The Mystique Of Nostalgia

I remember when I first started getting into Gongs/Singing Bowls/Bells back in the mid-1970s, it was difficult to find them. Yes, you could find Paiste Gongs, which were distributed by Ludwig, then Rogers Drums at the time, but to find real Chinese/Asian instruments was a challenge. You had to know someone, who knew someone, who had a cousin in California who had a few instruments for sale. It really was by word of mouth. The only place to reliably find Asian instruments of quality back in the 1970s was Carroll Sound in NYC. Carroll Sound was a big company that rented and sold all sorts of weird, strange, exotic, and hard to find instruments to the many TV and music studios in NYC. This was back when the major TV & radio networks still had house bands and orchestras, and the majority of the TV and commercial music was coming out of NYC.

I still have the Carroll Sound catalog from back then, with such exotic items in it as the marching men effect, wind sirens, and instruments from all over the world. They were the first place I was exposed to small Gongs, singing bowls, various bells, and other intriguing instruments. I remember ordering an assortment of small Gongs from them through a local music store back in 1974. I still have all of them today.

Flash forward to the 1990s, when Ebay started to become a thing. Various small dealers were listing Gongs/Bowls/Bells, with many of these being high quality and at reasonable prices. I bought my share of instruments back then and must say all of them were excellent quality. I was able to score a few amazing deals on some things.

Flash forward to today. Gong/Bowls/Bells are now very much in vogue, and with that, everybody out there is listing instruments for sale. And with that, many people have antique/ancient instruments for sale. I'm truly amazed at the glut of things now listed. Here is what I've found this morning as I write this blog, mind you that some of the items are accessories, but still, the sheer numbers of items for sale is staggering:

  • Gongs: 854 (including bags, mallets, stands, etc.)
  • Singing Bowls: 2,552 (including mallets, pillow, cases, etc.)
  • Temple Bells: 300 (again, accessories are listed too)
That's a lot of instruments and accessories listed today, compared to just 15 years ago when the numbers were much smaller. But again, today everybody is trying to get in on the action. There are still deals to be found, but you have to do your homework. You have to know what to look for and how to (hopefully) tell a real deal from something that is just being passed off as one.

And this all fueled by the idea and mystique of nostalgia. Particularly the idea that the old instruments are the best instruments. I'll be the first person to say that many of the old instruments are of exceptional sound quality, many which are unsurpassed even today. But, and this is a big but, not all old instruments sound good. I've played a lot of old things that, at least to my ears, did not sound either good or usable. Now sounding good is very subjective. I know that I personally like a lot of instrument sounds that others do not. But suffice to say, just because it's old, does not mean it will sound good.

Let's go back 200-400 years ago and look at the population is Asia and at how many instruments were likely created back then. Now take that number and look at the likely number of these that have survived intact to the present day. Now look at the number of old/antique/ancient instruments being offered for sale today. There likely weren't enough instruments made in the past that still survive to satisfy all of the supposed antique claims out there.

There were only so many instruments 
made in the past that still survive today!

So, about that 500 year old singing bowl you bought for $300…probably not. And that brings up another problem: accurate dating of old metal instruments. Some instruments can be dated by the size/type/design of them that was used specifically during a certain time period. But for most, it is just a good guess. Now for bronze, the metal can form crystal deposits that take at least 500 years to form (from, Himalayan Sound Revelations, by Frank Perry, page 88-89), so this can help to accurately date some instruments as being at least 500 years old. But these instruments are few and far between.

So unless you have been gifted a particular instrument by an old Monk or Lama, you probably don't have anything that is actually ancient. But that's OK. The idea of old instruments being the best is merely a marketing ploy to help dealers get more money for the supposed old instruments they are selling.

The Case For New Instruments

In my collecting, I have acquired some very old instruments that have accompanying provenance to accurately certify their age, and I must say that they are wonderful sounding instruments!, But, I also have a lot of new instruments, or instruments of indeterminate age that also sound wonderful! So what gives?

Things don't have to be old to sound good.

The majority of the instruments I have were made in the last 50-60 years. Some, that I bought new in the 1970s, are now old. But the thing is, they all sound great. I have spent a lot of time going through instruments, playing and testing them, to find the sounds that resonate with me and fit together into a coherent set. Personally, while I like the idea of old instruments, I'm more into what they actually sound like and if that sound works for me. I have played many old instruments that sounded good, but their sound didn't resonate with me.

So in conclusion, don't get so caught up in the nostalgia of old instruments that you overlook newer ones. There are many great Gong makers out there today creating new and exciting sounding instruments. These are just as valid as something 500 years old. Also, be very wary of anyone who is selling something that they claim is "old" and give a specific age. Do your homework. Deal with reputable people. And if it sounds like the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.

~ MB

Chop Wood | Carry Water | Play Gongs


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