FAQS

FAQs


Actual questions from actual people about what I do and the gear that I use:


Q) Where are your Gongs from and where do you get them?


A) I have Gongs from all over the world: China, Japan, Thailand, Tibet, Vietnam, Indonesia, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and even the USA. My main Gongs I get from Paiste AG in Switzerland, as I am a Paiste endorsing artist. I also have gongs made by Michael Paiste, Steve Hubback & Zeke Dauner. My links page lists various Gong dealers that I purchase Gongs from.


Q) Are any of your Gongs tuned to specific notes?


I have 2 Paiste Planet Gongs tuned to specific pitches: 28˝ Jupiter —F#2 (183.58 Hz), and 24˝ Venus—A2 (221.23 Hz). None of my other Gongs are tuned to specific Western pitches, that is the chromatic scale. But many of my Gongs do present a specific pitch and I have arranged them to form a melodic set unto themselves. My Kulintang set is tuned to a pentatonic scale, but again, not to specific Western notes. This makes my Gong set up wholly unique.

I did take a tuner and go through all of my instruments to find their pitches, but it was more for curiosity than anything else. I have a good ear, and know the sounds of all my instruments, so I don’t worry about the pitches when I play. It’s really no different than having a piano and just playing the notes that fit the key and the music you are playing.

I do have plans to purchase 2 octaves of actual tuned Gongs in the future in order to be able to play specific melodies with other instruments.


Q) What is a Gong Bath/Meditation?


A) Gong Bath is a generic term that has been in use for at least 20, if not more, years both in the USA and Europe. It refers to how participants bathe in the sound waves produced by the Gongs and other instruments.  A Gong Meditation (the term I use) is basically the same type session where I play the Gongs/Bowls/Bells in an ambient soundscape for approximately 60 minutes. The sounds ebb and flow, changing in shape and volume. The vibrations affect the body at a cellular level, releasing blocked energy and allowing a relaxed state. The idea is to produce a meditative state where participants can relax and destress from our very hectic and stressful world.


Q) How long does it take to set up/tear down your set?


A) My complete solo concert set up (drums/Gongs/percussion) takes 2 hours to set up, 1 hour to tear down. It helps if I have enough room to set out and open up all the cases, leaving the stage/performance area clear. But sometimes the places I play are small and I am forced to keep moving cases and equipment around as I build the racks and finally mount the instruments.

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The full concert set up from November 2003

The full concert Gong/Bowl/Bell set up by itself takes about an 1 1/2 hours to both set up and tear down. Again, having sufficient room to work in makes things easier.

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The full Gong concert set up from October 2013

My current Gong/Bowl/Bell set up for Meditation sessions can be set up in half an hour. Doing it so much, I’ve got it down. Packing up takes a little longer, because I have to fit things into bags and cases.

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The full Gong Meditation set up from July 2017

The hardest part is that it’s only me doing this, no road crew or helpers. So I try to keep things compact to carry and easy to set up. In my younger days, when I was in prog bands, I often carried around a huge double bass drum kit with the full Gong rack, as well as 2 timpani! I also had a specially built platform that the racks bolted onto—I had self made drum racks back in the 1970’s & 80’s! Alas, not anymore.


Q) What sort of experiences shaped your playing?


A) I remember in 1977 picking up a record called Percussion Profiles (on the JAPO label, which became ECM). It was commissioned by the Paiste cymbal company in Switzerland and featured five Paiste artists along with keyboardist George Gruntz, who wrote the score. There was vibist Dave Samuals, Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romao, and three kit players: Pierre Favre, Fredy Studer, and Jack DeJohnette. The whole thing was really a 45 minute Paiste demo record featuring all manner of Gongs and cymbals. I was just knocked out by how things were orchestrated, and the high level of musicianship. It blew me away. I was lucky to get this big fold out poster which featured photos and info on all the artists. I read all about what cymbals and such each drummer was using, and listened closely to get a vibe for the sounds. I then set out to find more records with these players.


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I think the other idea that particular recording introduced me to was drumming as orchestration. I mean, here was a six piece group that was almost all percussion, playing very contemporary music. The percussion wasn't your academic type either. There was rhythm, yet there were layers that were very intense orchestrations. And then it was mostly cymbals and gongs! So that definitely had a big hand in shaping what I've done over the years.

Around the same time, Paiste put out their Profiles book with info on their endorsers and descriptions of their cymbal set ups. I devoured the pages and sought out recordings of drummers who looked interesting.


