WMSE Radio

Michael Bettine - All things Gong

Host Hal Rammel interviews percussionist Michael Bettine after a live gong performance on his Alternating Currents radio show, Sunday, May 8, 2005, on WMSE radio in Milwaukee, Wi.

Hal Rammel - And we have had live music from Michael Bettine here in our studio tonight on Alternating Currents. We're going to talk to Michael a bit. Welcome to the show.

Michael Bettine - Hi Hal, It's good to be here.

HR - That sounded just beautiful.

MB - Thanks.

HR - Yeah. Can you describe for radio a little bit what we were listening to, physically in terms of what percussion you have with you?

MB - This is sort of a scaled down set up for this performance. It was divided into three sections. The first part used a 32" Paiste Symphonic Gong.

HR - And then you had smaller percussion.

MB - Yeah. The middle part, the melodic part, was played on some Philippine gongs called Kulintang. That's a set of 8 small, pentatonic gongs that are toned, not to specific pitches like we would do here in the West, but they're tuned as a set to each other. So if you were to buy two or three different sets of gongs, they wouldn't match [in pitch]. But they're in tune to each other [in the set], like an Indonesian Gamelan, where they make all the gongs as a family, and the gongs stay together as an ensemble because they're all tuned to each other.

HR - These rest horizontal, they're not suspended.

MB - Right. They're small, real thick, and have what's called a boss on top, which is a small round knob, which is the part you hit. And they're sort of a cousin to the Gamelan gongs you see in Indonesia.

HR - But they're not necessarily part of the Gamelan ensemble, but they're a related set.

MB - They're related. There are a few different gong families in Asia that are related. Actually, the whole ensemble is called the Kulintang ensemble, which consists of an hour glass shaped drum, the Kulintang gongs themselves-which are the melodic gongs-and then there's the four sort of bass gongs, called Gangadan, which are similar to the bass type gongs you would have a Gamelan. The Gangadan are about 19" or 20" in diameter, but not as deep as Gamelan gongs. And then there's the Agung, which are very deep gongs that are often strapped on and played that way with one hand that sort of controls the muffling and the tone, and the other hand with a mallet. And that forms the whole ensemble.

[For the third part] I used four Paiste gongs: a 20" Symphonic, a 22" Accent, a 24" Water gong, and a 32" symphonic gong.

HR - Water Gong, what does that mean?

MB - A Water Gong–Paiste makes this and they are probably the foremost gong makers in the world-they make a set called Sound Creation gongs, which are 10 specially designed gongs. They have them evoke different moods and different atmospheres. They have a Fire gong, Water gong, Earth gong-things like that.

HR - So elemental sounds.

MB - Right. And they have some gongs that are Chakra gongs-very intriguing stuff.

HR - So then you have the large gongs hanging, and right behind you the Kulintang, and then you have something to the side.

MB - On one Kulintang song I had a 20" Gamelan Iron gong from Indonesia, which the pitch seemed to match real well, so it worked into the song.

HR - This is your small set, your mini set.

MB - Small set....yes, to fit into the studio I scaled it down. I didn't feel like taking hours of set up time.

HR - Now you had a much larger array of percussion when you played at Woodland Pattern a year and a half ago. But that wasn't your entire collection of percussion by any means.

MB - No. But that would be my solo set up. If I play out solo, I usually have about 40 gongs, about 50 cymbals, and then this drum set which has about 10 drums in it, and then all sorts of hand percussion. So that takes a lot of effort and energy to set up and play.

HR - Michael, you're based in Milwaukee.

MB - Right here in Milwaukee.

HR - And I know you do writing. That's a big portion of your work as a percussionist. Also, interviewing and documenting percussionists around the world.

MB - I started back in the early '80s. I've actually always been into writing, you know, school newspaper and things like that, but I really took it up seriously about 1983, when I started writing for MODERN DRUMMER magazine. And I've been a contributing writer ever since for them.

HR - Is that some of the material that has gone into the book you've published with Trevor Taylor?

MB - The book with Trevor Taylor, PERCUSSION PROFILES, that was done in conjunction with a British magazine, AVANT magazine. So none of that is the same material that's been in Modern Drummer, although I've interviewed some for the same musicians, like Fredy Studer, Pierre Favre, Alex Cline - a lot of the same musicians I've interviewed for both, at different times.

HR - I know we had Fredy Studer here almost exactly a year ago.

MB - A little over a year ago. It was April 25th.

HR - And I know you have spent some time with Fredy Studer when he was in Chicago.

MB - Right. Fredy's been a good friend of mine since about 1993 I think, when I first met him. He had a residency, he won a Swiss artist residency in Chicago for 4 months. So he was down there about 2 years ago. He did a lot of playing, did some recording. I was fortunate enough to be at a recording session - he did an all percussion recording with Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake from Chicago, a really amazing drum trio. And that's finally coming out on the British FMR label. That should be coming out probably this summer I believe.

