Gongs Unlimited

Michael Bettine and the Avant-Garde Gong

from Gongs Unlimited Newsletter Reverberations


Michael Bettine is an avant-garde percussionist and composer who has been playing and composing with gongs for several decades. Exploring the inner sanctums of and outer reaches of percussion is just one of his talents, he is also a journalist and teacher.

Reverberations is pleased to present our interview with one of the most knowledgeable Gong Artists in the United States.

REVERB: Michael, could you give our readers a brief introduction of how your musical background and how you became interested in gongs?

Michael: I fell in love with drums at the age of 12. I remember one day wanting to play drums, and I have ever since. I played in Jr. High and High School Band, winning a lot of honors, and just immersed myself into drums. I studied percussion at a University but found that very frustrating, because I was hearing certain things in my head and I didn't know what they were. The faculty was pretty straightforward - jazz or classical - so they were not much help. But one percussion teacher gave me the score to John Cage's First Construction (In Metal), which features a lot of gongs and sheet metal. Then I just started reading what I could and buying records. It's really been a journey of self-discovery.

REVERB: When you were younger, you had an epiphany seeing the progressive rock group YES perform. How did that become a fulcrum for your own creativity?

Michael: After a frustrating time at University - I was the "percussion weirdo" that asked questions no one could answer - I saw YES, with drummer Alan White. He had a big canopy over his drum kit full of bells, gongs, chimes, and sheet metal. I was mesmerized by his performance. This was the missing link for me.

He was playing rock, but he was also playing very orchestrated multiple percussion. (Take a listen to YES' Tales From Topographic Oceans, Amazing Stuff!) I ran out the next day and bought a big piece of sheet metal to use in my band. Not long after, I acquired my first gong, then I bought a second, and then ordered 3 more.

I built this huge metal rack that went around my drums to hold my gongs, bell tree, chimes, and sheet metal. This was back in the '70s, way before racks were commercially available. I was fortunate to be playing in various progressive rock bands doing a lot of original material, so I started out orchestrating parts, using the gongs and percussion for color and punctuation.

REVERB: Besides Alan White, any other influences to your work?

Michael: Other percussionists like Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, and Pierre Moerlen of the band Gong.

I also discovered European jazz drummers like Pierre Favre and Andrea Centazzo. They were adding gongs and metal to their kits, but in a jazz context. But most importantly, they were orchestrating parts instead of just time-keeping. I was focused on the whole idea that you could use gongs in a more orchestral and melodic way.

REVERB: This leads us to your original compositions for gongs and percussion. How does one compose for gong? Do you notate your compositions? And if so, do you have some individual style of scoring, or do you write it down like regular music?

Michael: I have various ways of composing. One is to just play the gongs and find certain sounds or patterns, then build on them. I'm interested in mood and texture as much as melody. The other way is having a certain sound/mood/idea in mind and then finding it in the gongs.

I often feel like I'm channeling music through the gongs. They tend to reveal things and show me little melodies or ideas. Not to sound too esoteric, but I also believe that many of the gongs found me, rather than me finding them. By that I mean that I'll have a certain sound in my head I'm looking for, then a gong will appear that fits that sound.

As for scoring, I am a very visual person, so I often devise a sort of graphic notation, like a picture or chart, that corresponds to the music. I find it much easier to memorize shapes that I play, rather than standard notation on a staff. So I often make what I call sound maps, which are basically a drawing of the set up I'm using with arrows and numbers to follow.

I can also notate things on a conventional staff, but because I don't have any tuned chromatic gongs (like a piano keyboard) at this time, I find that doesn't work so well for my set ups.

REVERB: You discuss "Rhythm as Melody." For the non-musicians reading this, that concept can be confusing. Can you elaborate how you go about composing this way?

Michael: For me, rhythm as melody is a means of composing much of my music.

I don't have any gongs that are tuned to true pitches, but I have put together gongs to form melodic sets that are in tune and have melodic potential. Often what I'll do is come up with some sort of rhythmic pattern and move it around the different pitches. Thus it has melody, although not always in the traditional sense.

REVERB: Some of your pieces that I've listened to were ambient and subtle. Were you influenced by Brian Eno's work?

Michael: While I'm familiar with Brian Eno, he's never been a big influence on my work. I suppose the biggest influence would be the gongs themselves, because I truly believe that they give me much of my music. It comes back to having a relationship with them.

I really came at gongs more from a melodic idea at first that was influenced by Swiss drummer Pierre Favre, Italian drummer Andrea Centazzo, and French drummer Pierre Moerlen. They all use gongs in a very melodic way.

The ambient side of things just sort of happened because I discovered all these amazing sounds and followed them! I've never really been into ambient music, although I like minimalist and avant-garde music, like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Stockhausen, and Xenakis.

A lot of what interests me is how repetitive things can be changed, yet still have that repetition you can relate to. That's the minimalist composer influence.

REVERB: Can you speak briefly about, or introduce, some of your CDs and tell the Reverberations reader what they can expect?

Michael: I guess the place to start is to be open-minded. Throw out all preconceptions you have about bad rock drum solos. The types of comments I get from people are like, "Wow, I didn't know percussion/gongs could be like this!"

My first CD, STARS SHOW THE WAY is gongs, drums, cymbals, and percussion. Some of it is composed and some improvised in the studio. There's some very beautiful gong melodies, some shamanic trance drums, and some very out-there noise percussion, but I feel it's all accessible given a chance.

My 2nd CD, LABYRINTH, is all gongs. The music is all about circular motion and borrows ideas from various cultures. There's some melodic gong pieces and also what I call soundscapes, that are very ambient, harmonic walls of sound, similar to the stuff guitarist Robert Fripp does.

