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Don 'the Gong' Conreaux in interview

Don Conreaux interviewed by Mike Thorne for the Stereo Society Click on any picture for the related story.......

It’s obvious that an artist’s life and output are closely interconnected. If they’re really thinking openly, the one can’t be separated from the other. Don Conreaux has taken the mix of lifestyle, art and philosophy to an unusually high alternative level. Playing the gong (as on Johnny Reinhard's Raven) is just a reflection of his alternative, integrated, holistic way of life. There is more to a gong than just making a sound. As you will read or hear, it’s a very accessible instrument……..

Don Conreaux was interviewed at his home in Greenwich Village, New York City, at 4pm on Saturday January 11, 2003

After the interview, Don gave a performance, lights down and the audience of two horizontal. You can download this six-minute improvisation here as an mp3.

Streaming audio of Don's answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question.

Notes in [parentheses] supplied by Don later

Mike Thorne: Why the gong?

Don Conreaux: You can answer that question on several different levels, but I think on a player's level it is that one does not need to have any sort of music education to play it. In other words, it’s a real everyman's or every woman’s instrument because anyone can step up in front of it, whether you’re two years old or eighty years old, and begin to let it play you. So. it allows a person to drop out of the idea of control. It gives a sense of freedom because one cannot control the playing of the gong. As a player, this allows you to be totally intuitive. There’s nothing that can go wrong. There are no wrong notes or wrong rhythms with the gong. You open it up. It’s like a portal, and through this portal comes a sound current that changes you, that has a transforming affect.

Every 'gonging' is really more than an entertainment, although it does entertain. It’s really a change of state and in music it would be called synaesthetic [para-sensory] because it develops your 'third ear'. Third ear is not necessarily like a Third eye, and it doesn’t have a place in the center of the forehead. It really is the entire nervous system of the body. In yoga we call it the 72,000 Nadis [from Sanskrit word Nada meaning pathway of Prana,or soundless sound in the Aura, referring to subtle energy within, and the electromagnetic field surrounding the physical body] acting as etheric life force…and then…we also have the string instrument of the body, which would be all the Meridian Channels of CHI [where life-force flows] in the body. So, every gonging has a wide range-a continuum-a blanket of sound that is really an entranceway into more of a non-material consciousness.

You speak of transformation, and you also spoke of education.

Don Conreaux interviewed by Mike Thorne for the Stereo SocietyMost people who have not been introduced to an academic upbringing in music are deprived of a great sense of freedom that an educated musician has. They may be closed in and self-conscious. So improvising non-premeditative music, such as with the gong, gives them a chance to experience this ability to forget themselves and to flow, as if the resulting music was a written composition, and as a musician they were performing it flawlessly. You really become the gong when you play and listen to it. You get that sense of unity and freedom.

What first interested you in music?

I liked the mathematical part of music. I’m very interested in frequencies and chakras [energy vortices in the body] and colors and the relationships, mainly because, when I was a child, I was labeled tone deaf and color blind. So I became immediately attracted to those areas. A lot of people don’t have the memory to recall melodies or to stay in rhythm. They have a split within themselves. So I think the gong has a way of healing some of those injuries to the psyche that stop people from expressing themselves creatively.

You can say that about music in general, but you’re pointing out that the gong has a lower barrier to entry. Do you think there are any other instruments with a similar access, which might also be taken to such a spiritual level?

When I was in California, I met this woman who tuned her harp so that anybody could play it. If you never played it before, you could play it now, and it would sound beautiful. I think it’s that kind of thing that I like a lot--to be able to play even if you don’t know the standard rules of playing an instrument. Then, you have a good chance of playing it in a way that will bring out its inner (primal) tone, because you will be exploring without any knowledge at all. There are very few instruments you can do that with, but the gong happens to be one. A simple minded person like myself just wants immediately to become in communion with it--I think the reason for that is because of a metaphysical thing, that the gong is named after the sound that it makes and that it transfers its power to the person who is playing or listening to it.

It’s an interesting thing that the gong does what it does. So it is useful in different areas--health because it will increase the prana-the kundalini energy--the Chi force. It flows through it so strongly that it immediately has a rejuvenating effect upon the musical ears of the cells of the body. So I look at the gong in many different ways but, mainly, I don’t know of any other instrument that you can actually go up to and feel absolutely secure that, whatever you do, the sound is going to be heavenly. The sound is going to have a kind of spiritual presence.

Most of our music education is European/Western, and we all pretty much grew up with written music--sheet music--but you can’t really write music for the gong. There’s really no way because it all comes from fullness. Today, most of our music comes from silence. The music comes on, then it leadsus back into silence afterwards. Gong music comes from fullness. It separates from the fullness to stand alone and then goes back into the fullness again. It totally re-polarizes your thinking about emptiness and fullness, of motion and of space Who was it that said ?Timothy Leary? “If you want to find stillness, you jump into the stream and flow with it." That’s what you do with the gong.

