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Lê Quan Ninh - Le Ventre Négatif

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Artist: Lê Quan Ninh

Album: Le Ventre Négatif

Label: Meniscus

Review date: Sep. 22, 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.

By Jason Bivins

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