Lê Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda in the Attic

Lê Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda in the Attic

1. In the Space

As a classical trained percussionist, Lê Quan Ninh worked with contemporary music ensembles and was a founding member of Quatuor Hêlios (1986-2012), a percussion quartet that performed and recorded, among others, John Cage's percussion works. As an improviser, he participates at numerous meetings in Europe and in North America and plays regularly in ensembles in forms that mix improvised acoustic & electroacoustic music, 'performance art', dance, poetry, experimental cinema, photography and video. His discography counts about 40 CD on European and North American labels. The last release (Aplomb, 2015) is a duet with his long term colleague Michel Doneda.

Over the years, Michel Doneda has developed one of the most extensive musical vocabularies in free improvisation. A specialist of the soprano saxophone, he has gradually moved from left-field jazz to the fringes of free improv ever since he began to lead his own sessions in the early ‘80s. His playing can be at turns lyrical, playful, or raucous, and can switch from the liveliness of street melodies to circular breathing, microscopic sounds, or shrieking outbursts. His most frequent recording and performing partners over the years have included singer Beñat Achiary, percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, hurdy-gurdy player Dominique Regef and bassist Barre Phillips.

This conversation with Lê Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda took place in July 2016, at the 37 edition of Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria.

Scoro: Do you remember the first time you came in contact with improvised music? What was your reaction to hearing this type of music?

Lê Quan Ninh: I remember, yes. It was a record I listened to back in high school. I had this very good friend whose father was a fan of Free Jazz. He was living near our school, and we were riding these Solex bicycles to his place in the breaks between courses. His father had a wonderful hi-fi system and one day he told me that he wants me to listen to something; and the first LP’s he played me were from The Cecil Taylor Quartet, Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane – Asscension, things like that, on the first day. This was 1977, I was 14 years old. And the sound in the room was so good. My reaction was not about the music, but about the presence. I mean... they were... There.... in the space. And I was not familiar with these musicians... and suddenly they appeared in the room and it was a physical shock, it was a physical presence of the sound and of the music. Very powerful music. Especially the Cecil Taylor music with Jimmy Lyons. What was that?! And it wasn’t really a cultural shock, but more like a physical shock. So my first contact with improvised music was on record. Music class was optional in our school. So my friend and I chose this course, and it was led by a 20 year old jazz saxophone player, who was an absolute freak. He was very open minded and he helped us become more free. This guy has been extremely important to me. He discovered that we were very interested in free jazz and he started taking us out to concerts. In order to attend certain events, our parents had to sign some papers... because we were minors. So I heard a lot of music from those times thanks to him... free jazz... jazz/rock, even Chet Baker, Steve Lacy, Magma. So through him and through my friend I started listening to Free jazz and later on to improvised music. A lot of new European improvised music labels appeared in the early 80’s that started spicing things and pushed a lot of artists to perform in Paris, where I was living, at this famous theatre called “Theatre du Noir”. Everybody was performing there. I was 18-19 and I was attending all the concerts. Paul Lovens performed there, Roger Turner, George Lewis, Joelle Leandre, Shelley Hirsch, Sven-Ake Johansson, all these people were there, from England, Germany, from all over Europe, from America. I was a music student and I used to go there 3-4 times a week. Then I started running a radio show on anarchist radio. So I had a special press card, so I could go to concerts for free. It was easier for me to discover all this music live; not having to pay made everything easy.

Scoro: What about you, Michel?

Michel Doneda: It’s much simpler with me. I consider myself a self-taught musician. When I played the saxophone for the very first time, I was very impressed by the sounds it makes. I didn’t know if I was improvising or anything. I wasn’t very connected to the music world. But I liked sounds, I liked making sounds. I was living in a very small town with very few people, so there were no concerts at all. At some point, I met a guy who was interested in playing with me, in making sounds with me. My main influence was the theatre. So we met this theatre group that was really involved in improvisation: acting, poetry and sounds. I realized that that’s what I was doing. So I started understanding the field. Gradually, I met other musicians and people started inviting me to perform. When I was 27 I had the chance to be invited at the Chantenay-Villedieu festival, run by Jean Rouchard. It happened in a small village, somewhere in France, in the countryside. I discovered here incredible musicians, and I could even play with them. The first concert of John Zorn in France was with me, but I didn’t have any idea who he was. The first time I went there I played with Elliot Sharp. I didn’t know him at all and the sounds coming out of the amplifiers that he was using were shocking to me. All these people were very cool and very welcoming with me. And I had no actual plans or ideas regarding my approach, so it was easy for me.

