In the Icebox Project Space, a huge concrete project space on American Street in North Philadelphia, 14 local musicians and artists are stationed around gongs of different sizes. At a Monday evening rehearsal, Percussionist and conductor Tatsuya Nakatani is hustling between the players, adjusting angles, and giving demonstrations.
He is the mastermind behind the Nakatani Gong Orchestra, the world’s only bowed-gong project. None of the players has ever bowed a gong before. They will practice for a few hours, and will perform an original composition by Nakatani on Tuesday.
Tatsuya Nakatani demonstrates how to bow a gong. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
“There’s so much more than just bwang,” he says, making the sound of a mallet hitting a gong. “There’s beautiful harmony you can make, tremolo, vibration; you can change notes on the pitch. That’s my interest — in a different kind of beauty.”
He designed the special bows and stands that make gong bowing possible, and he created his own style of conducting, which he teaches to the new players. He’s very secretive about the techniques, handing out manuals with “no photography please” clearly printed on them.
Nakatani began his musical career playing rock drums in high school. Later he became interested avant garde jazz, and he took more of an interest in sound creation. “Drum set is not only the beat. Gong is not only bwang,” he says.
About seven years ago, he bought a van and started to tour, first with four gongs, then with six. And it kept growing. The 14 gongs weigh about 1,000 lbs.
The orchestra plays about 15 shows a year. Before arriving in a city, he asks a curator or connected musician to put out a call for locals interested in learning how to bow a gong.
An artist and guitarist known as “Alpha Alpaha” answered the call on Facebook. He says playing the gong and hearing the gong are two different experiences. “You kind of get the back of it, but when the sound comes back to meet the ears it’s exhilarating,” he says.
Percussionist Tracy Lisk has known Nakatani for years, but this is her first time ever bowing a gong. She laughs pretty hard as she tries to follow his conducting. Athough she is using different muscles from what she is used to, she is not apprehensive about performing with so little rehearsal time.
The bowed-gong sound is new to mostly everyone. “This is not a traditional piece,” Nakatani says. “There’s no history.”
He will also perform a solo set on a drum at the Icebox before the orchestra’s performance, but he says there’s something special about the gongs that he can’t explain. “It feels amazing. You know, everybody smiles.”