exaltatio utriusque mundi

Frédéric Blondy (piano) & Lê Quan Ninh (percussion)

1. exaltatio utriusque mundi (7:18), 2. la verticale reposée (4:02), 3. le hasard est une main plus sûre (15:16), 4. vater aether (5:13), 5. la nuit est conciliante (4:35), 6. vers la septième solitude (8:59)

Recorded in Paris by Denis Vautrin in October 2001. Graphic design : Anne Gieysse.

Potlatch P 203



Reviewed by Guillaume Tarche for the magazine ImproJazz 98 - September 2003

Lente tectonique méditative, assauts secs et plateaux (entrevus, ils disparaissent) aux brefs reliefs aigus ; Frédéric Blondy (p) et Lê Quan Ninh (perc) lèvent la terre devant eux, découpent et cisèlent l’air. Le long de ces influx d’énergie [bouleaux tortueux – à leur base, teintes mêlées de jeunes pousses jaillissant avec exubérance – et pierres que Char aurait cuites], sans attirail instrumental, ce qui advient dans un mouvement d’évidente nécessité semble dépasser la seule volonté (la troisième pièce n’est-elle pas intitulée Le hasard est une main plus sûre ?). A force de feux de brindilles et de gestes coulés, indépendants et enchaînés, s’évident et sont suggérés d’impressionnants espaces acoustiques.
Je me retrouve là, debout, les pieds mouillés, à pêcher face au vent du sud, à écouter les merles, le bruissement sec d’épées dans les roseaux et le lapement régulier de l’eau à l’endroit où se termine l’étang et où commence le rivage du monde. Brautigan
C’est avec profit qu’on relira les propos de Blondy (recueillis par Jacques Oger in Improjazz n° 95, mai 2003, pp. 5-10) et qu’on l’écoutera dans Hubbub (voir dans ce numéro, page 33) : une conception de l’espace, du son et des matières merveilleusement complexe ; inutile donc de dire qu’il a trouvé en Lê Quan un artiste avec lequel s’entendre. Il semble qu’on épuiserait les qualificatifs à vouloir désigner l’élégante distinction de pareille musique, pur geste condensant et la danse (avez-vous Ninh en scène ou lorsqu’il la partage avec des danseurs ? !) et le son et la joie. Je vous souhaite vraiment d’écouter ce remarquable enregistrement !

PS : Significativement élective et sélective, la production phonographique récente de Lê Quan Ninh – après les exceptionnels disques du Quatuor Hêlios (Quatuor Hêlios, 1999, Vand’Œuvre 0018, Dist. Improjazz ; John Cage, Credo in us, 2000, Wergo 6651-2, Dist. Harmonia Mundi) et le duo avec Günter Müller (La Voyelle liquide, 2000, Erstwhile 010, Dist. Improjazz) – vient de connaître un ajout d’importance avec la publication du solo longtemps attendu intitulé Le Ventre négatif (Meniscus 011, Dist. Improjazz). On peut patienter encore un peu en s’entourant de ses Ustensiles (solo 1995, For 4 Ears 822, Dist. Improjazz).
Reviewed by: Brian Olewnick for the site The Squid's Ear - September 2003

Although percussionist Le Quan Ninh is a frequent collaborator with all sorts of instrumentalists, the idea of him performing in duo with a pianist seems odd. Somehow, the integration of his attacks on a horizontally placed bass drum, assaulting it with everything from cymbals to pinecones, with any kind of chordal instrument seems to risk a muddier outcome.
That Frederic Blondy by and large avoids this trap is in large part responsible for the general success of this disc. Things begin a bit shakily with Blondy in abstract, Cecil-ish territory and Ninh acceding to a mere supporting role, ending up as a diluted exposition of the talent of both. But the second track, "La Verticale Reposee," opens with some wonderful, resonant string-stroking (difficult to say who is responsible, but I'm guessing it's Blondy drawing something like a wire between the piano strings), gradually mixing in with blurred thunder underneath, evoking a rich and mysterious atmosphere. From here on in, Ninh appears to be setting the agenda, which is all to the good. He's his "usual" amazing self here, conjuring up an extravagant and otherworldly bunch of sounds from the supposedly limited resources at hand -- astonishing what an abused bass drum is capable of. He also listens superbly, filling in the ample spaces left by Blondy as well as prodding the pianist into unusual areas.
Even at the music's sparest, as on "La Nuit Est Conciliante," there's enough palpable, tensile strength in the silences to render a convincingly solid sound field. When Blondy introduces hitherto unheard delicate and romantic notes to open the final piece, it sounds entirely natural, like the final steps of an invigorating journey. Perhaps surprisingly, Ninh's scrapes and patters work exceptionally well behind a scrim of this type, a sweet and sour mixture of ideal balance. Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi (I won't attempt a translation) ends up being a nicely subtle release, one that may sneak up unexpectedly on the cynical ears of veteran listeners but which can also serve as a reasonable and enjoyable introduction to the worlds of these two intriguing musicians.
Reviewed by: François Couture for the site All Music Guide - August 2003