And, if you flow with the gong, you presumably flow with its character. What sort of individualities do gongs have? Do you think their differences are greater or less than other instruments' How do you describe them?

You can’t, really. You have to see that every instrument is a gong in the sense that it releases a sonal ray from its material substance through the friction or disintegration of that substance, and that out of that comes this sound. If I pick up any other instrument, I play it like a gong, but I think the gong is essentially not just a musical instrument. It’s really an engine of musical power. Its functional purpose is to release musical energy outward, and in that respect it is the most powerful instrument in the world. It’s the world’s first synthesizer and it can have an acoustic amplitude equal to a hundred-instrument orchestra. It has a certain power. When the ancients played the gong they used it as an initiation instrument. It was to introduce people to the idea of being out of their body, and it has an ability to do that quite quickly--to take you away; it’s called dematerialization. And as soon as you dematerialize the consciousness, it tends to want to levitate and to rise; it becomes effectively anti-gravitational. So it has effects on the psyche that can help you to turn things around and it can be beneficial to your normal life

You mentioned that it’s difficult to write music for a gong. But in the middle of the twentieth century, people like Karlheinz Stockhausen were experimenting extensively.

He’s actually the archetype of this kind of music's reaching into our classical world. Skriabin was such a person in his particular time. They both were mystics, right to their bones, so that all their music was meant to be an initiation. But whatever star system you feel you are from (or whether you don’t think about that at all), when you play the gong instrument you are creating an initiation that is very close in physics to the quantum experience of bi-polar/ bi-location, of being in two places at the same time. I really feel the gong comes along at this time to affect the rest of the music in the world. That would be an interesting thing, if we could figure out a way that the gong could actually help transform the popular music of the future.

You might be suggesting that we listen more, rather than just follow precepts?

Well, it could be, but we know that mind and the body in an existential sense are separated and isolated, and there’s a schism involved. In a spiritual sense we know it is a continuum. The gong itself represents this continuum because there are no spaces between the notes, there are no holes there. Everything is contained and when it’s released it goes everywhere. So it has some of those ancient omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent feelings about it, as if it’s a god or a guru or some great incarnated being that found a home inside some alloy. It has mysticism built into it. The one thing that happens after listening to it, for five minutes or for forty-five minutes, is that you feel as though you’ve just had a long deep sleep and you feel refreshed.

The way that it is best played in a musical, theatrical, esoteric setting or in a concert or as a social rite is with other musicians that are spontaneous as well. This is because you can never play the gong the same way twice, so it helps you to play with other improvisational artists since no one knows what’s going to happen next. You’re out on a limb. The gong exemplifies the Rudhyarian system of musical thought in that the greatest power, the greatest vibrancy, the greatest spark comes through dissonance. So this is the dissonant approach to music harmony. If you have any two sounds of equal volume, the phenomenon occurs where they merge and produce resultant tones, sometimes one higher, sometimes one lower. If you maintain and keep feeding that amplitude so that it grows like a balloon grows and becomes bigger, it will extend to higher overtone ratios, closer and closer to the exact ratio of PHI, 1.618033989. That’s the minor sixth in music and visually it’s also the ratio of the [golden mean] spiral. So it creates a vortex and its spiral motion brings together all the dissonant forces. It becomes so intriguing, because what it does to you is that you become it. You actually disappear into it. When you go back into the Vedic literature of the Brahmins [priests of India], this was the idea…. that everything came from the sound of “Aum” [in Sanskrit this is the seed sound of the Void or the sound of the universe] and it is the gong which produces that “Aum”.

Do you remember, back in the sixties, what we used to say when things got a little tense around us? We said we’d “Aum” our way in and “Aum” our way out? Well, it's true. The “Aum” is like a protective cushion. It is your most resonant self, and it hasno ego. You don’t have to control anything. We use our left brain in music education, which is very important, then at some time in performance the right brain comes in and spiritualizes that left brain activity so you don’t have to think about any of the mechanics around you. So, I think it is very beneficial for all musicians, no matter what instruments they play, to play the gong too, as a form of self-therapy.

You started off in a much more conventional media field. At what point did you switch? Where was your epiphany?

Oh, I think it was the first time that I was actually gonged that I really felt the full power of this great, huge, awesome sound, and that it could actually lift me out of the body, could give me that sense of bi-location that we look for in meditation. Plus a sense of ecstasy, that sense of samadhi or bliss which comes with the dynamic peace that seems to envelope you.

When did that happen and how dramatic was the change in your personal connection with the world around you?

You probably had something like that happen as well, back in 1969.

