It's All About The Rhythm

Rhythm, it's all around us, we can't really escape it, but some Gong players seem to. I watch a lot of Gong videos and am amazed at how many I see where the player seems to be just haphazardly hitting the Gong! A stroke here, a hit there, maybe another just for good measure.

As a trained percussionist, maybe I can't help but think in rhythm. It comes to me as natural as breathing. But apparently, others don't think that way at all.

Here's a question I recently came across on Facebook:


I am currently working with Neptune Paiste planet gong and I find that whilst I work through intuition I seem to always end up playing rhythmically. The rhythms change but it is still rhythmical. I enjoy, and so far, those I have played for also enjoy but I often watch other players, normally with much larger gongs striking / stroking with much less rhythm. Am I going to have to wait for a bigger gong before I can start to just allow the wave of sound to fully rise and fall without the need to continue with another stroke before the sound has completely decayed?

There are multiple answers to this question. Let's look at each part of the question:

I find that whilst I work through intuition I seem to always end up playing rhythmically. The rhythms change but it is still rhythmical.

This is natural. As I stated at the beginning of this post, rhythm is all around us. We innately feel these rhythms and innately want to create rhythm. As a drummer, when I first started working extensively with the Gongs, I tended to play a lot of notes and fast rhythms. Everything I did tended to blur together in a wash of sound

This was my natural inclination from being a drum set player, where I played a lot of notes and fast rhythms. I think a lot of us tend to approach the Gong that way, because that is also the rhythm of modern day life. Cars, planes, the internet, schedules all are run to fast, tightly paced rhythms. This is how we tend to feel, so we transfer it to our playing.

I often watch other players, normally with much larger gongs striking / stroking with much less rhythm.

Not knowing what size Gong/s the questioner is working with, or what larger sizes they are referring to, I have to make some assumptions here. Smaller Gongs (22" or less) have smaller, shorter sounds that decay more quickly. While much larger Gongs (24" or larger) tend to have sounds that are longer and linger on. When playing faster rhythms on a small Gong, the Gong will only build up so far in sound and intensity. I find that I can often be more aggressive in my playing on smaller Gongs (but different Gongs vary in how they react).

Now larger Gongs, when played at a faster rhythmic pace, tend to build up and even get out of control. I find that I need to control my rhythmic pace more, allowing for only short bursts of rapid notes.

Am I going to have to wait for a bigger gong before I can start to just allow the wave of sound to fully rise and fall without the need to continue with another stroke before the sound has completely decayed?

Yes and no. As you play more, you hopefully develop both your ear (to listen to and pick up the Gong's own rhythms), and develop your sense of timing and space. As I wrote earlier, I used to play at a much more frenetic pace, but it took years of work to develop by ears, timing, touch, and to know how my instruments respond to me. It also took time to develop a sense of trust between me, the Gongs, AND the audience, that all 3 would cooperate in being a part of whatever I played.

So it is possible to play longer, more spacious rhythms on smaller Gongs. But because the sounds do not sustain as long as larger ones, our natural tendency is to quickly make another sound. So again, you need to trust the space between the sounds in order to expand your rhythms.

With larger Gongs, it's much easier to play longer rhythms with a lot of space between the notes. Also, the larger Gongs will have their own rhythm, or pulse, that you will hear/feel. This is something that you need to pay attention to. You can use this to your advantage on timing your strokes.

Investigating Your Own Rhythms

In the theater world, after every show, the cast and crew gathers around the director and/or producer, who took notes during the show. They do a postmortem, where they go over the show, discussing what went wrong, or what went right. I do much the same with my performances. I almost always record both audio & video. The next day, I go over these recordings, listening for things that went right or wrong. I also listen closely for rhythms. Both rhythms I counted and know are there, and rhythms that I may have been unaware of.

One thing I do is load the audio into audio software where I can look at the waveforms. I usually use FISSION, because it shows the 2 stereo tracks as one waveform (I have 5 different audio recording programs I use for different things: Audacity, Fission, Twisted Wave, Garage Band, Mixbus. Audacity is free. Garage Band is free on every Mac. Fission is $29. And there are other free audio software programs out there). This allows me to listen to, and visually examine what the music was like. Here are 2 screen shot examples:


These slow pulsed hits are approximately 6 seconds apart.

In the screen shot above, the initial large hit on the left is a large Paiste Gong (they were supplied Gongs, so I'm not sure what it was. Maybe a 32" Saturn or 
34" Symphonic). You can see as it decays, I started playing another Gong, a 35" Iron Gamelan. You can see that the hits start out fairly strong and then fade in intensity (this was the very end of my session). Also note the space between the hits, as they are fairly consistent. I was listening both to the Gong, which had a nice series of beats, and to the room, both feeling the space/sound and counting.


While this looks fast paced, this example actually takes a few minutes, with approximately 5 seconds between each note.

Above is another example from that same 35" gamelan Gong. You can see the eveness of the rhythm/pulse, and how I'm moving up and down in volume/intensity. The room was actually a concrete wine cellar lined with large wooden casks. There was a particular reverberation in the room that I actively worked with. This particular Gong seemed to be at the resonant frequency of the room, so the sound was this huge, echoing boom that seemed to come from everywhere. It was quite amazing.


Performing in the Barrel Room (photo courtesy of ABC Hobart) Iron Gong on the left.

And this is another thing: different halls will respond differently to your sounds. This was a very resonant room that loved all the Gong and bell sounds I played. So I took advantage of that resonance and worked with it. Later that day, I performed in a completely different place that had extremely opposite acoustics: it was very dry and the sound seemed to stay right where I was. I got no resonant feedback from the room, which was a very open and noisy ferry terminal, not the optimum place to try and play subtle sounds in, so I adjusted my performance accordingly.



Above is another example from that same session in the wine cellar, this time showing 6 strikes of increasing volume/intensity on the 32" Saturn Gong, before moving to 2 other Gongs on the far right. You can see a nice increase in each waveform as things get louder. Also, there is a very consistent spacing between the hits. I was both listening to the Gong, and its decay/the room, as well as feeling/counting the pulse I was playing it. It helped that both of these examples were larger Gongs, but I work the same way no matter what size Gong, or what instrument I'm playing.

So as you can see, and hear, nothing I play is random or haphazard. I'm always listening, always feeling, and often counting. And there is no 1 tempo, as that changes with different sections, so not everything is slow paced.

Here's a recent performance video where you can probably pick up on some of the rhythms and counting I'm using in the different sections. Give it a watch/listen and see if you can identify some of the them:





~ MB


Chop Wood / Carry water / Play Gongs™/ Play Rhythm

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