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Reverberations #2 - Debussy, Michael Bettine & the Avant Garde Gong

by Andrew Borakove February 05, 2006

Hello and welcome to the second issue of Reverberations – the occasional newsletter from the Main Mallethead at Gongs Unlimited.

In our last issue of Reverberations we investigated the ways Gongs were involved in slavery in the US and Buddhist enlightenment. While we applaud ourselves on the breadth of topics we attained right out of the box, this issue will focus more on the musical side of the gong.

We are delighted to bring you two interviews – one with a 153 year old cantankerous Frenchman named Jean Michel, the other with avant garde percussion composer Michael Bettine. Enjoy.

Debussy and The Gong

If you haven’t been transported by the mesmerizing sounds of Gamelan yet, we highly recommend you hear some. It will change the song you can’t get out of your head. (As much as you love Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You” it’s time Kevin Costner carried her out of your brain.)

Gamelan is the new musical crack. It happened to Claude Debussy, well known French Composer. Got addicted and it changed his whole compositional style.

Don’t believe us? Then believe this really old guy, Jean Michel, that we met down in the Caribbean at a health spa. Jean is like 150, and he told us about his old pal “Claudey D” over margaritas at the pool, and then during an herbal wrap, and then stopped when he passed out during his Zinfandel colonics.

Was his tale apocryphal? We don’t know. However, we do know it shows the power of gamelan on a classical composer.

Jean Michel: If you don’t think hearing some good crunchy gamelan will change your life, let me tell you about my old pal, Claude Debussy. Me and the Claude-homme used to hang, back in the day. Now I just hang. It happened sometime after I hit 120 years old. I take Viagra, all I get is stiff shoulders.

Anyway, Claude had what the good ladies at Lourdes would call an “epiphany” the first time he ever heard a Javanese gamelan. He was so moved by the music, it wanted to tear off his old ears and replace them with Indonesian ones. Luckily, I grabbed his knife, and smeared his ears with Brie so he couldn’t find them.

You see, it was in 1889 at the Paris International Exposition, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Claude and I were munching on baguettes and a round of Brie cheese, standing on the just completed Eiffel Tower, wondering how small Eiffel was in for him to have to create his huge edifice. (Before sports cars, architecture was how a man compensated.) Claude was doing a very funny pantomime of a whore frantically searching Eiffel’s pants sans luck, when we heard the hypnotic gamelan music welling up from the exposition tents.

That moment would influence my dear sweet Debussy’s music forever. Claude was so enthralled and transfixed, that he dropped the whole soft Brie on the floor, sullying it with pigeon’s fecal matter, and thus pissing me off even worse than when I see a crappy sparkling wine trying to pass itself off as champagne. If the vineyard is not in France, it is not champagne. It is a region, not bubbles!

But back to the composer. Debussy spent the whole rest of the Exposition in that tent.

Even years after the experience, Claude wrote to our mutual friend, poet Pierre Louys, "Do you remember the music of Java able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades . . . which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts, for use by naughty little children?"

By the way, Pierre was a true poet. You know back when the only things poets “slammed” were doors. There were no such things as “rhyming dictionaries.”

Claude also wrote elsewhere, speaking of European percussion in contrast to the Gamelan, "You have to admit that ours is no more than the primitive noises of a traveling circus."

“Naughty Children.” “Traveling Circus.” Strong words, yes? So strong they have stood the test of time and are now the same phrases the French use to describe George Bush and his advisors, and their three-ring War in Iraq.

Yes, I am opinionated. I’m 153 years old and French. It’s my harsh searing judgment that keeps me alive. That and the blood of poodles. I drink eight ounces a day.

Of course, Claude always felt that the primary goal of French music was to give pleasure to the listener. I agreed with him of course, I was never much for any music that gave me pain. Leave Simon on American Idol to suffer the pain of the bad music. Unlike him, I will not sacrifice my eardrums for money and a parade of ambling, ambient twinks in my bedroom.

But despite Claude’s enthusiasm for the gamelan, I was never able to persuade him to put in actual gamelan scales, melodies, rhythms, or textures into his composition. He merely referred to them, always maintaining a structure and harmony that was solidly European. He emphasized the “oriental flavor” as it was called then -- as if music was something La Choy concocted. Examples of this is in his work Pagodas or the prelude to Canope.

You see, the Claudey D couldn’t go all the way into composing for gamelan because he had to pay the rent!

He wrote his compositions with his audience in mind. And who was his audience? Wealthy, powerful Parisians. This group of self-satisfied Francophiles parented the children who would become the leaders of the Vichy government. You know the Vichy, they were the group that rolled over and took it in the derriere from Germany in World War 2. If a Frenchman were capable of self-hatred, we would direct it at that stain on our history.

Claude Debussy, who turned his back on Richard Wagner’s Teutonic tones, would have been appalled by the Vichy. However, like many a great artist, and unlike many a recent movie star, Claude was more focused on the creation of timeless art, not ego-filled politics.

Debussy remarked that the school of the Javanese musician "consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises, which they listen to with great care."

Is that not beautiful? Oh, how I miss the Deb. Luckily, I can still get drunk and listen to his music. Gamelan music according to Claude was “concerned not with movement in time- with leading towards something-but with timelessness.”

The cycles in gamelan music represent a more Asian view of the vast cycles of history, of death and rebirth, cycles that are long, longer than my 153 years. I’m a punk when it comes to those cycles. Cycles – as my pal Buzz Lightyear says–that go to infinity and beyond.

Whoa! Look at my belly. It’s amazing to me that I have liver spots bigger than my liver. Oh good, here comes the waiter with my poodle blood smoothie.

Reverb: Thank you Jean Michel.





Michael Bettine and the Avant Garder Gong

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 Metals,” 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 Ocean, 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?

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.

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?

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 andsound, 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
You can also visit my website

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.

Originally Published on XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Andrew Borakove
Andrew Borakove


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