The Enigma of Von Kessels

Sometime around 2000, a mysterious and enigmatic figure, Von Kessels, commissioned the Gao Jiahe Gong Factory in Wuhan, China, to make him a 56” Wind Gong, which he would name Big Boi. The Gong became legendary in certain circles. He then took this Gong, and others in his collection, into a high tech digital studio and recorded what is likely the most amazing Gong album you will ever hear, Requiem (2003). They put mics just inches off the  surface of the Gongs, recording the very subtle, very deep tones. Von Kessels played the Gongs with bows and special friction mallets that were meticulously designed and hand carved to elicit the deepest notes from this massive Gong. The sounds they captured are like nothing you have ever heard before. They even included a warning on the CD that “the extremely low frequencies could damage your speakers, so adjust your volume accordingly!”


My prized copy of Requiem

I had the good fortune to speak with Von Kessels over the phone numerous times. While we talked a lot about Big Boi, we also talked about techniques and sound. But he revealed very little about himself. Here’s a short bio on Von:

Von Kessels received his B.M. Degree from The Juilliard School of Music in 1974 and is a composer of Soundscapes and FX design for feature film projects at Universal, Warner Bros. Paramount and Sony Studios.

That’s it. The last I heard from him was that he was selling his Gongs and moving on to the next thing. Then I heard that he is living in Russia and running a big high tech company. If anyone out there knows more to this story, or of his whereabouts, please contact me, as he and I have a lot of catching up to do.

A Recording Engineer's Perspective

First off, let’s hear from famed record engineer, Sir Arthur Payson (Alice Cooper, Cher, RATT, Laurie Anderson, etc), who recorded Requiem:

“When Von Kessels first approached me about helping him record a gong, I envisioned endless hours of mallet strikes followed by decays long enough to nap through. My experiences with gongs were limited to what I'd seen at the beginning of old movies, and at the end of old rock concerts.

If a musical instrument can become a cliche, The Gong Show had certainly catapulted this one to downright silliness.

The words “It's like nothing you've ever heard” are also cliche, but coming from a skeptic such as Von Kessels, my curiosity was peaked. “To hear it, you've got to put your ear a few inches from the gong”. A few inches from the gong? “Oh yeah” he said, “Thats where the overtones are.” He had me, I was hooked.

The challenge then, was to capture the intimate sound he was creating. A fifty six inch gong is impressive, even before it is played.

There in the center of the recording room was a massive gold disk, reflecting an ocean of light from hundreds of tiny pits that had been hammered into its surface. Light seemed to dance across it as I walked by. Suspended by a giant black ring, the gong resembled an alter, paying homage to centuries of artisans who had toiled over hot furnaces, carefully forging life into molten brass. This certainly was not the gong of my high school music class, tarnished and misshapen but rather an instrument of striking beauty and craftsmanship.

There is a certain irony when making a state-of-the-art, digital Recording of an ancient instrument. While the instrument has remained unchanged over millennia, the technology to record it is still in its infancy, constantly evolving, minute by minute. It took weeks of preparation to assemble all the gear we needed, and pieces of this puzzle only came together the day of the recording. Having arrived from all parts of the country, a quick inventory revealed missing components and a mad scramble ensued. Digital audio is like a finely tuned, high performance race car.

All the integrated parts must work together perfectly, within very close tolerances. Parts are esoteric and hard to find, and our resources were limited. It took all day to get it right, but that evening we were finally ready to record. Once having positioned the microphones, a simple test strike with the palm of the hand unearthed a sound that left me awestruck. “Over and Under” VK

So rich and complex, the myriad of “sound shapes” evolved and intertwined as it dissipated into the air. Its richness was beyond anything I had ever heard, with overtones riding high above a foundation of densely packed drones and beating rhythms.

This proved only to be a foreshadowing of experiences yet to come.

The sounds you will hear on this disc were created as if by spirits, with Von Kessels acting only as the medium through which they flow.

Unpredictable and fleeting, sometimes flowing while at other times needing to be coaxed, these spirits speak directly to our souls. Within these gongs lies centuries of life cycles. Not only of earth but of worlds beyond our own. The frequencies generated by these spirits seem to resonate at the fundamental pitch of the universe, an overtone of the dissipating big bang.”

__________________ 
Here is a short interview of Von from an unknown source:

Have you performed in front of an audience?
Never live...only Memorex!

Your musical influences
Electromagnetic fields from Earth

What equipment do you use?
Only *the* Largest Chinese Wind Gongs on the Planet!

Anything else?
Just some inspiration...

Von Kessels


Big Boi

The Legend of Big Boi

This next part is about Big Boi. This comes from Von’s notes when he was selling the Gong:

The first instrument I am liquidating is what many consider to be the limit of what a cast cymbal should be. It has been said this may very well be the second largest cast wind gong made. I say: “Always leave room for something larger”! This custom instrument was made specifically for the album, Von Kessels Requiem and has served it's purpose well. It is an incredibly powerful instrument. 


Stats: 

Type: Wind Gong 

Diameter:56.5 inches across. 

