Listen to this article
“We don’t call the gong a musical instrument. It’s a power tool,” says Don Conreaux, one of the world’s most respected gong teachers. “In learning to play the gong, the musician sees it more as an engine.”
I have played the gongs before, but today I’m taking part in a residential course run by 82-year-old Conreaux and his fellow gong master Aidan McIntyre, 67. Conreaux, a softly spoken New Yorker who cuts a distinctive presence with his long white hair, has been teaching the gongs since 1969, and the course has attracted students from as far away as Canada, Poland and Dubai.
The venue, a stately home in Dorset called Gaunts House, has been transformed into something of a gong paradise. There are more than 30 available to play, ranging in size from an 18in Chinese wind gong to the kind of towering 60in gong that was favoured by modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Many people in the west might still associate the gong with the logo at the start of old movies produced by the Rank Organisation. But a brutal strike to the centre, as delivered by the famous Rank “gongman”, can literally “kill” the instrument and it may take years for its purity of sound to recover.
When a gong is struck properly, the air swells with reverberations, creating a range of tones. The layers and clusters of sound produced are sometimes likened to bells ringing, monks chanting or choirs singing. Like other percussion instruments, each gong has various percussion points that emit different sounds when struck with a mallet — the harder the head of the mallet, the sharper the sound. The sweet spot, or most resonant area of the gong, is often found between five and seven o’clock.
Conreaux demonstrates different types of strikes. The first, used to prime and set the gong in motion, is always gentle, while repeatedly striking the same point builds the sound. There are down strikes, up strikes, multiple strikes and special sequences. Ultimately, however, you need to play intuitively. “Don’t be intellectual with your left brain,” says Conreaux. “You don’t play the gong, the gong plays you.”
Gently striking the centre of the gong gets the fundamental note without overtones, but an “aggressive direct hit is never a good idea”, warns McIntrye. As well as potentially damaging the gong, it can leave you covering your ears.
The precise origin of the gong is unknown. The first gongs are thought to have been fashioned from stone during the advent of agriculture, with metal ones originating during the Bronze Age. Over millennia, gongs have been used for both ethereal and earthly purposes, playing an important role in temples and ceremonies but also used to frighten enemies in war. More recently, gongs were in vogue during the Victorian and Edwardian periods in wealthy households to summon domestic help or signal that dinner was served.
These days, gongs are played in settings that range from grand corporate openings and special events to sacred ceremonies, concerts, yoga studios, detox centres and support groups for those suffering from diseases where sound or music have proved a useful form of therapy.
Listening to Conreaux and McIntyre play highlights the deeply relaxing effect of the instrument. Conreaux talks about how to “come back into our bodies”, but after one particular session I find I can barely walk. Other people report feelings of sadness or anger, and the individuality of the experience extends to playing: I feel noticeably warm, as if the vibrations are heating up the whole room.
You can play the gong even if you are musically illiterate but brawn certainly helps, as the larger mallets are heavy — to say nothing of the object itself. Most gongs are played on a stand because they are too heavy to hold. Modern gongs are made mostly of copper or bronze, with an amalgam of other metals including tin, brass, iron, lead, zinc or nickel. There are flat gongs and hammered gongs, constructed from a metal disc of bronze alloy. To shape the instrument into its full range of frequencies can take many months. They are not mass-produced and range in price from a few hundred to tens of thousands of pounds.
Conreaux shows us how to play smaller, hand-held gongs and explains numerous strokes and techniques, with names such as pendulum, heartbeat, swinging, whirling and muffling. I practise with a range of mallets and also with small rubber balls called flumies. These are dragged along the surface of the gong to create high harmonics. The tones that are emitted are sometimes likened to dolphin and whale noises.
However, playing the gong is not just about the sounds it produces — it’s also about the silences in-between, which can create a sense of sunyata, Sanskrit for nothingness. Conreaux shows us how to silence the gong by muting it with a soft mallet to halt the vibrations.
Conreaux’s journey to gong master started in the 1960s when he undertook yoga training with two pioneering gurus who helped bring the ancient practice to the west: Paramahansa Yogananda and Yogi Bhajan, the master of Kundalini yoga. At the time, Conreaux was working as a Hollywood actor, writer and director but Yogi Bhajan pushed him towards the gong. “Yogi Bhajan told me, ‘You’re going to Phoenix with a gong to help the heroin addicts’,” recalls Conreaux. “He wanted to get people off marijuana and LSD. He wanted them to use the organic LSD in the brain.
“I [took a] different direction and started teaching full-time. But it took many years for me to formulate all these strokes.”
Conreaux and McIntyre, who often travel and teach together, met in 1993 during a festival in Mount Shasta in northern California. McIntyre recalls sitting under a tree when Conreaux “played [the gongs] in front of me and I literally disappeared into the tree. My body felt like it had disintegrated into a ball of light.”
Conreaux’s courses now take him across the world. Before our training in Dorset, he was teaching in Spain and China. The next nine months will see him zigzag his way from Italy and Portugal, twice to China and the US, across Australia, and back to the UK and Mexico. It’s a gruelling timetable. “The thrust of our work is to demonstrate and explain the importance of the ancient gong in today’s world,” he says.
He notes that sound therapy is starting to become more mainstream — doctors are developing techniques that use high-powered sound waves produced by magnetic resonance scanners to non-invasively target cancerous and damaged tissue.
The highlight of the training in Dorset is an all-night gong puja, or ceremony, where we play a selection of large gongs uninterrupted for nine hours — split into pairs that take a 30-minute session each. The idea is to immerse you in an acoustic bath that, as Conreaux describes it, will “get you out of your body and in a high state of meditation”. It’s like meditating without making an effort.
Over the years, Conreaux has been gathering his teachings in three volumes that he calls the “Magnum Opus of the Gong”. As for his globetrotting schedule, he explains: “I don’t have that many years left to teach, so I try to teach like Santa Claus and empty my bag.”
Photographs: Jack Latham