Gong Show: The Nakatani Gong Orchestra Emphasizes the Instrument's Ceremonial Side

When the average person thinks of gongs, the swell of a loud bang probably comes to mind. The Nakatani Gong Orchestra doesn't sound like that. Since Tatsuya Nakatani makes most of the instruments by hand, the sound that's created is truly one of a kind.

"It's a very interesting subject, [the gong]," he says. "Everybody smiles about [the] gong. It's a big, funny sound, and some think [it's] a very nice sound, but my gong orchestra is a contemporary [version] of a gong sound, and it's not a traditional way of playing. A gong is more of a ceremonial thing, and impacts the moment for sound and [sometimes with a] comedy aspect to it. I mostly use bowing with it. Like a violin or cello: a bowing gong."

He acknowledges that most people probably haven't heard his type of gong playing before, and it's often difficult to describe it because it is in a class of its own.

"First of all, they have never experienced this sound and music before," he says. "It's probably the first time they've ever experienced this because it's not the traditional — this is a contemporary form and it doesn't exist as a music genre. This is the first time. There are many different diameters and clang of the gongs. They make a different harmony so that creates different depths and different sounds. I think people can enjoy the differences, [which makes it] a very powerful instrument."

The Nakatani Gong Orchestra started as an offshoot of Nakatani's solo performances. As a percussionist collaborating with other musicians, he developed the sound through the creation and use of his own instrument tools.

"I always have ideas of extending my solo percussion,"he says. "So [by myself] I have two arms and two legs, and I have one bow and one mallet. But if I have four arms, six arms or ten arms, then I can think of new ways [to create sound]. A nice harmony comes out of the gongs. And also, the sounds hitting each other make different vibrations and that's very special to me. And that was how the idea of the gong orchestra started growing."

As the orchestra grew, his bow making skills grew as well.

"There is no proper bow in the market," he says. "If you go to a music store or search for a bow for percussion, it doesn't exist. Using a violin or cello bow is too weak, so I've constructed my own, and I use my handmade bows and oversized bows and small bows. I make [and use] a mallet also, which makes a very special sound on the gongs. So I started making them from scratch. I made a prototype and just tried it [again and again]."

As he obtained more tools and got better at making his bows and mallets, his workshop grew to take over his garage and he now sells his crafts. These homemade tools allow him to find the exact sound he is looking for with the gongs.

When asked where he gets his inspiration, he finds that it is difficult to answer.

"I get so many inspirations every day, and meeting people and [seeing] visual art," he says. "All kinds of things [inspire me]."

Indeed, his gongs seem to sing to each other, drawing further inspiration from themselves. Set up as a series of no more than 10 metal gongs in various sizes around a room, the gong orchestra looks fairly simple. The sound emitted seems quite simple, even as a single gong is layered by another and another one after that. Yet it's quite easy to get lost as you walk along that landscape and realize you've ventured much farther out than you intended. The gongs sing out an endless, entrancing roar as Nakatani and his musicians manipulate their pitches and notes.

"It's not loud, but the sound is big," he says."The level is really low, but you feel like [it's] very loud and your ears completely open. You do not need earplugs. I [once] had a child in the audience, maybe 5 years old. He had two pennies in his hand, and everybody was hearing the sound while the performance [was going on]. And I could tell he had exactly two pennies in his hand."

Originally from Japan, Nakatani resides in Pennsylvania and has toured quite a bit across the U.S., Mexico and Europe, with many musicians working with him in local areas. He's even customized his touring van to suit his needs by gutting the cabin and turning it into a camper of sorts. His tours usually last about three to four months.

"You have to keep your body conditioned and happy," he says. "You can go grocery shopping [instead of eating out]. You are always waiting, so it is something nice to have for a place to wait. I can make coffee and cook a nice meal. Change my clothes."

Who knew the leader of a gong orchestra could travel the country like a rock star?