by Petr Vrba
An interview with Lê Quan Ninh
If improvisation is first of all about the art of listening, be it to the instrument, oneself, or one’s surroundings, and at the same time about the willingness to constantly review all previous experience with a particular instrument and the applied playing techniques, then the Paris-born Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh (1961) is a master in both disciplines. Improvisation has become for him an instrument for creating distinctive poetry that provides him with the means to move freely across artistic genres, making more than just a fugitive appearance in each. Consequently, we come across his name not only in music, but also in dance, video art, and the visual arts generally. His incredibly sensitive ear, the precision he has developed over years of practice, and his imaginative perception of sound, allow him, among other things, to refer to his playing technique, which in its rendition of immensely complex and variable structures can stand for a full orchestra and a state-of-the-art computer at the same time, a “musique spectrale à petit budget”.
Having first practised the piano for eleven years, Lê Quan Ninh later fully devoted himself to percussion, and at sixteen years of age, he enrolled under Sylvio Gualda at the Versailles conservatory. There, he was to encounter the world of composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis, and others. In 1980, Lê Quan met his colleagues from Versailles, Isabelle Berteletti, Jean-Christophe Feldhandler, and Florent Haladjian, and six years later, established the Quatuor Hêlios to perform early percussion compositions by John Cage. In 1989, the quartet presented these pieces on their first CD (John Cage – Works for Percussion, Wergo/Harmonia Mundi). In addition to compositions by John Cage, the quartet’s repertoire featured works by other composers, such as Kvadrat by Vinko Globokar.
In the realm of acoustic and electro-acoustic music, Lê Quan combines “classical” instruments with new technologies, as in his own composition Oscille, for two lithophones and virtual instruments (special MIDI controllers invented by Don Buchla called Lightning/Lightning II, which consist of movement sensors allowing the reproduction and processing of sounds remotely using an infrared beam, to create a virtual acoustic reality). Oscille is based on an ancient Vietnamese text which, in its connection with age-old stone “xylophones”, is still used in Vietnamese temple rituals, and transforms musicians into archaeologists who “find themselves between the poetry of ancient times and the poetry of sounds, between gestures acquired through culture and those that have yet to be invented, between primitive acoustics and a digital synthesis, favouring neither of them, and therefore creating a world oscillating between the two poles” (Quatuor Hêlios, Vand’Oeuvre, 1999).
Another example of Lê Quan’s moving among different genres and media is the composition 18h22m, which originated as a collaboration with the mathematician Philippe Besse. It takes form of an installation based on the composition Vexations by Erik Satie and the capability of two computers to pass between the images of John Cage and Erik Satie in steps of a pixel.
The Ritual of Solitude
Despite rhythm being perhaps one’s first association when one thinks of a drum, in Lê Quan’s work, rather than emphasizing musical metre, he prefers to discover and create structures free from rhythm. The instrument which he uses to create a universe of sound, and at the same time a space for the encounter with other artists, is a horizontally placed bass drum, serving as a work surface allowing an approach from any direction, in any imaginable way, and using any common or uncommon object (drumsticks, brushes, a bow, a piece of string, bamboo sticks). The kit, used mostly for solo performance, also includes various gongs, bells, both Turkish and Chinese cymbals, Japanese bowls, thin aluminium sheets, and sometimes also the stage floor, or the air itself. A metal sheet or another metal instrument touches the stretched skin, or a bow (used by Lê Quan less than by other free improvisation percussionists) is softly drawn over various objects, to create a vast range of sounds, a soniversum of a kind, containing deep extended planes and sounds resembling a crackling gramophone, as well as many more sounds that would not be normally identified with percussion, and which in places even suggest the use of a laptop. His solo albums (Ustensiles, For4Ears; Le Ventre Négatif, Meniscus) are filled with dialogues between objects-instruments used in various ways, sometimes tipped with a drawn bow or the thump of an object against the skin of the drum, ranging from a roaring rumble at one extreme, and a near-silence, the rustle and grinding of cymbals, at the other.
Sharing the Moment of Listening
Collaboration is a special discipline of improvisation, or so it is for Lê Quan, at any rate. Since he has performed with a great number of musicians, let us mention only the more enduring connections. Most often perhaps, Lê Quan Ninh appears on record and on stage with the saxophonist Michel Doneda, with whom he has been collaborating since 1986. Besides other joint projects, they met at Idiome 1238 and Les Diseurs de Musique, and they also appear on the CD that came with the yearbook Improvised Music from Japan 2004.
Another important encounter dates back to 1987, after which he was invited by the double-bass player Peter Kowald (1944–2002) to participate in Global Village, an orchestra featuring improvisers from a number of continents. This is where Lê Quan met such musicians as Kazue Sawai, Zeena Parkins, Sainkho Namtchylak, Wadada Leo Smith, and others. At that time he took part also in many so-called improvised duets for ensemble and conductor devised by Lawrence “Butch” Morris, called Conductions (e.g. Conduction 22, 25, and 38). Along with Butch Morris (this time as a cornettist) and another long-term collaborator, the trombonist J. A. Dean, they published an excellent album, Burning Cloud (FMP, 1993), a recording of a Berlin concert in three eruptive-meditative movements. Towards the end of the 1980s he also first met the percussionist and electronics player Günter Müller, his collaboration with whom led, toward the end of the millennium, to the publishing of the CD La Voyelle Liquide (Erstwhile, 2000). Last but not least, let us mention his collaboration with the pianist Frédéric Blondy (cf. His Voice 5/06), which dates from the late 1990s.