“The Exaltation of Two Worlds": it makes a lot of promises for a title, starting with an encounter between wildly different elements and a certain amount of excitement. Exaltio Utriusque Mundi actually works on a much more subtler level and its rewards are more subdued. Pianist Frédéric Blondy is best known in free improvisation circles for his tenure in the quintet Hubbub . His mate for this two-day studio session is Lê Quan Ninh, one of avant-garde's most thoroughly surprising percussionists. His art generally consists of deliberately choosing minimal physical means (for instance, one floor tom and cymbal) and, through the use of unorthodox techniques, squeezing out of them a maximum of sounds and mental images. His resourcefulness and creativity are endless and this recording proves it once more. Blondy's approach to the piano is also very percussive and encompasses keys, strings and wooden frame. But he can also play gracious spontaneous melodies (“Exaltio Utriusque Mundi"). Despite the appearance of many unusual sounds, it remains easy to separate the improvisers' individual inputs. In fact, in a couple of these six pieces, they remain camped in their positions, developing parallel but separate vocabularies. But things gel marvelously in “La Verticale Reposée" and the closing “Vers la Septième Solitude" (“Toward the Seventh Solitude," a beautiful title), the latter Feldman-esque in its nakedness.
Reviewed by: walterhorn for the site Bagatellen - September 2003

Le Quan Ninh is a Vietnamese percussionist whose specializes in the "surrounded bass drum." He tickles and tortures his ax with a wide variety of both household and otherworldly implements to produce an incredible array of sounds from something that was once used exclusively for the low- or un-pitched boom boom boom . (In those days, people swirled marbles around their drum heads only at home for fun.) His palette is broad and his sensitivity, dexterity and expressiveness are now well known around e-ai circles. I’m particularly fond of his masterful work with Gunter Muller on La Voyelle Liquide . On Exaltatio Utrusque Mundi , he is teamed with rising-star avant-garde pianist Frederic Blondy. Together they weave a very satisfying pointillistic web that, in its early stages, brings to mind Boulez’s piano sonatas and Structures . Like La Voyelle , it’s busy, jittery, splashy and electrifying. The improvising pianist of whom Blondy reminds me most is fellow Boulezian Steve Lantner, but the Blondy work I’ve heard may be a bit less uncompromisingly serioso than Lantner’s. With Blondy, there’s a bit of high-energy Borah Bergman-style skittering mixed in with the kontra-punkte . Percussionist and pianist mesh beautifully here, and the disc is a fine one. As you are engulfed by this music, you’re sure to say (at least seven times) "How the hell did they do that?" The results range from anxious burbles and jangles to something that sounds (on "Water Aether") like a softly singing ensemble of sirens and baby whales. Best of all is the tender, Feldmanesque final track, with its lingering single tones, ominous growls and questioning, two-tone bell chords. Gorgeous.
Reviewed by: Dino for the magazine Revue & Corrigée #57 - September 2003