This CD is very popular with people for meditation and yoga. I've had people tell me they've had cool experiences while listening to it.

I also have 2 live gong concert CDs, METAL POETRY and SHADOW WORLD.

Both have great performances and show that I do all this live. In fact, even in the studio, I record live, without overdubs or studio enhancements. It's just my instruments, some microphones, and me.

For people that are new to listening to percussion separate from a band, consider this - if you've seen any of the LORD OF THE RINGS films, half the sounds and music in them are played by gongs, so you've actually heard a lot of what I do already. People come up after a concert and say things like, "I've heard those sounds before, but didn't know what they were."

REVERB: What do you hope people get from listening to one of your CDs or your live performance? What is the best type of venue for you to perform at?

Michael: I would hope that people come away feeling like they heard/experienced something magical and different, yet that they can relate to. I prefer to play small venues where I don't have to mic things, because I want people to experience the actual vibrations from the Gongs, and not from a speaker.

REVERB: I have read a snippet here or there where you mention the dichotomy of keeping time versus manipulating time, from a percussionist's point of view. And about how you work with tension and relief from rhythmical stress. Can you talk more about that? Certainly gongs, being an instrument so akin to our spiritual nature, might be very useful for that.

Michael: Tension and release is a big thing with me. I really like to use this idea, which is like winding a spring up and then letting it go - then repeating it. It's all about energy - percussion instruments are really just energy tools. So I feel like I deal with energy in various forms as much as sound.

It's hard to explain in words, but there are ways you can both compress and stretch out time against whatever fixed tempo or pulse you establish. This is something I try and teach my students, and it's certainly the idea behind shamanic drumming, like a medicine man controlling how a sick person responds to the sound/rhythm.

Another idea to understand is how gongs work - they are just energy portals. The radiate sound out in waves, much like throwing a rock in a pond and having circular ripples expanding outwards. So you can think of it as being able to control how the waves expand. When you control time, you move into another dimension.

REVERB: I've heard you mention that it takes a while to find the "personality" of a gong? Can you describe that more in detail for us?

Michael: I do find that each gong does have a personality. So it's really no different than relating to people: the more you get to know them, the better you can relate.

I find that most people have a single idea of a gong, you know, that big crash at the end of a song in a rock band or a symphony. To them, all gongs are the same. But when you start to investigate them, you find that each one is unique. To discover their personality, you just have to play them. It's as simple as that, but you also have to pay attention to how they react to your touch.

I've come to believe in a very spiritual side of gongs. In many ways they are alive, in the sense that all things are made up of living energy.

Gongs are very personal instruments. They also contain a vast potential that is waiting to be revealed. In a standard symphonic type gong, like the Paiste ones I use, all the sounds, all the harmonics, all the notes are there, so you need to learn how to bring them out. That takes a lot of experimentation with different mallets/sticks, hitting them with varying force, and in different places.

REVERB: You mention being transformed after each performance where you play the gongs. In what way? Cleansed? Refreshed and Revitalized? Humbled? How does audience respond?

Michael: In all ways! Again, gongs are energy generators. There are stories of Tibetan monks levitating stones with gongs and sound, so there's a lot of power in them. For me, being in such close proximity to them, I feel the physical impact of the energy waves much more than anyone else. It comes down to Gongs being able to affect you at a cellular level, even a molecular level. And when I'm playing one gong, all the others are ringing in sympathy, so there's this constant zone of vibration I'm immersed in.

As far as the actual physical and mental affects, I often feel very drained after a performance, because of the transfer of energy involved. But I also feel this sort of energized thing. It's a dichotomy. The gongs open up your chakras and often release a lot of blocked energy, much like acupuncture or massage can do - it really is a sound massage - and it takes a while for your body to stabilize itself. So the next day I might be very drained.

REVERB: You've written a lot about various percussionists, both for magazines and in the book PERCUSSION PROFILES. How do you go about translating an art - drumming and percussion - that is so primordial and non-verbal into words? Do drummers find it difficult to translate what they do and experience into words? I read a lot of interviews that discuss equipment.

Michael: As much as a gear fetish that I have, I tend to not talk about instruments in interviews, because I believe the music is in the person and they can usually express it with any instruments.

Most drummers I have talked to are extremely articulate and well read, so they have little trouble verbalizing what they feel and experience. While there may be some specific drum talk, a lot of it tends to relate more to spiritual or scientific ideas, like physics. So I see my job as translating those ideas into a context everyone can understand, yet retain the meaning/intent of the drummer.

REVERB: Did your work on PERCUSSION PROFILES influence your own work?

Michael: Writing the book PERCUSSION PROFILES did have a big impact on my own work. I was able to ask the questions I've always wanted to of the drummers I've always wanted to talk to. A lot of my questions were about how they get ideas, or how they approach performing and composing. I was able to learn a lot of things from these fantastic musicians that I could in turn use in my own music.

PERCUSSION PROFILES was written for anyone with an interest in the specific artists, percussion in general, and avant-garde creative music. It's not a textbook or instruction manual. It is a book of discovery. It attempts to find out and clarify what these people do, how they do it, and most importantly, why they do it!

It also shows you 25 unique and distinct approaches to playing percussion, both in a band and in a solo/ensemble context. So if you think you know what percussion is, this book will expand upon that. There's also a CD with various solo/ensemble pieces from half the drummers, so you get to read about them, and then hear an example of what they do.

REVERB: How can someone interested in your CDs or your book purchase them?

Michael: You can email me at gongman@mac.com You can also visit my website at 

www.gongtopia.com. I'm always glad to answer email with questions about gongs & percussion.

REVERB: Michael, thanks for sharing what you do and how you think about it with us.

We highly recommend you check out his site and his music.

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