Buying your first gong - Part 2: Symphonic, tuned and planetary gongs...
In our post Buying your first gong - Part 1 we wrote about the many 'big picture' things to consider when buying your first gong. If you've already read that post then you'll understand what we mean by things like Chau, Designer and European gongs. If not, it might be worth taking a look at Part 1 before you dive into Part 2.
...So let's assume that you have considered the options, decided that a Chau gong probably won't help you grow enough and that your gong playing will really be more about the sound than the look; so you're not too fussed about going for a Designer gong... What next?
In Part 1 we spoke about some of the smaller, more niche providers of European gongs; companies like UFIP (www.ufip.it) and Sona/Tone of Life (www.sonasounds.com / gongs.toneoflife.com). If you get chance these companies are certainly worth investigating.
The Tone of Life range of 'Element' gongs look and sound awesome and the 42" Earth gong I bought from them recently is very impressive. One of their larger models could be an amazing place to start your journey. Judging by their videos at least, their larger Air Cosmo, Shemoon and Water gongs (not to be confused with the Asian or Oetken Water Gongs!) would be a good place to start looking.
What a lot of gongs these companies make! And what do all those wonderful esoteric names really mean?
Let's start at the beginning...
What most of us call a gong is actually a Tam Tam. A true gong has a raised central boss, a bit like an ancient warriors shield, which tends to add more rigidity to the structure and decrease its tonal range. In contrast, a Tam Tam has a flat face, often scored with tuning lines which make the playing surface thinner and more flexible and help the instrument generate a rich diversity of harmonics and derived sounds. To confuse the issue Paiste tend to call their Tam Tam's gongs whilst they do actually make 2 instruments with raised central bosses, i.e true gongs - in their Sound Creation range. Whereas the current Meinl catalogue makes liberal use of the term Tam Tam, which is technically correct, but sometimes they describe their Tam Tam's as gongs too!. Don't worry, both companies are mainly selling the same things and a quick look at a picture of the instrument you are interested in will soon show you what you are actually dealing with.
So let's take a brief look at the different types of gong (i.e. Tam Tam) that you can choose from, if you are looking at Paiste or Oetken/Meinl. For now we'll ignore anything with the words 'Sound Creation' in the title. Well also put aside the two Paiste 'add on' ranges of little 'Deco' and 'Accent' gongs, as well as the innovative designs, like water gongs, heart gongs and Thor gongs that occasionally pop out of the Oetken workshop - as none of these are likely to be the ideal place for you to start your gong collection, and we can talk about them in another post...
Not so long ago (depending on your age) the vast majority of gongs were 'symphonics'. Symphonic gongs are effectively any gong which has been manufactured to produce the best sound it can, without attempting to change the basic note that is produced when the centre of the gong is struck firmly. This basic note depends upon the physical diameter of the instrument, the characteristics of the specific metal used to make it, and the amount of tension built into it's face by the craftsman who made it. So generally, if you want a deep sounding symphonic you'll need to buy a big one, if you want a higher sounding one you can go for something smaller.
From this definition, and if you read Part 1, you might by now have worked out that all of the Chau and Designer gongs are really symphonics. But Paiste and Oetken/Meinl make symphonics in a vast range of sizes too and all of the really big (50+") German gongs also tend to be symphonics; presumably either because it is technically too challenging to tune them or because there is currently little market for massive, tuned gongs.
As well as the 'standard' range of symphonics Paiste also make a range called 'Brilliant Symphonics' which are basically normal symphonics which have been polished to a brilliant lustre. Supposedly they sound a little brighter too. Meanwhile Meinl distribute 'Wu-Xing' gongs which are Oetken Symphomics with pretty Chinese symbols on the front.
When I first started playing German symphonics it felt a bit like driving a top of the range BMW. Technically perfect, extremely comfortable, entirely consistent, stylish and responsive, but somehow bland. Since then I have changed my view and a couple of years ago bought a magnificent 40" Oetken symphonic with a bass note an octave lower than most. The fact that this gong hasn't been 'unnaturally' forced to deliver a proscribed frequency means that, like practically every other symphonic I have played, it has an easy responsiveness about it, a willingness to experiment and a extraordinary level of consistency that I have seldom found in the tuned planetary gongs that we will discuss shortly.
In the previous post I mentioned how your first gong is such an important agent of change and personal teacher for you. If my original Pluto gong was the teacher who taught me to let go and surrender, then my big symphonic was the teacher who showed me the level of engagement and technical dexterity that these European gongs might really demand of you if you want them to truly open up and reveal the full depth and breadth of sound energy that they are capable of creating - Something I have been able to apply retrospectively to all of the other gongs in my collection.
So to my mind, unless you are really embedded in the esoteric/astrological aspects of planetary gong tuning that we'll talk about below, it makes a lot of sense to at least trial a couple of symphonics at the beginning of your gong search...
