What is wikiGong? And why megastructures?

Many things contributed to the idea of a project devoted to the sonic catalog of large man-made structures (see inspirations). But the spark that kindled a real flame—enough of a flame to get this site planned and started—was a story my wife brought home from her graduate ethnomusicology course at San Jose State University in 2005, when she was studying to become an elementary school music teacher here in California.

The gong, and a definition or two

It seems a well-to-do American woman touring Indonesia was so moved by her first encounter with the spectacle of the gamelan orchestra that she was seized by a passionate desire to own a gong. She felt the large bronze gong—the gong ageng, akin to the large tam-tam in the Western orchestra—would make a fine souvenir of this musical epiphany. So, being a woman of means, she instructed others in her entourage to make arrangements with the local villagers to “Buy the gong” while she continued on her adventure.

Months passed. Our tourist returned to the US and—being a woman of means—patiently awaited the arrival of her musical instrument. Or perhaps the passion of the moment had faded; for in any case the object of her possessive inclination was a rather long time in coming.

Then one day a large tractor-trailer rig arrived at her estate and disgorged an entire ensemble of gamelan instruments, the whole of a bronze orchestra, replete with bells, chimes, and gongs of many sizes. It seems the term “gong” can have a rather broad meaning, and her proxy had—by following her instructions to buy the gong—negotiated the purchase of the gong gede: the largest variety of Balinese gamelan orchestra!

Perhaps it was more than a linguistic faux pas. The “soul” of the gamelan orchestra is said to inhabit the largest of the gongs—the gong ageng. This gong provides the principal beat of every gamelan performance; it signals the transitions between sections, and begins and ends the piece. So it could be that the purchase of the one simply demanded the purchase of the rest.

(I admit to assuming the transaction occurred in Bali and not Java. The story as I was told it mentioned nothing of string and wind instruments that—alongside both male and female voices—make up the other significant “sections” of the Javanese gamelan ageng. As the large Balinese gong gede comprises more exclusively percussion instruments, the linguistic idiosyncrasy seems to fit. But I am no more a gamelan expert than our lucky collector.)

Now the gamelan orchestras—we’ll call them the gong gede, and I will shorten this to “gongs”—have certain properties. First, each is part of a traditional local community. The gamelan is used primarily for ceremonial purposes and forms the hub of local court tradition. The gong ageng—the large gong—sounds the tonic to the harmonious whole of the Balinese community.

Second, the gamelan is a symbol of community identity and worth. The gong gede is constructed of heavy and fine materials using many hours of labor and natural resources for smelting and casting, as well as for the manufacture of carved stands, suspending strings, cushions and pillows and decorative banners and what have you.

Third, the gamelan is attended by one or more caretakers, including master craftsmen responsible for maintaining the tuning of individual instruments and thus the overall sound of the orchestra itself. The gamelan orchestra is a living, breathing thing surrounded by a cast of characters, including players, attendants, and audience. An unattended gamelan—such as the souvenir acquired by our exemplary tourist—is no more than a relic. (In Bali, its pieces would likely be melted down and recycled into a completely new gamelan.)

Next, each gamelan has a characteristic harmonic content: it is carefully tuned. The gamelan orchestra is both microtonal—its scale often bears little relation to the Western chromatic scale, except in terms of octaves and fifths, the most basic of intervals—and exceptionally rich in the range of its vibration. Pairs of gamelan bells and chimes are often carefully de-tuned to create aural effects such as “beats;” this dissonant phenomenon, which Western music traditionally seeks to expunge by tuning and temperament, is a fundamental part of the gamelan sound.

But what is most striking about the gamelan orchestra—a trait it shares with its Western counterpart, though perhaps we do not always recognize it—is that it is unique. In the case of the gamelan, this uniqueness extends beyond the collection of instruments to the intervals of the scale itself. While some attempts to standardize the tunings of gamelan ensembles have gained sway in certain historical periods or court milieus, it is more likely that a traditional gamelan ensemble will be uniquely tuned than that it will harmonize well with any other.

Megastructures

Compare the characteristics of the gamelan ensemble with those of large man-made structures built after 1800. In the Age of Steel—post-Industrial Revolution—what do we have as examples?

  • the Golden Gate Bridge
  • the Brooklyn Bridge
  • the Eiffel Tower
  • the Queen Elizabeth II
  • the USS Enterprise

Each of these:

  • has its own local community (it can be its own locale, as are ocean liners)
  • symbolizes that community, its peoples, and their values to some extent
  • is attended and maintained as a living artifact of civilization
  • has an inherent sonic character, including tuning, and
  • is inarguably unique

Other candidates abound. What about:

  • the Pacific Ocean? Not exactly an artifact of civilization.
  • the Great Pyramid of Cheops? It could probably be eliminated for lack of sonic content, at least for casual practitioners, being as it is a pile of stone. But see John Bullitt’s fine time-compressed earthquake recordings.
  • the Hindenburg? We could have an interesting argument here, but it is gone. Not even a Relic, it’s History.
  • the World Trade Center? Post 9-11: ditto the Hindenburg.
  • the Empire State Building? Meets 100% of our criteria.
  • the NYC subway system? Absolutely!
  • the International Space Station? Sure. But that’s hard to reach by the average traveler today. Put that on the kids’ list….

Individuals present a special case. An argument could be made that, by the above definitions, 20 or so years ago John Cage could have been accorded gong status. Fine by me!

Practical considerations

So how does the idea of treating megastructures as musical instruments translate into this web site? Don’t these things need to be “played” in place? And wouldn’t it make as much sense to join the ranks of the attendants surrounding the structure, if only for the duration of a performance?

The first question is easily answered, as the web replaces “traditional” physical media as the primary distribution vehicle for music and video content. Not only does it reach a lot of people, it’s increasingly the way people expect to acquire new content. Laurie Anderson struggled with a truckload of 5,000 singles on vinyl and managed to tap the British pop mother lode in 1981, but that was outrageous fortune even back in the day. Something not so neatly nor fully formed, this project is meant to be a continuous work in progress. And while we do feature compositions made using our material, the site’s focus is on the means of production; collecting new raw materials and methods; presenting situations and environments; creation through enablement. The web is very good for that.

As for playing things in place, megastructures are by their nature far more readily sampled than played. To stimulate a gong-like vibration in, say, the USS Enterprise by traditional percussive means—striking this with that—suggests using cannons, shells, or wrecking balls. But in fact the Enterprise is radiating sound continuously, strummed by waves and wind and the movement of tourists across its decks and up and down its staircases and ladders. The material is there to be mined; it simply needs to be captured and made available. All we need to do is get it into electronic form.

Yet we do also aspire towards playing these instruments in place. It will take a dedicated community of interest, though, to pull it off, a sufficiently large “band” of suitably equipped individuals working in concert. And that’s the other thing that recommends the web approach: it’s a readily accessible means of gathering like-minded individuals and sharing ideas.

What’s wiki about it?

Our intent is to provide a forum for ideas and a place to share content for reuse. The experimentally-minded can contribute to wikiGong now.

Bibliography

A number of print publications were consulted for this article:

  • Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillo, editors, World Music, the Rough Guide (London: Rough Guides Ltd., 1994).
  • Don Michael Randel, editor, The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986).
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