A gong hangs suspended from its stand, light dancing across its bronzed surface, each hammered dent hinting at some mysterious overtone waiting to be released. If you grab the right mallet and strike it, that light turns into sound, the complex interplay of indentations drives the air, caresses your eardrums, and vibrates your body. The sound swells, fills the room, and gradually dissipates.
If you pick up a cello bow, say, and draw it along the edge of the gong, something else happens. You may find that you can suspend time: isolating frequency clusters from the rich sonic wash, convincing them to loiter a while, so that the gong sounds on and on and on.
If you are percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, you take ten gongs, make your own bows, truck them around the country, and assemble an ad-hoc ensemble in each city to magnify that experience into something acoustically mind-blowing. Nakatani has been performing solo percussion for the past 15 years, earning a reputation for his experimental approach to bowed metal. This Saturday night, he brings his Nakatani Gong Orchestra to the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, courtesy of Tigertail Productions. The orchestra will be assembled from associates of the local improvisational group Fridamusiq. I’ll be one of the musicians. To clarify what I had signed up for, I spoke to a cordial Tatsuya by phone as he prepared for a concert in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Nakatani explained that he conceived the Gong Orchestra as a way to extend the sonic range of his solo work: “You know, I have two arms and two legs, but how about if four arms play the instrument? That kind of thing, adding the passion, making so many gongs sound: that’s how I started thinking about this project.”
This sort of expansion would have complicated the logistics of touring if he had assembled a fixed ensemble. Instead, he simply asks the organizers at each location to find people, not necessarily percussionists: “I wanted to keep the touring artist as a solo format, so I can flexibly move around. But I wanted to share the music and do a bigger scale.” Pulling in local musicians allowed that to happen.
The orchestra will perform after only one rehearsal earlier in the day. Nakatani has designed a careful system to accommodate the tight schedule. Now in its “sixth or seventh edition,” he brings the equivalent of “an airplane evacuation manual” that allows people to learn quickly: “basically three-and-a-half hours to learn how to bow the gong, and how to read my conducting.”
The sound of bowed metal percussion (gongs, cymbals, vibraphones) is a color touched on by a lot of composers in the last century, and Nakatani stresses his own music’s modernist roots: “There is no traditional, or no ethnic, or no culture behind it, because everything is mixture. Bowing a gong is not traditional.” There’s a deeply personal element that extends to the instruments themselves: “The gongs I get in China, and set them up a very special way. I have special parts: I weld, I cut metal, I make holes. I create custom bows and mallets also.”
Given the immersive wash of sound that emanates from the gongs, and its East Asian associations, many listeners may feel the music offers a spiritual, transcendent quality. Nakatani says that “people think of Indian music, raga,” or “meditative music.” But while he doesn’t dispute other interpretations, to him the auditory and sensory experience alone provides the full meaning: “Pretty much, there’s no background. Just the sound, sound itself. But it’s very sensitive and quiet. Vibrations, particular vibrations, are the most important things to me.”
Tatsuya Nakatani will perform solo and with the Nakatani Gong Orchestra featuring members of Fridamusiq at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium On-Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler, on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 8:30 pm. Tickets, videos, and more information can be found at www.tigertail.org.