August 18, 2017
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.”