Tuned / Planetary Gongs...
Here's the story... Back in the 1970's there was a funky physicist called Hans Cousteau who had a fascination with sound and the planets. Being a physicist Hans knew that the sounds we hear are simply waves of pressure bouncing against the eardrum, within a certain (audible) range of frequency and volume. He also realised that if you look side on at the motion of a point rotating at constant speed around a fixed axis, then the movement of that point, plotted over time, also produces a wave like pattern, known as a sine wave. In sound terms a sine wave would be a single, pure tone.
And if you think big enough then what are the planets other than huge single points rotating around a huge fixed axis (the sun)?.. Of course with the planets having such vast orbits and taking so long to go around them the frequencies that they generate are unbelievably low. But this didn't stop Hans... realising that, in musical terms, when you double the frequency of a sound you keep the same note but raise it one octave, it became very easy for him to calculate what audible frequency and hence note, each planet would make if you could actually hear it orbiting around the sun...
Paiste got hold of this ( or, depending who you want to believe, commissioned Hans to do the work) and worked out that with a bit of skilled hammering and gentle scraping they could actually fine tune their symphonic gongs to an extraordinarily high level of accuracy... Which meant that they could manufacture a whole range of gongs accurately tuned to reflect the higher octaves of each of the planets rotation around the solar system... And so tuned, planetary gongs were born.
Meanwhile, Hans set to work expanding his interpretation of how the planetary attributes of a specific sound frequency could be represented, working into physics, music, colour and rhythm. In addition, with their planetary component, specific frequencies could be woven deep into astrology, mythology and the newly emerging fields of complementary therapy and western Sound Healing. All of this he published under the title 'The Cosmic Octave' (www.planetware.de).
So not only could Paiste tune their gongs and name them after specific planets, but Hans gave birth to a whole belief system about what effects each of these planetary frequencies might elicit on the human mind and body. Perhaps there is truth in these claims, perhaps not. Certainly Hans was not the first to believe that specific sound frequencies could be used to access higher, more spiritual realms - in 9th and 10th century Gregorian Monks worked with the Solfeggio frequencies - sound frequencies that were used to elevate consciousness whilst chanting.
I remain 'open' on the subject, but from my own gong work I do know that different planetary tunings do appear to effect people in consistently different ways and that for whatever reasons, when you ask people about their experiences with a specific planetary gong they will often provide a description which is well aligned with the astrology or mythology of the planet that the gong has been tuned to represent.
Certainly the birth of tuned gongs must have been pivotal in fueling the growth of companies like Paiste and Oetken/Meinl... And perhaps out of genuine belief, or to keep the gong selling 'ball rolling', both companies have been experimenting with other 'special' frequencies for new ranges of tuned gongs: Such as the Meinl 'Flower of Life' range built around a 64/128Hz base frequency which supposedly has universal healing properties... Why make 10 different types of gong for sale when you can make 50?! And yes, whilst my own gong collection is limited to those I can transport in my van and play cohesively together at any one time, I do know some practitioners who have become addicted and bought entire ranges of tuned and symphonic gongs!
Which Planetary Gong is for me?
With such a rich story around the attributes of each planetary gong you can really loose yourself in the 'theory' of which one might be right for you...
Perhaps one aligned with your own birth sign?
Perhaps one aligned with your birth element?
Perhaps one that is supposed to help with healing?
Or one for transformation?
Or maybe one tuned to that mystical 128Hz?
The list goes on and on....
When I first learnt to play, my teacher encouraged me to have a natal chart done and take advice from an Astrologer friend of his on which planetary gongs would be most aligned with me. This I did and can confidently say that I have never been able to connect with any of the gongs that were suggested to me and will unlikely ever work with any of them!
Around the same time I also made a summary table of all the then available tunings and all of their attributes, so that I could compare them and look at likely combinations of gongs that would work well together. I use this as a handout in my training courses nowadays, but if you think it might help you in your deliberations then feel free to drop me an email through this website and i'll send you a copy.
At the end of the day, perhaps the best advice is to forget all of the human artifice, stories and descriptions. For a moment put aside the science and pseudo-science and accept that gong manufacturers will do their best to offer you as many products as they can in a growing and increasingly competitive market. So forget what the label says and really listen to the gong itself. How does the vibration feel to you? What emotions does it elicit? Can you feel it in your body? In your heart? In your guts? Is that feeling something you are called to or does it push you away? Does it energise you or make you sleepy? Does it irritate or soothe you? Do you sense there is scope for growth and development or does it all seem very one dimensional?
So we are back where we started... It's great to know the theory and have a story to tell, but don't loose yourself in it. Perhaps the more knowledge you have the more likely you are to start heading off in the right direction. But really it's between you and the gong... you just have to go out and try as many gongs as you can until you meet the one that is waiting to become your teacher...
Be still... Be open... Let it happen...