Une complémentarité tranquille. Chaque proposition permettant d'entendre Lê Quan Ninh en action est attendue. Cette nouvelle aventure du percussionniste partagée avec le pianiste Frédéric Blondy nous offre la possibilité d'un voyage exceptionnel. La rencontre semble si naturelle qu'elle autorise à envisager qu'enfin le piano n'est pas le bavard qu'il s'évertue à demeurer (pourquoi faut-il que trop souvent, ailleurs, il s'impose comme central ?) et que les métaux peuvent - pour peu qu'on soigne sa pratique et une écoute enfin source d'interactivité - faire oublier enfin tous les jolis violons de la planète. En d'autres termes, il s'agit d'une pierre magique, d'une fusion réussie issue d'un désir commun de frictionner la matière pour les plus belles étincelles. On se promène alors dans un espace de sérénité. Cela paraît si simple. Indispensable.
Reviewed by: Mark Corroto for the site All About Jazz - October 2003

The Exultation Of Two Worlds is actually a misnomer. Both musicians, percussionist Lê Quan Ninh and pianist Frédéric Blondy, inhabit the same territory of creative free improvisation. Their manner of producing sound is even similar.
Frédéric Blondy a participant in the new French improvisation scene is a member of the bands Ethos (with Xavier Charles and David Chiesa) and Hubbub, which recently released Hoop Whoop on Matchless. His sound tends toward percussive playing with a mixture of melody for context.
Percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, a twenty-year veteran of the improvisation scene, has played in combination with a who’s-who of creative players. His recordings have included solo percussive works with Quatuor Hêlios and as a member of Butch Morris’ Conduction Ensembles. He has a penchant for utilizing a minimal drumkit and odd/innovative instrumentation.
The disc opens with the title track and Blondy’s cascading piano notes over the dancing percussive playing on the sides of Ninh’s drumkit. At least it sounds like the sides. I can't be sure, because he tends toward new sounds generated on varying musical and nonmusical utensils. The music sluices like a flowing stream with trickles of energy and bubbling nuance.
Ninh’s cymbal raking/bowing opens “La Verticale Reposée” sounding like a Jimi Hendrix electric solo in flight. His extended technique, beautifully recorded, gives off a three dimensional feel throughout. Like a guitar solo, it is absorbed by your chest. Elsewhere Ninh’s playing sounds like a jet taking off and a horn section!
The pair interact throughout, alternating between playing on, around, and with their instruments. Blondy is not shy when it comes to opening the piano to expand the possiblities of its insides. I certainly cannot tell you where all the sounds come from, but they are all visceral expressions.
These worlds, anything but mutally exclusive, come together nicely for a complete statement.
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.

Perhaps it's because the emblematic array of objects that can be hit, caressed or manipulated with which he performs allows him to be self-sufficiently musical. Yet, as these two CDs, recorded within the same month in 2001 show, with the right partner, he has no need to be a one-man band.

Other sessions have featured the Vietnamese-French innovator exchanging ideas with nearly every progressive European improviser extant, not to mention modern dancers and experimental filmmakers. Plus he mixes percussion and new technology as part of the Quatuor Hêlios. His partner on Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi is Bordeaux-born pianist Frédéric Blondy who concentrated on the study of jazz and formal music at a local conservatory, after studying mathematics and physics at university. Since that time he has worked with improvisers like Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and German drummer Paul Lovens, as well as recording with the Hubbub quintet.

Indeed since there's another musician involved, the duo recording may be an easier entry to Ninh's soundworld than the other CD. But be aware that its links to conventional piano-percussion duets are about as distant as the films of experimentalist Stan Brakhage are from those of Western mythmaker John Ford.

Still if you take something like "Le hasard est une main plus sûre," badly translated as "a sure hand is luck," you can at least hear two instruments, although attributing some of the scrapes on unyielding surfaces to either one or the other is often impossible. This happens after Blondy extends his low frequency piano tones with pedal action, then reverberates timbres from the soundboard and the speaking length within the frame. Chiming, dampened piano action recalls Ninh's earlier shaking of his bell tree and pealing cymbal pressure. Keyboard phrases are foreshortened to such an extent that even the few impressionistic chords and pounded arpeggios appear as percussive as Ninh's focused rim shots and rattles and clanks. At points the pianist appears to be burlesquing 20th century atonality; at others his forward-moving syncopation turns to a glissando of many treble notes, as bellicose as anything from Cecil Taylor territory. Meanwhile the percussionist sounds as if he's gouging metallic surfaces, rattling bells and other implements as if they were aluminum pots and pans, and almost literally rendering wood.

