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Oscillations

Percussionist Le Quan Ninh vibrates between traditional and virtual

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Unless your luck is better than mine, you won't be able to find a CD featuring experimental percussionist Le Quan Ninh on local record-store shelves. Several outlets I contacted said they could order some of the Paris-based artist's CDs if I was willing to wait about three weeks.

I was not, since my deadlines didn't permit such a delay. But based on what I've learned about Ninh in researching this article, I would submit that it would be well worth the wait.

It would also be worth marking next Thursday night in your calendars. That's when Ninh and his truckload of gear hits the stage for a solo concert in Colorado College's Packard Hall, where he performs at 7:30 p.m.

Le Quan Ninh is just one of several leading percussionists pushing the boundaries between traditional acoustic drumming and the blossoming world of computer-enhanced percussive composition.

For years, pioneering percussionists such as Mickey Hart and others have unabashedly touted the new possibilities posed by using computers, as well as digital samplers and other hi-tech gizmos, to produce a wide range of noises, patterns and grooves.

But Le Quan goes well beyond merely banging away on off-the-shelf digital drum sets. Over the years, he's worked closely with mathematicians and programmers to develop digital percussion systems that respond to his improvisations.

He has also developed his own form of interactive computer music that works in conjunction with multimedia systems, which he in turn links with nearly every other form of modern stage play, from dance to poetry, performance art, cinema and video.

But don't for a second think that Le Quan is using electronics as a crutch. Since winning the first prize in percussion from the Versailles Conservatory in 1982, the classically trained, 39-year-old performer has won numerous awards in highbrow musical competitions, and he has played with numerous ensembles around France.

Le Quan is perhaps most well-known as a member of the Helios Quartet, which performs a wide range of contemporary, experimental composers, including works by John Cage, Vinko Globokar, Kaija Saariaho, George Lewis and others.

Of those, Cage is probably the oldest, with works dating back -- gasp! -- into the 1940s. More often than not, however, the ensemble likes to work with composers on interpreting and performing new works.

The ensemble also performs some of Le Quan's own original pieces, including Oscille, which the group's Web site describes as "a work for lithophone and virtual instruments (Buchla Lightning Rods, movement detectors to play and process sounds at a distance using infrared signals).

"Based on an ancient Vietnamese text, Oscille expresses an imaginary territory belonging at once to two cultures," the Web site continues.

"Through questioning the poetic power of a rediscovered language, the musician-archaeologists, using the present means (lithophones and lightning rods) gradually discover new means of extracting sound and sense.

"Situated between ancient poetry and sonic poetry, between culturally based and invented gestures, between primitive acoustics and digital synthesis, without favour to one or the other, a world is created which oscillates between these two poles."

Audience members at Thursday's concert will no doubt also find themselves bouncing back and forth between musical poles as Le Quan Ninh continues his U.S. tour of colleges, galleries and performance spaces. In our area, Le Quan can also be seen in Denver on Wed., Nov. 29, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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