Le Ventre Négatif

Lê Quan Ninh (percussion solo)

Tel quel (13:07), Ni d'une part, ni d'une autre (9:36), Appuis et alentours (8:28), Peau neuve (6:38), Autres distorsions élémentaires (9:07)

Recorded in October 2001 in Toulouse by Pierre-Olivier Boulant.

Meniscus MNSCS 011

Reviewed by: Michael Bettine on the site : JazzReview in August 2003

Lê Quan Ninh's music is a very personal and intimate. The French percussionist plays a bass drum laid horizontal on a stand, and uses it as a "sound table" for the various smaller percussion instruments and objects he has arranged on the floor "surrounding" him. In this sense he is a minimalist because he limits his choice of instruments. But his amazing sense of adventure creates a maximum amount of sounds.

While most improvising percussionists come out of the jazz field, Ninh has a strict classical background, having studied with Silvio Gualda at the Academy of Versailles. He became aware of the late composer, John Cage, a true musical anarchist, and has explored a variety of Cage's work. Today he continues to perform it with the Quatre Helios percussion group they have 2 excellent releases on Wergo that feature Cage's music). He has also worked extensively in the improvised music field with such musicians as saxophonist Michel Doneda, bassists Jo‘lle Léandre and Peter Kowald, percussionist GŸnter MŸller, as well as various dancers and artists from other disciplines.

The opening track, tel quel, is a perfect example of his techniques. He rubs, scrapes, bows, and manipulates a wide array of objects on top of his bass drum. One can hear sounds within sounds, as he allows the various instruments to randomly interact with each other. Thus, while he is scraping one instrument, another one is rattling. This goes on for nearly 11 minutes, building in intensity until he gets down to some serious bowing of cymbals and metals that creates an astounding wall of harmonics across the soundfield.

ni d'une part, ni d'une autre is more percussive. He works with a Chinese cymbal, striking it, rattling it, squeaking it - while also striking the bass drum and using the cymbal to muffle and change the drum's sound. Large swirling bowed sounds open appuis et alentours. Dark growls lead to staccato tappings that rush by like a stream running down a mountain side. A flurry of high pitched squeaks mutate into furious scrapes before giving away to a rustle of sounds that builds things back up with harmonic cymbal sounds once again.

Barely audible squeaks open peau neuve. One needs to be actively engaged in the music to take it in. There is blowing and rustling of small percussion, occasionally disrupted by a staccato burst. Then he plays a series of rolls on the bass drum causing the various instruments resting on it to clatter together in a collage of sounds. The track closes with what sound like singing bowls or cup gongs being struck with a soft mallet, their sound resonating through the drum.

The final track, autres distortions élémentaires, opens with him quietly rolling on the drum, objects rattling, as he builds up the intensity of his strokes. This multiplication of sounds creates the illusion of more than one player, as it keeps building, much like a musical landslide running down hill and gaining momentum. Metallic clatters begin to dominate, tinkling like sinister bells, or a jumble of alarm clocks ringing out in a cacophonous symphony. Brash metallic sounds enter and wobble as he brings it down in intensity, til softly ringing bowls vibrate against each other, throwing off streams of harmonics.

This is another wonderful release by Lê Quan Ninh. For the adventurous listener, this recording will yield new things each time it is listened too. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: Dan Warburton for the site : Paris TransAtlantic in September 2003

On Le Ventre Negatif French percussionist Lê Quan Ninh performs solo, with what he nicely calls "surrounded bass drum", a drum set face up on a stand to become a circular tabletop, a workspace for the manipulation of smaller pieces of percussion and other objects. In such resonant and confined quarters every object necessarily comes into dialogue with all the others, by turns quarrelling or working in harmony. Just as one senses the bedrock of silence that lies beneath the Sealed Knot's music, behind Lê Quan's improvisations there is always the muffled heartbeat of the bass drum, even though it is almost never struck directly. Though he uses the bow on occasion, he avoids the otherworldly, high-pitched sonorities that many improvising percussionists elicit from bowed cymbals in favour of darker timbres. There's nothing ethereal about this music, in which metal always retains its alien rasp and tang. The album contains five equally intense but varied improvisations, including the magnificently apocalyptic coda of "autres distorsions élémentaires", a string of alarms going off over the crackle of flames. Throughout the disc there's a depth of sound that will have you double-checking the liner notes to confirm that rather than an host of percussionists assisted by saxophone, cello and laptop computer, you're hearing just one man hard at work at his circular desktop.
Reviewed by: walterhorn for the site Bagatellen - September 2003