Elsewhere it seems as if a moistened finger is being slid across a drumhead and a violin bow pressed into service to saw on a ride cymbal. As the horsehairs move across the lathed surface, the droning buzzes and whistles take on the character of a circular saw. Alternately, wooden flute tones -- produced by what means remains a mystery -- bloom into a noise miasma that's a combination of a fire engine's siren and a freight train gearing up to exit the station. Fluttering, cascading counter chords then arise form the piano.

This exercise in wood, metal, strings and skin reaches its climax on the track, "Vers la septième solitude" ("towards the seventh solitude"), which is likely pure silence since this is the final track. Largo, Blondy creates an étude of low frequency single notes that sail along on the surface of extended, growling metallic scrapes that also appear on other tracks. Here, though, in recital mode, the pianoman reaches inside to the keyframe and soundboard to strum strings as if he was playing a large guitar. He hits individual keys to extend their vibrations then ends on a single emphasized tone.[...]
Reviewed by: Charlie Wilmoth for the site Dusted Magazine - December 2003

The French percussionist Lê Quan Ninh is a sight to behold live: his instrument of choice is a bass drum turned on its side, and he's adept with both virtuosic rhythmic figures and otherworldly textures, which he creates by exciting his instrument with pinecones, cymbals and bows. On Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi ("The Exaltation of Two Worlds," an appropriate title if there ever was one), his excellent new collaboration with the young French pianist Frédéric Blondy, Ninh showcases both of those skills. About half of the album consists of conversational free jazz, and nearly as much features droning, Keith Rowe-esque improv. The dramatic contrasts between these styles might be off-putting if Ninh and Blondy weren't excellent in both of them.

When Blondy plays the keys of the piano, as he does on "Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi" and "Le Hasard est une Main Plus Sûre," his touch is exquisite - he sprints in a dozen contradictory directions at once like Cecil Taylor, but does so without Taylor's aggression, allowing the listener to appreciate the nuances of each tumbling run. Ninh's playing behind him is similarly busy, but musical enough to complement Blondy's polite style.

Elsewhere, however, the duo's playing is decidedly different - on "La Verticale Reposée" and "Vater Aether", Ninh and Blondy are less argumentative. Both focus on creating sustained sounds: Ninh rubs his bass drum, rather than striking it, while Blondy excites the strings inside his piano. The album ends with "Vers La Septième Solitude", which features lovely, spare piano playing reminiscent of John Tilbury or the late works of Morton Feldman.

These pieces have nothing in common with "Exaltatio..." or "Le Hasard...", meaning that Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi can be tough to listen to from beginning to end despite the excellence of the pieces it contains. In the future, perhaps Ninh and Blondy will try to find common ground between the two main idioms explored here. While narrative free jazz and texture-based improv share common ancestors, most improv discs usually feature one or the other. Ninh and Blondy clearly have the skills to do both, and the combination of rumbling, sustained bass drum sounds and Blondy's keyed, splintered piano lines might be exciting indeed.
Reviewed by: Vincent Lecoeur for the magazine Octopus - December 2003

Certes, il faut y croire. Ce disque échappe à la saturation persistante et ultra-périssable dans l'impro spécialisée, et il suffit de se prêter au jeu, à l'hypothèse du hasard aveugle suggérée par son titre pour franchir de nouveaux territoires sonores. Deux mondes, piano et percussion, et une collaboration entamée depuis la fin des années 90. Ces ultimes aventuriers sont unis par une alchimie complice, avec alternance réfléchie du silence et de la fureur impure, où tous clapotis, cordes pincées, procurent la sensation de l'éphémère. Lê Quan Ninh n'est plus à présenter dans son exploration des éléments, dont les plus belles traces subsistent avec le Quatuor Helios ou Michel Doneda. Frédéric Blondy, lui, a expérimenté les possibilités soniques du clavier, marqué par l'impact de Cecil Taylor, puis s'est penché sur l'aspect plus méditatif des pièces de Cage ou Feldman. On pense à la poésie, au nom d'une continuelle et infaillible expension... Rien d'hermétique à tout cela, "le hasard est une main plus sûre" (troisième morceau). Les frottements des cymbales et de la peau des toms, tous les ajouts d'objets que l'on cherche à discerner produisent quelque chose de curieusement pondéré. Bref, c'est l'équilibre de l'irrationnel. Tous les éléments usuels, dégradés, oscillants du quotidien le plus trivial parviennent à créer la merveille chaotique; une anarchie enfin concevable, ponctuée par un silence strident; un cosmos. A terme, il faut l'avouer, cela vaut la peine de chercher au-delà d'ECM...
Reviewed by: Gérard Rouy for Jazz Magazine - January 2004