Width approx. 4mm  +/- .5 mm. 

Weight approximately 125 lbs (not including stand) 

Origin of Manufacture: Wuhan, China 

Method: Cast from ingot. 

Time to create: Gao Jiahe Gong Factory craftsmen created Big Boi in 10 days. 

SPL: 135 dBm @ 4 feet... it's louder than a Harrier Jump-jet engine. 


This one of a kind piece is the last big instrument created by the factory. Gao Jiahe changed hands to EastWest. It is run by a different set of people and they no longer produce instruments such as this one. 

Gongs that approach 50 inches are generally fashioned from a blank and not cast.

Issues: 

If you compare this custom cymbal with modern mass produced blanks of today you'll see a striking difference. Wind Gongs of this type are crude in the way they are manufactured but should be treated with care like any fine instrument. Although polished when leaving the factory, pitting, and divots from hammering irregularities are considered quite normal and a result of this custom hand fashioned product. I have never polished it but personally inspect Big Boi regularly for checks and clean salt from sweat that may end up on the surface. It is easily brought back to it's original brilliance with polish, or...let nature take it's course. I have prefered to do the latter. 

The sound is pure, clean and devoid of tell tale buzzing when cracks typically start to develop. There are no visible fractures. A crease about 5 inches off right to center at 2 o'clock is the only visual irregularity observed when I took possession, residing only on the front surface seen in the photos. Fine line surface scratches which occurred during the shipping process are evident on several locations. They are purely cosmetic in nature. None of these irregularities effect the tonal qualities negatively. 

I always store the gongs hanging in their stands to keep their “tune”. If the instrument is stressed during shipment, tuning typically can take a few weeks before finding it's “set” or fundamental pitch. This only becomes critical if you have very defined performance points, but is typical of any gong you purchase...small or large. 

All gongs appreciate kind handling. Keep them hung and they remain stable. 

Sound: 

Ah yes...what does it sound like? Big Boi has an incredibly low and unmistakable fundamental pitch. This instrument takes quite a bit to get “started” when played in a conventional manner using a properly weighted lambswool covered gong mallet. When struck with a moderate glancing blow, it's voice is released in an exponential crescendo; a storm that builds and gains momentum cresting in a full spectrum of sound delivering a multitude of frequencies that must be heard live to fully appreciate. Big Boi's incredible air moving capacity is awesome...you feel the note as it penetrates your body and resonates your skeletal structure! The spl of this gong will easily match an entire orchestra and choir when performing Carmina Burana...or dominate your rock bands 6 Marshall Double Stacks for that matter. 

I have never induced an fffff strike on Big Boi, not only due to it's eardrum shattering capability, (hearing protection is strongly advised) but because it puts undue stress upon the instrument itself. Surprisingly, this instrument shines not during the intensity of a big strike but the incredible overtone series it produces all below the level of a human breath at ppp. Putting your ear an inch away while eliciting tones with specially devised mallets, reveals a universe of sound created by Gao Jiahe that must be heard to be believed. Female voices, cellos, pipe organ and sound design effects generated from what is essentially a 56+" speaker drives the natural reverberation chamber of this captivating one of a kind instrument. 

Legato bowing with black horsehair bass bows reveals a deep tight bass, which envelops any room with a unique low frequency “shimmer effect”. Once fully decayed these standing waves (below 10Hz ) have a startling physiological response that is felt ... not heard on the eardrum almost a full half hour later .

The simply stated and elegant stand manufactured by Paiste and is no longer in production. It was the last one available for sale in the states at the Paiste Distribution Center in Brea, California. It easily holds a 60"- 65" gong or “smaller”... down to 36-40" in size. The circular design is over-engineered for Big Boi and can easily support a gong in the 225 lbs weight category. 

As with any cast instrument, (regardless of size and in the manner it is struck), playing them at red line...read excessive energy input, will surely shorten it's lifespan. I cringe every time I see someone haphazardly “bashing a gong” in the music store. Big Boi is a stable instrument that has performed admirably for me the last 4 years. It should last a lifetime if properly cared for by it's next owner. 

In conclusion.. a one of a kind instrument for the cymbalist who desires a stunning work of art capable of producing serious wave action. 

Interested parties with inquiries can PM me here on the site. Audio files demonstrating the extensive sonic range are available upon request. 
__________________ 
Von Kessels 


Von with Big Boi in the Mojave Desert

Personal Communications

This comes from conversation we had:

“I’d say my quest for large pieces was more or less a curiosity than anything else. I always heard how great the sound was from the larger pieces and the stories associated with them. Everybody was always riveted by big gong stories when I was growing up. I still want to acquire even larger pieces if I can find the right ones. But...as you know it's extremely difficult. Quality varies quite a bit.”

From another conversation:

“When Ed [Mann] first turned me on to the superballs, I found that they didn't really have the mass or ability to reproduce the harmonics I wanted or for 8ve [octave] strikes. So, I began the process of looking for new materials and experimenting with different shapes. My friend had a lathe back on the east coast and that is where the shapes started to get refined and developed over a period of time. I really like them now after much experimenting and have found several ideas that work quite well. Most of the playing is derived from reading the wave action rather than the direct input of energy. These mallets help make that happen. And, as you know, at extremely low volume levels. 

