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Lê Quan Ninh opens up about improv sound rituals

Lê Quan Ninh is an internationally known improv drummer. For the past three decades, Ninh has pushed the sonic envelope through experimentation with his bass drum and various found objects. He grew up in la sud de la France, eventually going on to attend the National Conservatory in Versailles to become a classically trained drummer.

Ninh is in Baltimore for High Zero 2019, the festival of experimental improvised music held at the Theatre Project in downtown Charles Village. Though Ninh’s solo performance was the night before, he is ready to bring a fresh take to his audience of primarily University of Maryland, Baltimore County students.

“It’s about different musicians from different parts of the country, and from other countries,” says Tom Goldstein, associate professor of percussion. Goldstein finishes up his introduction and the performance commences.

In the UMBC Music Box, the drummer stands before his audience in absolute silence. His white bass drum is centered in front of the room and on either side of the drum are an assortment of cymbals, bowls, pinecones, woodblock and other found objects that the drummer may want to use during his performance.

He listens closely to the low tones of the air conditioning unit blowing. Then he picks a cymbal from his right and holds it up to his ear. This is how Ninh prepares for his improvisation. The drummer picks up on the room’s low frequency and between the high-pitched tinnitus in his right ear, he finds a middle ground.

Once this middle ground is found, Ninh takes the cymbal and drags the edge down the white face of the drum. The result is a sound surprisingly similar to ocean waves crashing along a shore. He strikes the cymbal against the drum, eventually incorporating his fingers and various sticks as well.

The drummer makes his instrument sound more like a wooden cello. The cello sounds are punctuated by hollow booms and snaps. He later explains that his wife is a cellist, who has helped him to perfect his sound experiments by giving him rosin (typically used on bows of stringed instruments) to cover his drumhead. As a result, the drum is able to produce more unique sounds. “I never know what it will sound like,” Ninh says with a heavy French accent. But it is evident that he will try everything once.

The drummer avoids patterns — the kinds that listeners will pick up on. He explains to a curious student his process of listening: essentially taking time out of his day to listen to the layers of sounds around him. Trees, cars and wind are only a few of Ninh’s sources of inspiration. He tells the audience to think of the sound of a train engine and the randomness of its gears shifting and loud grunts. In the organic world, sounds are hardly patterned. Therefore, the drummer intentionally avoids doing the same thing twice.

Ninh explains this as the reason for using pinecones on his drum. As he rolls a pinecone over the drumhead, it produces a random pitter-patter. “It would take so much energy for me to do that, right?” Ninh jokes. He teaches the audience that using these kinds of found items helps to reduce his efforts to replicate organic rhythms.


Photo Credit: French drummer Lê Quan Ninh shows off his experimentalist techniques to UMBC music students. Photo by Kiara Bell.