“Listening is the main discipline. It’s our discipline. To listen to everything and maybe to enjoy in a way, but not necessarily, it’s about appreciating. Just to have this presence of so many qualities of sounds, because there is always something happening. As soon as you pay attention, you start to realize that the world is so wide, it’s just amazing.”

2. Here and now

Victor Stutz: Do you have ideas now?

Michel: No... I’m doing the same things. I am very related and connected to the sounds. But I discovered things in the meanwhile, of course. I discovered space. The idea of sounds related to space. And in addition to my sounds and to the sounds of my colleagues I discovered how to listen, not only to my instrument, not only my partners, but also to the space I’m performing in. We work a lot with landscape and instrument, but I think it’s very important to work and interact with the sound engineer.

Riccarda: Would you be open to edit the improvising sets? Are you doing that?

Lê Quan Ninh: Yes, sometimes, just a few details. Not reconstructing or anything. Sometimes there’s a drop, for example, that could be edited. For instance, it would have been pointless to record today’s performance unless you have a sound guy.

Michel: A sound guy who would work the same way as us, moving in the space etc.

Riccarda: You did a recording with Niels, the German trumpeter, and you recorded outside.

Michel: With Niels we only performed inside the church, but still there were many sounds that interfered and we had to remove certain parts... such as fly coming towards the mic...

Lê Quan Ninh: The guy with the microphone is also moving in space. It’s about revealing space; it’s not about playing music. We use sounds through instruments just to reveal where we are. It’s about here and now.

Michel: It’s just very fun for us; if you have the freedom to listen to everything. It’s freedom. You can just play your sounds and listen to everything that is present. And I think that the audience understands. When we were playing in the church, we just stop playing when the train arrived and at the sound of the plane flying. We didn’t have to play, there were nice sounds coming and we decided to be there and to listen to what’s happening.

Victor: You enjoyed all the sounds?

Michel: I don’t know if we enjoyed, it is just there, we just listen to what happens.

Lê Quan Ninh: It’s about to belong to the space, in a moment. Belonging is a huge part acceptance. It’s not about masking the reality and adding our music to reality, it’s about belonging to reality. Being human beings, we have to invent cultural tools; we can’t touch the nature of things, if there is one, without culture. So we play saxophone and percussion, but if we didn’t play them, many sounds could have been heard. So, as Michel said, maybe it’s not necessary to play sometimes. If you have this in mind it’s absolutely not necessary to play sometimes. Even if I play or if I don’t somewhere, some sounds will occur. Sounds will exist.

3. Discipline and Noise

Victor: But when you rehearse, you don’t have any sounds.

Michel: We don’t rehearse. Never. We just play. We just go in the process. It’s more powerful than the rehearsal, because this process is everyday training... It’s a discipline.

Lê Quan Ninh: Discipline is about the instrument, but also about going in the woods for example, and listening and going in the supermarket, and listening. Listening is the main discipline. It’s our discipline. To listen to everything and maybe to enjoy in a way, but not necessarily, it’s about appreciating. Maybe it has slightly different meaning in French. Aprecier also means to determinate a distance. But we can combine sounds from someone who is talking, or maybe from a dog that is passing; we combine those and we try to make a connection. Just to have this presence of so many qualities of sounds, because there is always something happening. As soon as you pay attention, you start to realize that the world is so wide, it’s just amazing. And it’s wonderful to connect different qualities. Some sounds are really short; some are really long, or constant. Some are loud, and some are very soft. Some are thick, some are very transparent and it’s always moving and changing. If you make connections, it’s never the same, so, as soon as you start listening that way, you start being in that particular mood of listening.

Victor: Is there stuff you don’t like?

Lê Quan Ninh: There is no sound that we would dislike. But attitude and intentions.... yes! Of course, maybe we have developed a certain sensibility about... as we like to call it “revealing space”. When you see somebody on stage, either a musician or a group of musicians and they really want to take over the space and the time and they really want to prove something and they really want to show something. For me there’s a really big difference between making something heard and leaving this thing being heard. It’s very different. I really prefer the second approach, to leave things being heard, instead of making them heard, it’s a completely different attitude and sometimes, this first attitude is just suffocating. It’s full of the noise of the people. Not the noise they do with the instruments, but the noise of themselves. It’s exhausting.

