The Soothing Sounds of the Gong
Chicago has a rich and vibrant live music tradition. On any given day, in clubs and venues across Chicago-land, you can hear blues guitar, jazz drumming, blue-grass banjo, and classical piano, just to name a few. Adding to this diversity, some are turning to an ancient musical instrument with a rich tradition of its own. For 848, Michael De Bonis has the story.
When you hear the word gong, you might think of that amateur TV talent show from the 70's, The Gong Show. (ambi: gong show theme) Or perhaps you remember hearing a gong in a kung fu movie or in that last bombastic crash at the end of Queen's “Bohemian Rapsody.” (ambi: song clip) But in recent years the gong has been gaining popularity and is being used in some surprising ways.
In an alternative therapy center in Libertyville, IL about a dozen people are laying on the floor with their eyes closed. This is a gong meditation session. Kenny Koulter is sitting in front of a 32 inch gong, playing it gently. He says the sound of the gong can quiet the mind and allow the body to relax…
AMONG OTHER REACTIONS…
KOULTER: I've had people say that they feel like their levitating, people say that they feel pinned to the floor. I've had folks who have started to giggle uncontrollably, and I've had folks who've had an emotional release as well.
There are theories about how the sound of the gong might affect people's mind, body and health. Koulter admits he has no medical background but for him and others the results are proof enough. In addition to performing in yoga studios, holistic centers, and churches, Koulter also has contract from the state to perform at the Elgin Mental Health Center. He says the response has been very positive.
KOULTER: There was one patient who said ‘I look forward to every Tuesday because I know when I come to your sessions, every Tuesday night I sleep very well. Koulter says he's not the only one working with gongs this way.
KOULTER: Chicago is a place where there are several people doing this type of work and as the months roll on I hear about more and more people using gongs for meditative purposes.
At today's session, half are experiencing a gong session for the first time. Diane Baker is a Manufacturer's Representative from Lake Bluff. She says she wasn't sure what to expect but was hoping the gong would help her meditate.
BAKER: Every time I try to meditate, I don't really get into that meditative state. So I thought is sounded interesting and thought maybe that would do it. And that's one of the things I got out of it. I feel like it really put me in that state.
BUT RELAXATION OBVIOUSLY ISN'T THE ONLY USE FOR THE GONG…Michael Bettine is a writer and musician whose been playing the gong for 30 years. He was first exposed to the gong sound from the progressive rock bands of the 70's.
BETTINE: European bands like King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Soft machine. And those drummers all used gongs in their set-ups.
Music: progressive rock (“The Barbarian,” by Emmerson, Lake and Palmer)
Bettine's basement is cramped percussion instruments including gongs everywhere you look. He says his collection includes over 60 gongs.
Sound of gong
BETTINE: now that's a Paiste 32 inch symphonic gong which is modeled after the Chinese style chau gong.
And that's the sound most people associate with the gong. But Bettine says that using different mallets and strokes on the gong can bring out a spectrum of other sounds.
BETTINE: This always surprises people…
Whale-like gong sound
Bettine also teaches and gives gong workshops. One place he's done this is Andy's Music, an eclectic music store on Chicago's north side.
Ambi: gong room at Andy's
Andy's has become a sort of epicenter of gong activity. Depending on size, gongs range from $25 and up to $3000. Despite the economic downturn, store manager Alexander Duvel says that gongs have been a top seller.
DUVEL: I have to say that gongs are my most successful one product. I only have so many words for how the popularity of these things is just really growing.
The store carries the full line of Paiste brand gongs. A Representative of the company confirms that their gong foundries in Europe are working at full capacity to keep up with demand.
In addition to the showroom at the store, Andy's has warehouse space where hundreds of rare instruments from around the world and about 50 gongs are on display. The crown jewel of the collection is the largest production gong in the world, an eighty inch Paiste symphonic gong. When you stand next to this gong, you can feel it in your bones.
The warehouse space is open to customers by appointment and the store has been experimenting with opening it up for performances. On a Saturday night, friends and musicians, including two gong players, gather to play music.
With rock musicians like Morrisey and The Flamming Lips including gongs in their live sets and with the growing use for meditation and sound healing, Andy's hopes the growing interest in gongs continues.
FOR WBEZ, I'M Michael De Bonis.