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Back in the ‘70s, a big turning point was, discovering African drumming and Asian Gamelan recordings. At the same time also discovering contemporary classical composers like John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who all wrote amazing percussion music. And then I also discovered European free jazz, which totally blew me away. 

One of the biggest impacts on my early career was King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues In Aspic LP back in 1972. While all my drummer friends were marveling over Bill Bruford’s drumming, I was totally taken by Jamie Muir’s wild percussion forays! That one LP launched me into a whole new world of sound discovery. In fact, I stole a lot of his ideas and used them in the bands I was playing in in the mid-1970s (Thank you Jamie!).

Larks tongues in aspic album cover


Another big turning point was seeing Alan White live with YES in 1974. It was a big eye opener. Alan had this huge canopy over and around his drum kit. It had all types of Gongs, bells, cymbals, and sheet metal hanging from it. He was playing very orchestrated parts (Topographic Oceans) that were not just time keeping. I went home from that concert completely changed. I set out the next day to add Gongs, bells, and sheet metal to my set up.

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Q) There happen to be various drummers playing in a solo context today, like Terry Bozzio. Their compositions are often very technical and demanding. How would you compare what you do to that?


A) I really admire Terry, he’s a friend and actually encouraged me to pursue playing solo when I first thought about it.  I love everything he does. He's taken the technique of drumming to an astounding level. I’m not even close to him technique wise, but that’s a personal decision to pursue a different musical direction. It’s also a result of various injuries I sustained years ago that affected my drumming ability, so I had to look at maximizing what I can do vs what I cant do on the drums today. 

Compared to him, I see my myself playing much more texturally. Whereas Terry is very much into short, percussive sounds (like his muted cymbals), I’m more into long, sustaining sounds. Terry plays very technically demanding parts. I tend to work in a different form that I see as more as like throwing a stone into the water and then having concentric waves/circles of energy expanding out from the point of impact. For me, I'm more interested in the sound & energy than the technique. The energy of what I do is everything, especially with the gongs. 

Where Terry is more Igor Stravinsky, I’m more Morton Feldman.


Q) How has writing the book PERCUSSION PROFILES changed your music?


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A) Its had a profound effect by allowing me to go deeper into understanding what these drummers I admire do and why. Its also showed me that each one is a very unique individual with a unique musical style. That helped to focus my own vision and really look at being myself. I've never been into copying others. Even in doing all the transcriptions of Bill Bruford for the When In Doubt, Roll! book, I never sat down and learned Bills parts. For me, this was an investigation into the what and why of Bill’s playing. So Percussion Profiles came about because I wanted to look past the music, past the notes, and find out what these drummers were thinking. My whole writing career came about because I wanted to know what other drummers were thinking about, much more than what gear they played.


Q) Can you explain some of the details of your music?


A) Currently I work mostly with metals, like cymbals, Gongs, bowls, and bells. The thing with Gongs is ,they’re a lot more versatile than people realize. It's more than this great big crash sound that everyone is familiar with. To start with, the sound is the universal OM sound, so all the sounds in the Universe are contained within that. It just takes a lot of work and experimenting to be able to draw out the different tones. I can get probably 3-6 (or more) distinctly different tones out of each Gong with one type of mallet by how and where I play. Now start playing with different mallets - yarn, felt, rubber, plastic, wood—hard, soft, in between—and you have a whole universe of sounds available to you. Then you can play them with your hands and draw out even more nuances. Now multiply this by the different types and sizes of Gongs, suddenly you have a complete orchestra of metal! This doesn't even bring into consideration extended techniques. I have different ways of muting the Gongs to bring out different harmonics and alter the sustain. So for some songs, I have unmuted wide open Gongs that resonate, for others, I have muted Gongs that have a real short sustain and a stronger fundamental note. So I can combine these and get an infinite variety of sounds from one Gong.

It’s the same with the bowls, bells, and other metal percussion: nothing       is one-dimensional (unless that is your approach). I can get so many tones/sounds out of each instrument with how I play it. I can also get more tones/sounds by combining multiple instruments, layering things on top of each other.

I will also often uses a single 26” bass drum set up horizontally as a sound table. Besides playing it with hands, sticks, and mallets, I will place small Gongs, bowls, cymbals, etc. on top of it. I can get so many different sounds and textures that I don’t feel the need for a whole drum set. I also use a variety of hand drums, like a tar and dumbek. I like the versatility of different hand drums.


Q) Why do you have all that stuff? It seems over the top to me.