Le Ventre Negatif is a solo Ninh outing that is quieter and less busy than the duo with Blondy. Ninh’s playing on this one is more akin to his work with Joelle Leandre on their (to me also somewhat disappointing) recording of Cage’s "Ryoanji." I want to be generous to this disc, especially since I’m delighted to see the return of an active Meniscus label, but I have to admit that I don’t find Le Ventre Negatif terribly engaging. It may be that solo percussion works are just not my thing (even Feldman’s famous "King of Denmark" never really floated my boat). I notice my mind wandering into the dreaded non-musical avenues of work and family errands as Ninh pages through his menu of scratches, rumbles and thumps. If this was the (perhaps Zen inspired?) intention here, the disc succeeds with me quite well. In my own case, however, such "anti-reveries" are generally available without any help from my stereo. In any case, while Ninh’s considerable prowess is in evidence here and there are many lovely and improbable sounds, I can’t find the thread or flow of any of the five cuts. As indicated, however, I may just not be among the intended listeners of Le Ventre Negatif. Certainly Ninh completists and solo percussion aficionados will want this release.
Reviewed by: Cecile Cloutier for the site City Pages - October 2003

[...] Lê Quan Ninh radiates a luminous charisma through that most opaque of improvisational recordings, the solo percussion disc. He begins by building delicate edifices out of a pyrotechnic array of clatters, skitters, and squeals, and then proceeds to knock them down with gusto in a closing set of three big, sweeping pieces that move with the speedy single-mindedness of a tornado moving across the prairie with deadly grace. "Appuis et alentours" starts off with blustery swishes and ends in a loose clatter, like a snowball rolling down a hill of cutlery adding forks and knives with every turn. The closing track, "Autres distorsions élémentaires," rains down bells and triangles, and pelts cowbells, quarters, and hubcaps against your windows. And by that point, you have no will to shelter yourself from it: If that's what the drum wants, how can you tell it no?
Reviewed by: Guillaume Tarche for the magazine ImproJazz #100 - November 2003

Dans son hommage à Peter Kowald, publié dans nos colonnes il y a précisément un an (Improjazz n° 90), Lê Quan Ninh évoquait le moment où la musique ne s’évertue pas à être autre chose qu’une dépossession, [où] l’énergie n’est plus une urgence mais le rassemblement de forces telluriques et de souffles… A me plonger dans les cinq moments sonores de ce disque solitaire du percussionniste (subtilement enregistré par Pierre-Olivier Boulant en octobre 2001 aux Entrepeaux toulousains [voir dans notre numéro 99 l’article que Bernard Astié a consacré à ces lieux]), j’ai le sentiment de retrouver cette expérience. L’élégant corps à corps (sans afféterie – pièce 1 : tel quel) avec les matériaux qui sont siens à force de manipulation quotidienne, la mise à profit de l’accident, l’énergie mobilisée et la présence toute physique du musicien font sourdre, à force de jeux dynamiques et polyphoniques, des ruisseaux souterrains, des orgues de verre pilé, des violoncelles froissés.   

Moins brillant que le précédent solo de 1995 intitulé Ustensiles (For 4 Ears 822, Dist. Improjazz), et d’un abord plus complexe me semble-t-il, ce recueil longtemps attendu attire davantage l’attention sur les microphonies que sur le développement des improvisations. La fouille se fait piétinante (lente et âpre – pièce 2 : appuis et alentours), passionnante ; d’instant en instant, l’audition de cette musique fascinante vous renverse. Improviser serait alors de glisser dans un volume d’air, de laisser faire un désir qu’on ne pourra jamais formuler autrement qu’en glissant toujours plus avant dans des volumes partagés [in livret]. A vous, maintenant !
Reviewed by: Jason Bivins for the site Dusted - November 2003

Some of the finest improvisers in the world these days have moved beyond the desire of earlier players to push their instrumental vocabulary to the limits within relatively conventional (or at least recognizable) playing contexts. As important as older free-improvisers (particularly Europeans, from Evan Parker onwards) have been and to some degree remain, in the quest for the radically modern, younger generations of instrumentalists the world over have become heavily influenced by what we might call, for lack of a better term, the AMM aesthetic. Here one does not necessarily test the limits of conventional linear improvisation, where the goal is to forge a uniquely idiosyncratic voice; rather, improvisation is seen in more laminal terms (to use Parker’s phrase for describing AMMusic), dealing with the layering of sound and the suspension of the ego. Many younger players the world over are, in roughly this spirit, attempting to radically decontextualize (not to say deconstruct) their instruments, to free them of conventional associations and expectations even more radically than their forebears. One of the most remarkable of these players is French-Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh.

This is Ninh’s second solo recording (the first was Ustensiles on For4Ears, the excellent label run by fellow percussionist Günter Müller). On that recording in addition to some superb collaborative efforts with the likes of Müller (Erstwhile’s La Voyelle Liquide), Lawrence “Butch” Morris (the exquisite Burning Cloud, as well as many of Morris’ conduction recordings), and Michel Doneda (Open Paper Tree), Ninh has displayed a very unique percussive sensibility. Extremely sensitive and imaginative, Ninh has gone beyond colorist or texturalist (everyone’s beyond the role of timekeeper at this stage of the game) to a space where he functions almost like a sonic architect, using his percussive devices to create huge structures that – despite their relative simplicity or focus, for there is very little excess in Ninh’s playing – contain a wealth and richness of possibility and potential. Deeper still, one might think of him not so much an architect, more as an explorer – someone who knows of hidden spaces in the earth and sky, and who can reveal through his playing structures or energies.

