solo situation as in collaboration.

Perhaps it’s because the emblematic array of objects that can be hit, caressed or manipulated with which he performs allows him to be self-sufficiently musical. Yet, as these two CDs, recorded within the same month in 2001 show, with the right partner, he has no need to be a one-man band.

Other sessions have featured the Vietnamese-French innovator exchanging ideas with nearly every progressive European improviser extant, not to mention modern dancers and experimental filmmakers. Plus he mixes percussion and new technology as part of the Quatuor Hêlios. His partner on EXALTATIO UTRIUSQUE MUNDI is Bordeaux-born pianist Frédéric Blondy who concentrated on the study of jazz and formal music at a local conservatory, after studying mathematics and physics at university. Since that time he has worked with improvisers like Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and German drummer Paul Lovens, as well as recording with the Hubbub quintet.

Indeed since there’s another musician involved, the duo recording may be an easier entry to Ninh’s soundworld than the other CD. But be aware that its links to conventional piano-percussion duets are about as distant as the films of experimentalist Stan Brakhage are from those of Western mythmaker John Ford.

Still if you take something like “Le hasard est une main plus sûre”, badly translated as “a sure hand is luck”, you can at least hear two instruments, although attributing some of the scrapes on unyielding surfaces to either one or the other is often impossible. This happens after Blondy extends his low frequency piano tones with pedal action, then reverberates timbres from the soundboard and the speaking length within the frame. Chiming, dampened piano action recalls Ninh’s earlier shaking of his bell tree and pealing cymbal pressure. Keyboard phrases are foreshortened to such an extent that even the few impressionistic chords and pounded arpeggios appear as percussive as Ninh’s focused rim shots and rattles and clanks. At points the pianist appears to be burlesquing 20th century atonality; at others his forward-moving syncopation turns to a glissando of many treble notes, as bellicose as anything from Cecil Taylor territory. Meanwhile the percussionist sounds as if he’s gouging metallic surfaces, rattling bells and other implements as if they were aluminum pots and pans, and almost literally rendering wood.

Elsewhere it seems as if a moistened finger is being slid across a drumhead and a violin bow pressed into service to saw on a ride cymbal. As the horsehairs move across the lathed surface, the droning buzzes and whistles take on the character of a circular saw. Alternately, wooden flute tones — produced by what means remains a mystery — bloom into a noise miasma that’s a combination of a fire engine’s siren and a freight train gearing up to exit the station. Fluttering, cascading counter chords then arise form the piano.

This exercise in wood, metal, strings and skin reaches its climax on the track, “Vers la septième solitude” (“towards the seventh solitude”), which is likely pure silence since this is the final track. Largo, Blondy creates an étude of low frequency single notes that sail along on the surface of extended, growling metallic scrapes that also appear on other tracks. Here, though, in recital mode, the pianoman reaches inside to the keyframe and soundboard to strum strings as if he was playing a large guitar. He hits individual keys to extend their vibrations then ends on a single emphasized tone.

On his own, Nihn concentrates on an oversized bass drum, with a child’s playroom of miscellaneous noisemakers spread out around him. On LE VENTRE NÉGATIF (bad translation: “the negative underbelly or womb”), he proves that he can originate enough sounds so that he doesn’t really need accompaniment. However without external tones to reflect off of, the careful listener must be prepared to invest more ear time in the session, perhaps only taking in half the CD at once.

There’s nothing frightening here. But a synaptic disconnect may be created as the mind tries to comprehend how a drummer can come up with so many sounds that are more than percussive. You’ll swear you’ll hear a trumpet’s brass squeaks, a baritone saxophone’s deep tones, the pluck of a string bass and sine wave electronica, then pore over the booklet photo to discover that nothing resembling those items are represented.

“Appuis et alentours” (very bad translation: “support and neigborhood”) begins with ghostly drones as if from a pre-programmed synthesizer or sampled from low flying jet planes. Soon, as you identify the drum’s properties, Nihn introduces speedy flams and slides on the drum top, coupled with rim shots and scratches on the instrument’s sides, plus ride cymbal pressure. Just as that rhythm is established, he switches gears, varying the smashed, inharmonious timbres with quiet brush work that strokes the sides and top of the drum and offbeat press rolls that suddenly turn into muffled banshee wails. Somehow one stroked note seems to produce multiple timbres and tones.

“Peau neuve” (“new skin”), introduces what would be tongue slaps if he was playing a reed, and some wood reverberations that sound as if a bolo bat has been put into use. At length, after squeaking a wet finger on the drum top, Nihn rolls tiny unselected cymbals on the ground so that their rotations pause every so often to ring like an alarm clock.

Finally there’s “Autres distorsions élémentaires” (“other basic distortions”), a veritable fantasia of tremolo scratches. Unvarying railway crossing signal sounds are interrupted by a rejoinder made up of many tiny bells shaken, stirred and sounded. This sound is succeeded by tones that appear to come from glass bottles being struck and harsh, abrasive wood scratches. As a coda it’s almost as if Nihn’s winding up a mechanical toy to extend the vibrations and overtones created from that action.

Anyone interested in modern percussion of any sort should hear Ninh’s solo effort as well as the duo with Blondy. Not easy music, either or both show that the plasticity and adaptability of percussion allows drum-based music to extend far beyond the simple banging of pop musicians.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Exaltatio: 1. Exaltatio utriusque mundi 2. La verticale reposée 3. Le hasard est une main plus sûre 4. Vater aether 5. La nuit est concilante 6. Vers la septième solitude

Personnel: Exaltatio: Frédéric Blondy (piano); Lê Quan Ninh (percussion)

Track Listing: Ventre: 1. Tel quel 2. Ni d’une part, ni d’une autre 3. Appuis et alentours 4. Peau neuve 5. Autres distorsions élémentaires

Personnel: Ventre: Lê Quan Ninh (surrounded bass drum and percussion)