My friends have a new technology called SVS Headphones that reproduce the setup of up to 8 speakers in a room over your headphones. Gary Reber's Widescreen review [in] Sept 2004 has an in depth review that you might be interested in. Hopefully you have been auditioning the disk with headphones, as that is the preferred way to hear all the audio. Or if you have a 5.1 system with subs on all 5 channels and a lot of power! 

Yes, I like to bow, but I use two bows simultaneously for a lot of the pieces. Much like a cello player would use one. 

We used Schoeps mics and MS 10 Mic Pre's. It was all recorded an inch off the disks without effects lines or EQ, going straight into the DSD recorder. There were times that the mics were pulled way back for the 56 to speak, as on From DC to 60... The whole session was rather a quickly recorded experiment. I lost the entire first day in the studio due to a power spike that erased the header file on the recorder. Do or die...day two was the end result and the creation of the CD. 

The instruments always amaze me. You never know what sound is hidden inside waiting to be exposed, as it were. We had a lot of difficulty capturing the quality of the sound. Bardo movement I and II was such a take that I really agonized over. i.e. the high noise floor. But the female voices were so unusual, that I left them in. All part of what we experienced that one evening, good or bad.”


The promotional poster for Requiem

International Cymbal Solo Contest

The following is from Von’s entry in the First International Cymbal Solo Contest, held by the old Cymbalholics website back in the mid 2000s. Von’s entry won hands down over all the others.

“The piece that you listened to was an excerpt from a larger composition entitled Arax. The bowing action was accomplished using two bows simultaneously. It could have easily been done with just one. The size of the gong matters little, (I believe the excerpt used the 36 seen below) just as long as the edges are smooth enough to “bow” across. This technique is achieved by playing the instrument much like a string player would, with successive bowing actions. In this way, you never “run out” of bow. Double bowing helps the larger gongs resonate faster and keeps them sustained at higher volume levels for longer periods of time. Various other effects can be initiated once the instrument has sufficient volume. It can be touched with the bow much like a string, electric guitar or bass player would to elicit a harmonic with their hands, or to create any number of spontaneous rhythmic effects. 

As far as standard mallets are concerned...none were ever used on the CD. Most players use “superballs” or “friction mallets” attached to a variety of handles. Realizing there was a limitation with this idea, we have experimented over the years and created a set that seems to resonate the instruments rather nicely. These mallets vary in size, durometer*, shape and composition like most any other percussion mallet. The most important feature that seems to make a significant difference is the “chine”**… a carefully lathed band to produce a consistent sound. 

[* Durometer is the international standard for measuring the hardness of rubber, plastic, and most nonmetallic materials.]

[** Chine
  1. the backbone; spine
  2. a cut of meat containing part of the backbone
  3. a ridge of rock
  4. the juncture of the bottom and either of the sides of a boat]
It is this type of mallet that skates over the surface; producing unusual resonant frequencies, 8ve strikes and other interesting effects at will. The less input... the better. Most of Requiem was recorded below the level of a breath and it's at this level where the unusual frequencies present themselves (and hopefully are captured) in the studio. 

Arthur Payson recorded the session live using 5 Schoeps Collette cardioid microphones, 5 Martinsound MSS-10 mic pre's and a DSD (Delta Sigma Delta) 1-bit recorder in a 5.1 surround field. No added effects processing was used for this piece or for any of the other compositions on the CD.”

Further comments from Von on the music he recorded:

“The gongs on this Hybrid Super Audio CD produce tones in the audible range just below the level of a human breath. A total of five microphones were placed ½ inch away from the surface of the instruments to capture their sonic signatures.

Special mallets were designed to elicit the richly layered overtones, poly-rhythmic drones and “other worldly” frequencies. High energy pieces such as AraxFrom DC to 60HzAhmmm and Wandjina were produced by employing two bows, similar to string players creating legato passages.

When listening to this SACD, I urge listeners use high quality headphones so they may hear all the details I experienced that evening at the recording session.”

What To Make Of All Of This?

What’s most important about all of this, is to know that there are people out there working with Gongs in their own ways, without the influence of others, without following any trends or fashion. Von Kessels is perhaps one of the most unique and interesting players in the history of the Gong. The music he recorded is unlike anything else out there. 

IF YOU EVER FIND A COPY OF THIS CD, BUY IT!!!!!

Unfortunately, Von issued it on his own private label, so it's not currently available, unless you are lucky enough to find a used copy. There apparently are some downloads of a few of the album’s 17 tracks available on the internet, but the actual CD is elusive. 

Thanks for reading.

~ MB


Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Big Gongs™


Over the past 9 years and 3 different blogs, I've written almost 500 blog posts. That's a lot of my time and energy devoted to putting my thoughts and ideas out there on the internet for you to read. If you've enjoyed reading them, and have gotten value out of them, please consider a donation. You'll be helping me keep writing for hopefully another 9 years. Thank You ~ MB.





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