WBEZ Radio

The Soothing Sounds Of The Gong

[Announcer] There's a new method to decreasing stress and increasing artistry using a very ancient method. For WBEZ, Mike DiBonis has the story…

When you hear the word Gong, you might think of that amateur TV talent show from the '70s, The Gong Show. Or perhaps you remember hearing a Gong in a Kung-Fu movie, or that last crash at the end of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. But in recent years the Gong has been gaining in popularity and is being used in some surprising ways. 

At an alternative therapy center in Libertyville, about a dozen people are laying on the floor with their eyes closed. [Sound example] This is a Gong Meditation session. Kenny Kolter is sitting in front of a 30" Gong, playing it gently. He says the sound of the Gong can quiet the mind and allow the body to relax. Among other reactions, "I've had people say they feel like they're levitating. I've had people say that they feel like they're pinned to the floor. I've had folks who've just started to giggle uncontrollably for 20 minutes during the session. And I've had folks who've had an emotional release."

Now there are theories about how the sound of the Gong might affect people's mind, body, and health. Kolter admits he has no medical background, but for him and others, the results are proof enough. In addition to performing in Yoga studios, holistic centers, and churches, Kolter also has a contract from the state to perform at the Elgin Mental health Center. He says the response has been very positive. "There was one patient that said, 'You know, I look forward to every Tuesday, because I know that when I come to your sessions, every Tuesday night I sleep really well.'" Kolter says he's not the only one working with Gongs this way. "Chicago is a place where there are several people doing this same type of work, and as the months roll on, I hear about more and more people who are using Gongs for meditative purposes." 

At today's session, half are experiencing the Gong for the first time. Diane Baker is a manufacturer's representative from Lake Bluff. She says she wasn't sure what to expect, but was hoping that the Gong would help her meditate. "Every time I try to meditate, I don't really kind of get into that meditative state, so I thought it sounded interesting and maybe that would kind of do it. That's kind of one of the things I got out of it, I just felt like it kind of put me in that state."

But relaxation isn't the only use for the Gong. Michael Bettine is a writer and musician who's been playing the Gong for 30 years. He was first exposed to the Gong's sound from the progressive rock bands of the '70s, "European bands like King Crimson, Yes, Soft Machine, Emerson Lake & Palmer—and those drummers all used Gongs in their set ups." Bettine's basement is cramped with percussion instruments, including Gongs everywhere you look. He says his collection includes over 60 Gongs. [sound example] "Now that's a Paiste 32" Symphonic Gong, which is modeled after the Chinese style Chau Gong " And that's the sound most people associate with the Gong, but Bettine says that using different strokes and mallets on the Gong can bring out a spectrum of other sounds. "This always surprises people."  [sound example with friction mallets] 

Bettine also teaches and gives Gong workshops. One place he's done this is at Andy's Music, an eclectic music store on Chicago's north side. Andy's has become a sort of epicenter of Gong activity. Depending on size, Gongs can range from $25 to $3,000. Despite the economic downturn, store manager Alexander Duvel says that Gongs have been a top seller. "Gongs are by far, for easily the last year, have been my most successful one product. The popularity of these things is just really, really growing." The store carries the full line of Paiste brand Gongs. A representative of the company confirms that their factories in Europe are working at full capacity to keep up with demand. 

In addition to the store, Andy's has a warehouse space where hundreds of instruments from around the world are stored, and about 50 Gongs are on display. The crown jewel of their collection is the largest production Gong in the world, an 80" Paiste Symphonic Gong. When you stand next to this Gong, [sound example] you can feel it in your bones. The warehouse space is open to customers by appointment, but the store has been experimenting in opening it up for performances. On a Saturday night, friends and musicians, including 2 Gong players, gather to play music. [sound example] With rock musicians like Morresy and the Flaming Lips using Gongs in their live sets, and with Gongs being used for meditation and sound healing, Andy's hopes that the growing interest in the Gong will continue. For WBEZ, I'm Michael DiBonis

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