Bordelais d'origine, membre du quintette Hubbub, fondateur de l'association Clac-sons et de l'étiquette La Belle du Quai, habitué (trop rare) des Instants Chavirés et d'autres structures spécialisées, Frédéric Blondy s'inscrit dans une mouvance généreuse et dynamique de l'improvisation (généralement qualifiée, par paresse critique, de "post-taylorienne") dans laquelle s'engouffrent pêle-mêle (dans des registres divers) des instrumentistes comme Fred van Hove, Marilyn Crispell, Misha Mengelberg, Christine Wodrascka, Irène Schweizer, Agusti Fernandez, Sophie Agnel, Paul Plimley, Alex Schlippenbach ou Matthew Shipp.
Comme ses aînés, il est également attiré par l'exploration des possibilités sonores de l'instrument à l'aide d'un jeu direct (frotté, frappé) sur les cordes, les touches, la table de résonance. Confronté ici à la verve impétueuse (et cette sorte d'écologie sonore due à la nature même de ses ustensiles) du percussionniste toulousain Lê Quan Ninh, Blondy semble privilégier une puissance retenue et un phrasé tout en finesse et contrastes - voire une belle épure presque aride jusqu'à la fascination - évocateurs d'un certain piano romantique et surtout un souci de ne pas "encombrer" la matière sonore. C'est précisément dans la fluidité de ce lyrisme sobre et attentif au détail que Blondy donne le meilleur de son art, en affichant clairement ses intentions à mi-chemin entre l'enseignement de compositeurs du siècle dernier, (Cage, Ligeti...) et l'improvisation totale.
Reviewed by: Tom Djill for the web site OneFinalNote - Februray 2004

"Exaltatio utriusque mundi" translates as "Exaltation of two worlds". On this debut release, Paris-based improvisors Frédéric Blondy and Lê Quan Ninh cast two contrasting musical worlds. One of those worlds, exemplified best by cuts one and three, has Blondy on the piano keyboard, flicking twinkling skeins of spiderwebby notes from his fingertips, while Ninh punctuates, usually selecting gritty textures. The second sound-world is noisy and static, scraped together out of the metalskin guts of the instruments (cuts two, four). Overall, they do a better job of getting exalted with the second musica mundo.

The disc opens with raindrops-in-a-zeppelin-hangar piano, crystal clear, dark and wet. Ninh is shuffling about in the distance, rattling here and there. A premier new music/improvising percussionist, Ninh has a delicate touch and quite an arsenal to draw upon, from the sonic evidence. Blondy, too, treads lightly, even when smashing out clusters from the keyboard. Both players are well back in the mix, making for a concert-like ambiance with high-ceiling reverb. Cut three is sixteen minutes long or thereabouts, and my interest dissipated before the halfway point. The gestures needed to sustain this kind of music need more oomph. Blondy grumbles and stumbles around in the deep end of his keyboard, slowly making his contributions more spastic and urgent. But always at an arm's length—it doesn't draw you in.

Immediately, cut two puts one in a much more enveloping and interesting sonicscape, bowed and scraped things, unidentifiable things, droning in evanescent colorshifts. It ends all too soon; a dronescape like this could go on for half an hour and extend itself into critical mass. Cut four, on the other hand, has long silences and mysterious, fleeting entrances. These two pieces are the most successful overall, getting completely beyond the usual sounds associated with the instruments and blending into a sometimes frighteningly alien hybrid.

