Of the three tracks on the Nakatani Gong Orchestra’s 2012 CD, only one of them offers actual music from the ensemble.
True, the middle, performance-centered inclusion is the longest by far, a 38-minute expanse of undulating hums, disarming scrapes and intimidating drum rolls. But it’s nonetheless telling that Tatsuya Nakatani, the creator and composer for this unusual project, chose to close and end the live album with his comments to the audience — introducing his ensemble, explaining the concept and the execution, crediting the organizers that invited him to perform. You see, as much as this orchestra is a personal project and an extension of its innovative creator, it’s also about reaching new audiences and incorporating new personalities.
When this group tours, Nakatani is the only person in the van. He drives from town to town, his 40 gongs and other tools packed away in the back. In every city he hits, he meets with 10 different creative types, teaching uninitiated locals his techniques for bowing and wrenching transfixing harmonies from his seemingly simple instruments. For him, the constant influx of players is a continual catalyst, pushing his ideas in unexpected directions, something he says just wouldn’t be possible with a formal ensemble.
“That brings a different chemistry into the orchestra,” he explains. “Great musicians, great technique people getting together and bowing gongs, it doesn’t make a good sound. If you think about a band, there’s a band magic. Why are some bands so cool? There’s a magic that happens there. It’s not the highly technical, amazing musicians that get together to do a band. There’s a chemistry that happens. If I go to the place and get new members, and I do the workshop, and we come together helping and spending time, everything mixes up together.”
Still, this unpredictable energy would be meaningless if it weren’t for the ideas and leadership of the orchestra’s namesake.
Nakatani — born in Japan but currently residing in Easton, Pa. — has spent more than 15 years honing his distinct brand of experimental percussion. More than most of his peers, he is obsessed with sustained notes, which are almost antithetical to traditional ideas of drumming. He’s after more than intricate patterns of fleeting impacts. He wants to create longer tones — bowing cymbals and singing bowls, tuning drum heads so that they ring out in uncanny harmony. The Gong Orchestra takes these ideas to bigger extremes.
“I used to be more of a drummer,” Nakatani says. “I was playing high-hat and ride cymbals and snare drum and bass drum and playing the patterns. That’s kind of what all drummers are doing, focusing on that direction. If you move away from high-hat and ride cymbal, you lose the basic pulse from your instrument, but at the same time, you can do so many other things. That’s what I discovered, and it took many years to shape that.”
It’s all complex stuff, especially when it comes to the orchestra. The gongs themselves have been assembled to allow for specific harmonics, and the bows — well, they don’t actually make gong bows, so Nakatani fashions them himself. But despite its weirdness, the sound is immediate and visceral. The bowing elicits tones that range from eerie murmurs to brassy bleats that suggest an oddly agitated trombone. Interspersed with outbursts of rowdy clamor, the Gong Orchestra — as it appears on that self-titled album — alternately lulls and excites, a dynamic display wrought from the most unexpected of tools.
And while the music is the biggest part of what drives him to do this, Nakatani relishes the teaching. He instructs that half of his ensemble be made up of non-musicians, in part to foster that unknowable chemistry that he covets, but also to expose fresh minds to such experimental sounds. Think of it as avant-percussion outreach.
“It’s all about the sharing,” he offers. “It’s about sharing this simple technique, and everybody can feel it. Everybody joins it.”
The Nakatani Gong Orchestra plays the Columbia Museum of Art on Tuesday, Feb. 25. The museum is at 1515 Main St. Music starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are $10 ($8 for members, $5 for students). Call 799-2810 or visit columbiamuseum.org for more information.
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