HR - Yeah, because AVANT, and Trevor Taylor, and FMR all kind of...

MB - Right. Soundworld books and that are all Trevor's endeavors.

HR - And part of that was a really fantastic book on the Bachet brothers a few years ago that I really like.

MB - Right, the Bachet brothers with the sound sculptures from France. Trevor has some of the Bachet sculptures. Trevor is probably one of the foremost people in that sort of avant-garde percussion. He's played with, I believe it's Derek Sheil, who also does specific sound sculptures. So Trevor does a lot of work in that sort of avant-garde/classical realm of music.

HR - Another name that comes to mind, and somebody that we've been listening to lately, is Steven Hubback.

MB - I was fortunate enough to finally convince Modern Drummer-you know, magazines want to sell magazines, so they feature the big pop artists on the cover-but I did finally convince them to do something on Steve Hubback, who's from Wales, and currently lives in Iceland. Besides being a fantastic percussionist, he's also a blacksmith-he forges all his own gongs, cymbals, and percussion instruments. They sound like no other. I'm fortunate enough that I have a couple of his gongs, and I'm hoping to get some more. They're fantastic creations.

HR - I mentioned him too, because there's this new label in Milwaukee, Utech records. [www.utech.com] And one of the releases on Utech has been a Steve Hubback solo record, as well as duets with Frode Gjerstad, both great records.

MB - The solo one is fantastic. Steve is a very shamanistic drummer. He did a lot of work in Korea. He was fortunate enough to know a very famous Korean drummer [Kim Dae Hwan] who died just a few years ago, very Shamanic and just an amazing player. Steve was able to hang around him and really learn a lot of different things. So Steve's music tends to be very ah....Shamanic, for lack of a better term, very spiritual, mystical, trance percussion at times.

HR - So you do a lot of writing, a lot of interviewing, and I know your website documents all that really thoroughly. Maybe you could send people to your website.

MB - My website. Now I have to remember what it is....(laughs)...gongtopia.com

HR - Michael Bettine-they can do a search.

MB - (laughs) They can do a search on most anything and you'll find a bazillion hits on all my writing and percussion endeavors. So you can look up my website - I try to include a lot of information on what I'm doing.

HR - And there are a quite a few recordings now, and some recent ones.

MB - Right. I've got about six recordings out now, mostly solo percussion, a couple of gong recordings, just different solo percussion, and I've got a duo recording. And it's all intriguing music.

HR - And it's all available via the website....

MB - Through me. You can go through my website, or you can E-mail me at gongman@mac.com. Just send an E-mail there...if you have any gong questions.

HR - I know you're turning into an international resource on gong information.

MB - I seem to be. I get usually a couple of E-mails a week from all over the world from people asking about gongs. I got a recent one from the Calgary, Alberta Symphony. They had to play some piece that specified certain gongs, so they were asking me about "what are these gongs and where can we find them?" So I sent them to some sources I know. I get a lot of E-mail from Europe, South America, just all over. It's a lot of fun. I'm always glad to talk about gongs.

HR - Well I really thank you for coming down here tonight and giving us a chance to hear - I mean these, the sounds that come from these gongs and all these percussion instruments is just so rich in overtones and long decay - it's mesmerizing.

MB - That's the key.

HR - And to hear that up close because you're around here.

MB - People ask me, "Well, why don't you just sample everything, you know? It would be so much easier to bring just a couple of pads and have your sampler." And it's like, it doesn't sound the same, because you're missing not only the rich harmonics of the gongs, but you're missing the physical presence. Because if you're anywhere near them, they move a lot of air. And they physically affect me. That's what really got me going [with gongs], because just working more with them, the vibrations themselves affect my body. If you go to Europe, gongs are used for therapy in many places, as that specific thing, they can affect you.

HR - You really, literally, feel the air moving around those gongs.

MB - Right. Air and the cells of my body, especially standing in front of a big gong, like a 32" gong-when you get that moving, it moves you at the cellular level, and it's an amazing feeling.

HR - Yeah, if you want a good reminder that music is vibration, and not scratches on a plastic disc, or notes written on a page - it's physical vibration - the gong is the best reminder.

MB - It's an amazing thing. And that's why live music is so important. You can have the best stereo system and all the CDs, but there's nothing like a live band, when you physically feel that air coming from the musicians, and the molecules moving, hitting your body, that's where it's at.

HR - Well Michael, thank you very much for coming down here tonight.

MB - Thank you for inviting me Hal. It's been a pleasure.

HR - I hope we can get more opportunities to hear your work and best of luck with all these ventures.

MB - Well thank you.

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