Two Gongs (1971)
Table of the Elements
or all of the critical hand-wringing that has transpired in an attempt to delineate minimalist composition, there is an equal—if not disproportionate—amount of hand-wringing on the part of those that proffer minimalist composition in the first place. The distress, however, is understandable. Regard its source. It is a cantankerous and unyielding fucker. It is deceptively simple and barren; it is overblown and overheated. It calls for haughty exegesis, and scoffs from highbrow publications. Perplexing, yes, but unnecessarily so.
Grasping the import and wonder of minimalism is as close as the nearest conch. A single shell holds the sea within its well? Some have explained the noise as a byproduct of the conch’s architecture; some have credited it to the sound of the “agent’s” own ear—an audible articulation of the blood that rushes through it as the brain rushes to connect the sound with the sea. Another explanation—likely true—credits the oceanic sonics to the ambient noise around the “agent.” When one’s hand is substituted for the shell, the sea persists.
While there is something to be said for dispelling the mystery, there is just as much to be said for allowing it to persist. One of the keys, I believe, to not only understanding—but also appreciating—minimalism, is to allow the mystery to persist; which is peculiar considering the transparency of some minimalist work.
Two Gongs, for instance, is not only the title of the piece, but also the instrumentation utilized. Two Gongs is two people “playing” two gongs for over an hour. Spartan for sure; but those that go into the listening experience thinking this way will likely come away with little more than the title, instrumentation, and method.
Two Gongs could have been two triangles, or two sets of timbales. It could have been two rocks, two sticks, two pairs of clapping hands. Sure, the tones coaxed out of the two gongs overwhelm and overlap one another in a fluid and often natural geometry. Hearing the tones unfold and fall apart is just as intriguing an experience as hearing the seismic crescendo achieved.
Calling to mind the source material—that this is only metal—unprocessed metal acted upon by two players—is as big as it is banal. Have we forgotten how to listen? Are our ears only geared to composition penned for two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals? Holding to the latter will leave you soundly in the company of those that consider this not only challenging music, but also pretentious.
Chatham can most definitely “sound” pretentious: “What I attempt to determine is how to best use the new sounds and forms available to us in a way that isn't mere appropriation through digital sampling or analog extraction, but that directly engages their source in a way which transcends original musical meaning while at the same time imploding it, to such a degree that meaning is no longer possible or even desirable, but rather exactly the reverse: to initiate a rite of decimation of musical meaning and thought in order to partake of the fascination which results from daring such a thing,” he wrote in 1990. But his rambling syntax arrives exactly at what Two Gongs set out to do: Engaging the “source” in interesting—and ineffable—ways is a way to “transcend original musical meaning,” insofar as it decontextualizes the source and recasts it, giving it life anew—making something from nothing.
As tricky—and often impotent—as the verb, transcend, can be it is deployed here in no better fashion. If anything has exceeded, overcome, outstripped, and risen above and beyond its limits, it’s these two men, playing these two gongs in a piece of the same name.
Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2006-12-08