Riccarda: Did you play with musicians that did this?

Michel: We played with all kinds of musicians.

Riccarda: What does that do to you in that moment?

Lê Quan Ninh: You have to feel solidarity. There’s a duty of solidarity.

Michel: Even the situation is difficult, we can learn something out of it. You have to appreciate your own concept and if you cannot play, you don’t have to play. There’s a lot of freedom here. Improvisation is about freedom. So you can be here and just listen, or not listen. But be here and be involved and accept. We have the responsibility to be there. So we always find a way and a bad experience is just as good as a good experience.

Lê Quan Ninh: Good or bad... this is an experience.

Victor: And you have to go through it. You can’t say “fuck it, I won’t have this, I can’t have this experience, I’m going home”?

Lê Quan Ninh: This is exactly the noise I was talking about earlier. As soon as you have this “ahh this is bullshit...” attitude, you are making noise. Instead of having this special experience. For me this noise is boring. There is no hierarchy when it comes to these experiences.

Victor: So everything is special, then.

Lê Quan Ninh: Exactly. For instance, in western countries we have these main tastes: bitter, sweet, salty. But in Asia, they really appreciate this “Fad” taste, for them it’s equally good as the other tastes. This is an experience to live. So a bad experience is still an experience. The thing is... to accept it, to live this experience. Unless, this experience is cruel. But the cruelty has different levels. Maybe there’s a big obstruction there, or an exaggeration of power. In this case... OK... it’s better to go home. But it should definitely not make you angry. As long as there’s no bad intention, every experience can be positive.

Victor: Did you have that kind of experience?

Lê Quan Ninh: Oh yes. But it’s rather rare now, because we are becoming more civilized. But sometimes you play certain musicians that make it pure obstruction. Sometimes people really want to direct everything. They want to be in control. Some people are really control freaks, you know? But as soon as you observe that, ´oh... poor guy´ or ´poor girl´, maybe we can show an example of living in another way and giving an example is not so easy. You have to work on yourself, which can sometimes be part of the fun.

4. In Movement

Riccarda: I was thinking about something earlier, when we were speaking about recordings. Is the language you’re using with your sound guy who is doing the recordings. Are you doing it yourselves? Or is there someone you are counting on, that knows how to do it?

Lê Quan Ninh: I prefer to work with someone rather than doing it myself. Because he/she has a special talent or skills in this direction and we can dialogue.

Michel: And the microphone is not an object. It’s a person. It’s someone. You feel the action of the guy who is listening. He is a partner, listening partner and he is here. It makes the thing much more alive.

Lê Quan Ninh: And you learn things from the guy, and vice versa.

Michel: Yes. We learn a lot from them. Because they have another way of listening to what we’re doing and they give us feedback.

Victor: Are there things you don’t agree upon, where you go “fuck that, that’s stupid”.. ? Do you have those kinds of experiences?

Lê Quan Ninh: It’s a conversation and the final product, the end result will be the result of our collaboration. It’s not just the artist having the good ideas... like... “I know what I want” ... it’s not really like that, we don’t really know what we want... we just listen to what happened and then we can have this conversation with the people that have recorded and we learn so many things, and we make choices, we make some decisions. It’s collaboration.

Victor: Does it usually turn out like you imagined it would in the beginning?

Lê Quan Ninh: No, absolutely not. It’s the result of the collaboration. It’s very different from what we thought it would be in the beginning.

Michel: Normally will never think at the beginning. We don’t have any ideas. We just have the process. We work on the process, not on ideas. The discipline is about the process, not about the ideas.

Lê Quan Ninh: The process is something in movement. It’s always in movement. We can’t catch it. We have to follow the movement. So the movement exists because we exist and, at the same time we follow it. So it’s a very strange position. We discover it as soon as we really pay attention of the moment we’re playing, for instance. But we can do exactly the same when going to the toilet. You can really pay attention to the process of pissing; or eating, you know? You pay attention to what to eat, and so many things happen. Different tastes, different textures.... So.. It’s about that. It’s about discovering phenomenons and paying attention to them.


*photo credits: Peter Gannushkin
*Konfrontationen festival 2016 report



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