Gong Lessons

Gongs are one of my favorite percussion instruments. Why? Because they’re drone machines that make unusual long tones, tones that are often of indefinite pitch and hard to decipher. Because they’re the orchestra’s ultimate Outsider instrument. Because they take a while to warm up, and even longer to quiet down. But the best thing about gongs is the relationship they offer my hands. A gong is highly responsive instrument, one that hums and sings my every action of stroke, rolling, pressure, and location. And the closer you get to a gong, the more you hear the complexities of these nuances. Every time you strike a gong (I play them every day) it sounds subtly different, reminding you of touch’s endless variety. 

I think about the gong’s responsiveness when I’m working on the computer and thinking about its mediations. Here’s the thing: listening to music on monitors or headphones immerses you in a sound world, but this immersion is not the same as viscerally connecting with an acoustic sound you play yourself. The sounds I make with the computer are always in some kind of relationship to the acoustic sounds I’ve made myself (or can imagine making), prompting questions like, Is this sound realistic? Does this sound convince me with its presence the way a gong does? You can get close to conjuring an acoustic sound you play yourself by getting your playback volume just right, but it’s still a different animal. It can be vivid, yet still one step removed from reality. Thinking about playing gongs reminds me that it’s the difference between listening to a sound and vibrating with a sound, resounding with it.

Speaking of resounding, here is Alan Watts talking about resonance as a form of consciousness:

“when I tap on this crystal, which is glass, it makes a noise. Now that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness…when you hit a bell it rings, or you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself it has a very simple reaction. It goes ‘jangle’ inside, whereas we go ‘jangle’ with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas, and thoughts…” (The Tao of Philosophy, pp. 8-9).

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