This unique combination of rigor and imagination is stamped all over this recording, where Ninh has foregone the vast range of instruments he sometimes employs for a “surrounded bass drum,” a single upturned piece of percussion on which he employs all manner of devices and strategies to generate a vast range of sound. The disc opens with the long “tel quel”, a subtle piece that is defined as much by its restraint as by its overt communication (through rubbing, scraping, and the occasional reverberant strike against the drum head). All these performances are similarly dynamic, even if the soundscape is quite different on each track. Ninh ranges from roiling industrial carnage to intimate woodblock noises; from the near silence of “peau neuve” to the insect chorus of “ni d’un part, ni d’une autre.” Throughout, there is a laser-like focus that yields formally and dynamically rich spontaneous creations. Much of it beggars conventional description and, in this, Ninh’s playing is all the more impressive. Le Ventre Négatif is a terrific album, which merits close attention from anyone interested in improvised music.
Reviewed by: Ken Waxman for the site Jazz Weekly - November 2003

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.[...]

On his own, Ninh 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, Ninh 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, Ninh 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 Ninh'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.
Reviewed by: Kurt Gottschalk for the site The Squid's Ear - February 2004

French Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh is a remarkably visceral musician. In concert, he stands over a bass drum turned on its side, working its head with cymbals and small objects and creating rich and resonant sounds with the big drum serving as a sound chamber for his operations. He looks like a ceramist at the wheel, carefully turning his clay.

As interesting a live performer as he is, it's still something of a surprise that a solo audio document would come across. But Le Ventre Negatif, his second solo recording, is a strong and varied work. Its five tracks move through soft, ringing passages and rolling, energetic sections. When the momentum builds, it's difficult to imagine just what he's doing. A rolling rhythm is offset by higher-pitched rattles with a metallic rumble on top. In concept, his physical approach is a marvel. Here, the abstract imagery of his aural constructions can make the listener forget there's a ghost in the machine, or that the evocative sounds were even intentionally made.
Reviewed by: Sharif Sehnaoui - February 2004

Depuis le premier disque solo de Lê Quan Ninh "Ustensiles" sur For4Ears, un laps de temps allant de décembre 95 à octobre 01 s’est écoulé. Presque 6 ans et un incroyable deplacement d’air plus tard, "Le Ventre Négatif" est une véritable chute dans le poétique. Difficile en effet de ne pas comparer ces deux objets malgré leurs différences et leur beauté respective et distincte.
"Ustensiles", déjà le titre est annonciateur, enseigne précise à l’avant boutique, une photo à l’arrière montre Ninh noyé dans un champ de tambours et cymbales, avec le detail exhaustif des instruments utilisés pour chaque morceau. La prise de son à l’interieur est claire et limpide, proche de sa source, au final on ressort avec un disque fort d’une précision de préstidigitateur, empli d’une forte technicité à tel point que l’auditeur non familier avec les multiples possibilités d’un tel éventail percussif est vite ensorcelé : "Comment ? Il n’utilise pas d’effets éléctroniques ?". La téchné, comme on l’appelle en grec ancien, ne voulait pas dire technique, mais plutot art, tout comme poiesis. Deux noms donc pour une même chose, deux plis, l’un qui tend vers la technique, et l’autre vers la poésie.
"Le Ventre Négatif" est ce deuxième pli.
Cette différence est infime, et c’est aussi la distance qu’on trouve entre "Ustensiles" et "Le Ventre Négatif", comme la distance entre la face d’une feuille et son revers. Ici, pas de détail sur le materiel utilisé mais une simple formule : "surrounded bass drum", puis une photo montre Ninh avec son attirail simple, comme réduit à son élément essentiel : son ventre. Il ne s’agit plus ici de jouer avec un quelconque instrument –ou ustensile- mais bien d’extraire quelque chose qui est enfoui au fond de ses tripes, et qui ne serait pas audible "positivement", c’est-à-dire selon une écoute ordinaire –ou classique- qui se limiterait à l’evidence du son. Il faut tenter d’ouir le "négatif" de ce son, c’est à dire la vibration elle-même et ses sources, appréhender cette vibration dans l’instant même de son emérgence. Comme chez Ninh ou la distinction technique entre le musicien et son instrument s’évanouit lorsque ce dernier est "avalé", l’auditeur doit aussi atteindre ce point d’écoute physique oscillatoire du son pour capter pleinement la dimension proprement poétique d’un disque "en négatif".
Un rythme globale beaucoup plus lent, comme dans "ni d’une part ni d’une autre" ou "appuis et alentours", une prise de son souvent plus éloignée, mobile et à la recherche d’un hypothétique point d’accroche idéal. Dans "tel quel" on peut sentir la salle environnante et l’air, seul élément "qui puisse acceuillir tous les autres" comme on peut le lire dans le depliant, dans "peau neuve" on peut deviner la distance parcourue par un son de cloche qui passe et s’éloigne. La dernière pièce "autres distortions élémentaires" s’agite puis s’estompe dans une longue plainte fantomatique, appel ou annonce faite au silence qui règne lorsque le disque s’achève.
Un disque "géneralement inclassifiable" comme me l’indique mon lecteur lorsque je me connecte à Internet