A) It's all a matter of context. When I play jazz gigs, I usually take a 4-piece kit with 4 cymbals. That certainly fills the need for that situation. Playing solo is another matter. I'm doing something very different, in that I'm the whole band in one sense. It's also about sounds and choices. I have more sounds to choose from and mix together, like an artist having more than the three primary colors to choose from. It's also about having different textures, because I don't have the melodic capability of say a piano (why do you need 88 keys?) or a guitar. So I see texture (metallic, wooden, plastic, etc.) as its own type of melodic potential. Part of this is also the physical size of the instruments I use. Many of them are big, and I can't change that. If I had 88 small keys and corresponding stings all housed in a wooden box, this would never be a question of being over the top. As it is, I keep trying to compact what I can into smaller instruments, while at the same time adding more instruments—it’s a conundrum at best.


Q) Why don't you have a snare drum in your solo kit?


A) My set up was inspired by Asian Gamelan/Kulintang Gong music. I wanted a drum set up that was similar to my 8-Gong Kulintang set (2 rows of 4 gongs) so I could explore melodic drum ideas in a similar way to playing the Gongs. It seemed like a good idea, as I could use the same sort of techniques. I liked it, it worked out fine, and sounded cool.

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My solo set I designed for a tours & recordings back in 2003-5.

Now retired. I still have everything.

I often used a Pearl Tombourine (seen to the left above the hi-hat in the photo) as a pseudo snare drum, and also experimented with adding a 10" snare just to have a snare drum sound for certain compositions. But the main thing is I wasn’t playing back beat oriented music, so I didn’t need a snare drum.


Q) You sound like one of those deep-thinking musicians, who know what they're talking about. You also sound like you understand what music is, in depth.


A) Deep thinking (Hah! One friend called me a mad scientist, another friend calls me professor!)…I suppose so, because I'm also coming at this from a composing aspect as much as from a drumming one. The last thing I want to do is just noodle around for 90 minutes. I would probably lose my audience, when the novelty wore off, after the first 5 or 6 minutes (I'd probably lose myself as well). So I take this as seriously as I would being a song writer for a band or a composer for an orchestra. I look at different ideas and try to find interesting ways to convey what I want to say with each piece. And I’m always striving to improve, to come up with something new. I look at improvising as a laboratory of sorts, in that I can experiment with things that I discover. Over the years, many of these discoveries have become the basis for compositions or further explorations.

The other aspect to this is that I've always found percussion so fascinating because it’s wide open. There are so many sounds/colors/moods that can be played. Most people think of drums in the context of a rock band - but they can be so much more. I've been into African, Indian, European, and especially Asian percussion styles for many years now, so I wanted to incorporate a lot of those ideas into what I do. So the thing I understand the most is what I personally create and play, because it is me.

I’m also a voracious reader. I read everything I can about drums, percussion, music, physics, astronomy, and all sorts of spiritual matters. These all inform and shape the music that I do.


Q) It kinda bugs me how I can rarely tell what you're using when you play [on your CDs], and it's a tad quiet, but I really enjoy it.


A) You know, that's part of the idea, to NOT sound like everyone else and to strive to bring out different sounds with the same instruments. I've even had difficulty trying to figure out what I was doing on some improvs recorded at my gigs! To me it's all about the sounds and exploring their potential. I’ve had various people ask me what synths or effects I use on my CDs, and I can honestly say, “None!” I make a lot of acoustic sounds that sound electronic. To me this is part of the fun and challenge of percussion. I don’t always want things to be so obvious.

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Loud sounds, soft sounds, and everything in between…

As for being quiet, yes, it often is. One reason is because it is purely acoustic music without amplification, and I often play quietly! I prefer to play small places where I don't need mics. I also don't feel that percussion always has to be big, loud, and in your face. People who come to my gigs are very surprised by how subtle some of the music is. But I try to cover all dynamic ranges, so when it's quiet, it's quiet - and when I wail on the large Gongs, it's very loud! 

So it’s the same for my recordings, whether studio or live. When I mix and master, I avoid excessive compression. This is not rock music, where I want everything squashed and maintained at a median level. All I really want the microphones (and recording chain) to do is capture my performance where I control the volume of my performance. So again, when it’s quiet, it’s quiet—not a loud quiet that isn’t really quiet anymore, but an actual quiet. And when it’s loud, it’s actually a lot louder than the quiet parts! That’s why I usually put a disclaimer on my recordings that the dynamic range is really large, and if you turn up the quiet parts, the loud ones will blow you away.


~ MB

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