Since Lê Quan prefers long-term collaborations in which he may leave himself at the mercy of a partner with whom he has an intimate acquaintance, it follows naturally that his ideal ensemble would be the duo with his partner, the cellist Martine Altenburger. In 1999 they recorded a fifty-one-minute long improvised set Love Stream, published in 2006 on the label Insubordinations, which can be downloaded from their web page http://insub.org/insub11/. The desire for a greater measure of interconnection between improvisation and notated music brought about the Ensemble Hiatus, which was founded by Lê Quan Ninh and Martine Altenburger in 2006. This international ensemble focuses on the “gap” between free improvisation and composed music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and represents, alongside the aforementioned, such figures as Morton Feldman and Joshua Fineberg, and performers such as the trombonist Thierry Madiot and the pianist and analogue EMS synthesizer player Thomas Lehn. One of the virtues of the ensemble is the fact that all its members act both as experienced interpreters and as long-time improvisers, which merits increased attention for their attempts to bridge this seemingly insurmountable dichotomy.
The following interview was originally published in Czech in HIS Voice
When did you decide not to devote yourself, or at least devote yourself less, to composed music?
This was not a decision I would take deliberately. I had always been interested in free improvisation, and I merely followed my intuition without analysing it. Obviously I’d be able to find a couple of reasons after the fact. I could relate my intuitive actions to my intimate life history, I could point out some clues, but the only thing I can say now is that perhaps I felt that the absence of auxiliary instruments could lead to the emergence of specific poetry. What may arise without the use of notation? Furthermore, in the realm of improvisation, what may arise without the aid of what we already know?
Why do you find improvisation more amenable?
For the past twenty years, I have indeed been occupying myself mostly, let’s say 90%, to improvisation. However, I have always done contemporary composed music too, primarily with the Quatuor Hêlios ensemble. But lately I have felt, as does my partner, a certain urge to play more from notes. It is no revolt against improvisation but rather a feeling that after years of practice of both ways of playing I was ready to move freely from one to the other. That is why we established the Ensemble Hiatus, which features interpreters who are at the same time true improvisers. We hope we’ll be able to bring about something unique, in the hiatus between improvisation and composition where we have placed ourselves. I feel interpretation and improvisation can be more interconnected. Both are about discipline, and now I know a bit more about the way to stand up to this in-between. It took me some time before I reached equilibrium.
On your web page you state that improvisation means constant movement, a flow, and that during your playing you have no relation to time, to duration. In a way this reminds me of some philosophical aspects of Buddhism, but other sources of information suggest that if any system of thought is close to you, it is Taoism and anarchism.
It’s really interesting, you are not the first to suggest I could be a Buddhist. Frankly, I know nothing about Buddhism apart from having read a long time ago a couple of books on Zen that John Cage had talked about. I never trusted the main philosophical and religious movements because I am always suspicious of any form that power can take. On the other hand, I am fascinated by certain aspects of Taoism, above all those represented by Zhuangzi. However, some experts say he doesn’t belong to Taoism. What sets him apart is primarily his mistrust of power. In many philosophical aspects, at least in my understanding, Zhuangzi’s Taoism and anarchism are very similar. Anyway, its political history makes anarchism something quite different, and I have always been an anarchist. The only authority that I acknowledge is the authority of competence. I don’t believe in relationships in which experience is not shared. In life in general, and in improvisation in particular, I am not ready to accept any power attitude, leadership, misappropriating the creativity of another. When I started improvising, I might have thought that improvisation was a territory of apparent beginnings, where new relationships may evolve. However, it is daily labour.
Do you prefer playing solo or with other musicians? Can you describe the difference?
From my point of view, these are altogether different disciplines. When I am playing on my own, I feel the need to gather the spirits, and I mean it … I don’t know who they are but I need a kind of ritual, a ritual of solitude. And I have to repeat ritually all that had been imprinted in myself over all those creative years, although creating often means getting rid of things. I call these repetitions obligatory figures (figures obligées), patterns that once appeared and that I have retained in memory. Why these and not any others? I don’t know, but when playing alone, I take it as an opportunity to explore these patterns and observe their transformations over the course of time. I don’t interpret them, in fact they have no importance; what matters is the transition between them, the gap in which lies at the core of improvisation. I feel an urge to rid myself of the obligatory figures, so that only the transitions remain. The states may be very brief, they may even disappear or merge with the transitions themselves. Playing with others means that you are pushed by others, ravaged by them so that you can’t withdraw to solitude. However, in either case I don’t care so much for playing music as for sharing the moment of listening.
Butoh dance was a sort of “rebellion” within Japanese dance, with its dancers training their bodies to speak their own language, with no prior intention, to try and reach their own “nakedness”. Could your improvisation be linked to butoh?
If butoh means experiencing gravity, if butoh means losing something every second, if butoh means losing everything what we seemingly possess, if butoh means dying from one breath to another, if butoh means relying on something that is just sinking into unfathomed depths, if butoh means experiencing every moment of this fall as eternity, then yes, I admit that my way of improvising is very close to butoh. I am sorry to say so, but for me improvisation is no fun. Nevertheless, this serious matter makes me happy, happy to be living.
Aren’t you threatened by developing automatic habits when performing with another person on a regular basis?
My experience is the contrary. The more intimate a relationship you have with somebody, the more you can be ravaged by them. As long as you can rely on your musical partner to accompany you to the very frontiers, the rivalry can permeate more deeply than in the case of a transient encounter.
Do you find it important to know your musical partner?
In any case, whether you know each other or not, you are inevitably confronted first of all with yourself. But if you know someone very well, your chances of eventually forgetting yourself are higher.
Lê Quan Ninh will perform twice at the vs. Interpretation festival: Friday, 29 April, on the day dedicated to dance, in a trio with the British dancer Julyen Hamilton and Prague-based bassist George Cremaschi; and Sunday, 1 March in an afternoon solo appearance. A discussion with the artist will take place on Thursday, 30 April, at HAMU where he will talk about his approach to improvisation and interpretation.