The Experience of GONGTOPIA

This is what I do

It's been a while since I played a full solo concert. Part of that is the sheer enormity of just putting it on. When I say solo concert, I mean solo concert, as in, I do everything: hauling the gear, setting things up, performing, tearing things down, then hauling it back home. My youngest son, Aiden, used to help a lot, and knows how set most everything up. But he's off to University. Now it's just me, which explains why I don't drag the whole set up out as much as I used to.

So I finally played another full solo concert last Sunday, October 13th. The venue was a beautiful old church with high marble ceilings and large stained glass windows. These old churches were built to magnify the sound of the choirs and pipe organs, so the acoustics are really quite amazing. I had been looking forward to playing there and making a live recording.

Packed and ready, 12 cases of heavy metal

This is how it is in real life.

It became a day of rushing around trying to get everything set. There's nothing quite like hauling around 12 case with hundreds of pounds of Gongs & stands. I always allow myself extra time so I can bring everything in, set it up, sound check, and then have time to relax. The late church service on Sunday ended up having a baptism, lots of music, and ran very late. Normally I like to have 1.5 to 2 hours to set up and check things. But with the service running late I ended up setting up all the stands out in the entryway to save time. When the service was finally over, I had about 45 minutes to go before the 3pm start time. So I rushed all my stands into the sanctuary and positioned them, making sure the fittings were tight. Then I brought all the instrument cases in and set them out. It took a while to hang everything in the right places. Then I had to sort and distribute my mallets around the set up. Finally I got my set lists put up and made sure things were basically ready to go. It was nearly 3pm and the place was filling with people.

I had planned to record both audio and video, but I ran out of time to set everything up. So the video had to go (very disappointing). I set up my laptop and stereo mic set up (I went with the mics in an ORTF set up, instead of the usual XY, because of the very reverberant space.) I also set up my back up hand held recorder and turned everything on. By then I was tired from running around and trying to get everything ready. It was time to start and I said I needed 5 minutes to get set. A quick change of clothes and going through things in my head, and then it was go time.

Set up for the concert

On with the show…

With the very large amount of gear I have to set up, I really do like as much time as possible to set up, because there's a lot to check on. I also love to do a short sound check to make sure things are right (with that much racking, I always find a few things rattling). Invariably, with a quick set up like this, there was no time to check things, and there were some things that weren't right. But it was time to go. WhenI finally started playing, the first thing I noticed was a very annoying squeak when I played a certain Gong. I kept hoping that I was the only one to hear it, as there was nothing I could do. I kept playing and moved on the the next song. This was one for the melodic Gong play. It was when I hit the 2nd part of the song, sort of the chorus, that I noticed it. In my haste I had hung some of the small Gongs out of order, so the melody I was expecting became something else entirely! Fortunately, it didn't sound bad, just different, and I doubt anyone would notice (a sound check would have caught this!). I kept going like nothing was wrong. Being a solo player, I have the advantage of being able to change things at will, because there are no other band members trying to follow the music. So I learned long ago to just keep going like nothing is wrong. It also helps to be an experience improvisor. I also believe the old saying that "there are no accidents" and have had some interesting things happen that I remembered and later recreated.

Lost in the vibrations

The sound in the church was very inspiring, and I sometimes played with the long reverb time, letting things evaporate into the air, or timing certain things to match the reverb and create interesting echo effects. As a listener, it was fun just to hear the sound. I'm used to my studio, which is very dry. So the massive, all encompassing reverb of the church left me feeling drenched in vibrations. It also changed the way I played some things.

Another interesting thing was, that I had changed out some Gongs in the set up, and older compositions took on a new sound. I like to do that. As I packed up things, I looked around the studio and made specific choices of what to bring. I do this for almost all gigs. I like to keep things fresh, and find new/different sounds inspiring. For example, I often bring a pair of small 6" diameter Chinese Bo cymbals to play hand held. While packing up, I decided to bring only 1 Bo cymbal with a 6" REMO Spoxe. This made for a very interesting, more percussive sound (see the 4th photo down from the top).

I also played the complete SOUNDINGS album as the middle of the set. I hadn't played the whole piece since the debut concerts in Cleveland back in 2010. It too morphed some with the different Gongs. Even though most of my music is composed, I see it as always evolving. Nothing is static. I like to play around with both different instruments and different mallets to change the way the sounds present themselves. For example, on one part of SOUNDINGS that features the 22" Accent Gong in a lead role, I used a 22" Thin Steel Gong that has a much darker tone and character. The song was the same, but the sound was darker and created a very different atmosphere. 

Making a Sacred Noise

Jumping without a net

I also improvised a fair amount. I like to improvise between songs, sort of creating a bridge between one composition and another. I tend to play things as long medleys tied together with improvisations. The improvs also help keep things fresh, as I'm never playing the exact same thing each show. I also find them to be a sort of laboratory where I try out new things, new ideas, new sounds. I've had some great compositions that started out as improvs. 

The Gongs/Bells/Bowls themselves all responded with a wonderful amount of clarity and overtones. The acoustics brought out the best in them. Gongs are funny things, sometimes they really sing, sometimes they don't. I didn't have to work very much to have them yield up their sounds.The 32" Symphonic was even more resonant than usual. I could hear choirs, symphonies, and more. Every instrument has its own personality, and they all seemed to be as excited about the space as I was.

Command & Control Center

Aside from the few minor problems I mentioned above, everything went well and I really enjoyed playing in such a reverberant space. I'd love to do a tour of just old churches. That would be amazing.

~ MB

The full concert recording is now available: ASCENSION


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