Cut six has Ninh creating massive yet light textures, dragging things across skins and metal, while his counterpart intersperses sparse notes every few seconds: Feldman, without the repeats. The worlds magically align when Ninh strikes a bell at the same time Blondy hits a key, and they let the result ring.

Similar to cut six, number five is a steady state, texturally speaking. Here, the duo's music is an instant, constantly revolving variation-form that doesn't try to "go anywhere". It tends to repeat itself at every moment, but with different sound-elements chosen. The result is a kind of rhythm, not metrically but temporally based; the elements within each similarly sized time packet may be changing rapidly, selected from a great library of gestures and sounds, but their placement in the time-space is even and predictable (it's especially apparent in cuts one and three). After awhile, one longs for a break in the steady-state randomness. Three minutes pass, and the break finally arrives—silence followed by a few seconds of fleeting fingers on a drumhead.

All in all, a surprisingly uninvolving release, a bit cold and reserved. Blondy and Ninh's music doesn't allow itself to be shoehorned into any genres easily, and bravo for that. But much of the time there's the nagging feeling that Exaltatio is more of a demonstration of exaltation, rather than its embodiment.
Reviewed by: Frank Rubolino for the magazine Cadence - April 2004

Meditative musings that built emphatically from the basis of the piano/percussion duet on [Exaltatio Utriusque Mundi]. Blondy initiates the conversation with singular stabs at the piano, and from there, he builds momentum with hearty runs over the keys. From tinkling abstractness to pronounced demonstrativeness, he explores a plethora of conceptive thought processes. Blondy consistently reverts to a staccato style of playing where short intervals of space integrate with the piano's output. He continues to enlarge the scenario as it moves into rampaging waters of treacherous dimensions. The music ebbs and flows in theses unpredictable phases as dynamic explosions melt into serene reveries and then return to turbulent seas. Blondy ends the recording as it began by utilizing space and silence as equal partners with his introspective playing.
Ninh is an extreme colorist. Using a wide range of percussive tactics, he engulfs the aural space with varying nuances that enlarge and expand into more pronounced examples of aggressiveness. Rattles, cymbals, and numerous other objects of sound become the vehicle for his sonic embellishment of the music. Broken and interrupted patterns emerge from his instruments consistent with the tonal qualities rising as missty waves from Blondy's piano. As Blondy enters into a more agitated state, Ninh matches the action with volatile interchanges. The music at times has eerie qualities resulting from Ninh's creative percussion technique. Blondy and Ninh are of one ming and body on this demanding program. They think as individuals but interrelate as an inseparable unit during this exacting set.
Reviewed by: Andrew Choate for the magazine Coda - May/June 2004

I didn't expect this record to be so combative and rambunctious. No longer will I associate Ninh only with the kind of ambient improv Morton Feldman would be proud of. Don't get me wrong, I've been quite impressed by Ninh both in concert and on his other recordings, but these experiences in no way prepared me for the whipcracking slingshots of percussion found on the opening cut of this recording. He still bows cymbals with meditative care - check out the glistening scrapes on "le verticale reposée" -, but he also beats them and shakes them, making them crack and slash into the furrowed strokes of Blondy's prepared piano, like on "exaltatio utriusque mundi." The duo rise and fall, accelerating and decelerating rhythmic particles like so many blanched sonorities. Ninh's bass drum has become a mighty device worthy of pounding on its own, not just a resonating chamber for dragging struck cymbals. These deep thumps during "la nuit est conciliante" are studded with sharp, tinkling hammerstrikes from Blondy's piano. The textures throughout this recording should be required studying for anyone interested in the pursuit of a material science education. Though often confounding, these textures are so distinct and evocative that they completely envelop the mind's space as they voyage into the ear. The ooze-like tempo of "vers la septième solitude" proceeds with crumbles of pianotones that hang in the air, large pauses swallowing the echoes. Snaps and crinkles from the percussion wash up as periodically and irregularly as a rising shoreline: the combination is tranquil and eerie. The 6 tracks on Exaltatio utriusque mundi cover more musical ground than the marathon seasons of any big-city symphony orchestra.