I did?

Didn’t you?

I suspect that mine was being more incremental...

You graduated or something from school that year?


1969 was the graduation year for a lot of people. It was a graduation for me, and I think a graduation simply means entering a new sphere of knowing and becoming. That happened to me in ‘69. Immediately, there wasn’t any question in my mind. I needed to have a gong. So, that old gong hanging right there by you is that gong I got back in ‘69, from a Tucson, Arizona music store. Now we have them specially made for people, but this one, surprisingly, had the traditional Mandarin Chinese characters on the front which are pronounced “Tai Loi”. These two words give you a kind of secret code about the gong, and from this little code, you can build a whole array of interesting things about it.

What do you mean by a secret code?

On the surface, the writing is a Confucian saying. It’s part of a quatrain, FAO KAY TAI LOI, but these two characters of Mandarin Chinese say just TAI LOI which means “happiness has arrived”, that the connection has been established between heaven and earth. It has other meanings. One is the “spiritualization of matter”. For example, the gong leads one into the Mysterium Tremendum (A Mystical Theatre of the Soul), which was also called a Sanctum Sanctorum (the Holy of Holies), a state that every musician I know just loves to enter into. So it offers that as a kind of place to go. This was put there by Gautama Buddha in 600 BC. He sent out 26 ministers to paint that message on all the gongs and bells of the East, not only to honor Confucius (who was his peer at the time in China), but to make an announcement to the world [Buddha died shortly thereafter, but that he is going to be coming back].

Is Buddha really returning to the world? The thought is that he’s coming back to the world as loving-kindness. This quality of loving-kindness is what we call in music 'holistic resonance'. It really is a telepathic resonance in so far as it links people together as though they are actually one, although in separate bodies. So it creates a union, a synthesis of diversities into a multi-unity in which we have an outcome: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It makes you feel as though, some way or another, you have had a bit of a soul quickening. All of a sudden you receive a soul food that doesn’t feed the ego; it feeds your larger Self.

So I think the gong is here to remind us that it was the alpha music, the music of the beginning, a music of pure tone and pure resonance, and that now, when we are in today’s more advanced stage of synthetic music, the original gong now has the greatest potential for the future of healing through synthesized music. It’s the head and the tail coming together--the alpha and the omega coming together, and, part of my job is introducing musicians to improvising à la gong so that it might in some way psychically quicken them in some area. Therefore, we gong players are really healers and the gong is for the healing of humanity as One Humanity. It helps us to look at our cultural and musical differences as gifts to each other rather than anything else. So it’s the great synthesizer. There’s oneness; there’s a live presence. When we perform our music, we do so with the idea that there is some sort of spiritual precipitation and that there’s going to be some sort of blessing, a musical blessing that’s going to come out. It’s not going to be religious, but it’s going to come out of the infiniteness of the inside of these metallic elements that, when you hit the gong, are giving up their elemental lives to allow the sound to come through.

There’s a certain realization that you get when you play the gong, that there really is a great spiritual entity that was incarnated into the gong by a gong maker through pounding it in order to make it a home for this great creative musical force.

You use a good deal of very elegant metaphors, which is in the nature of what you do and what you are dealing with. How do you reconcile the way you describe the world with the world of material science? You referred to quantum theory. What bridges do you see with conventional means of description? Do you regard them as incompatible?

I keep track of all the latest sound research. Whatever comes out from the realm of physics and science I’m right there pulling it in, and I think that these quantum qualities are attributes or powers of the gong itself as it takes people into a timeless state. Many people have a past-life adventure with the gong. It’s like the original grand chaos that created all of the proto-matter of the universe. This sort of 'etheric' substance is what nourishes us and not necessarily just the sound/pressure waves which are its carrier waves: this ‘something that we know not of’. So again, here’s an instrument that, as you start hitting it a little faster (not necessarily harder) it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It swallows your ego entirely. This filling of all space with sound, I think, is the most interesting part of it because, as soon as you fill all space with sound, suddenly things begin to disappear. All of the sounds get lost and you’re brought to a still point of silence within. This is what the Buddhists meditate on. The sound of one hand “gonging” is the sound of silence.

The reason that a lot of mathematicians and musicians are one and the same person is because of pattern recognition. Don’t you think that’s a point of common ground between regular science and metaphysical science? Do we share experience in different ways?

I do think so. The idea is of these quasi-periodic patterns that come out of the chaos, the great ocean around us. We can begin to find these patterns. That’s actually what you listen for. When you teach people to play gong, you have to direct their ears into a particular area so they’ll catch onto it and go with it, but the patterns that you can create with the gong are in a strange place. They are in a non-dimensional world. Rudhyar, who is really my mentor when it comes to the music of the gong, says that this non-dimensional world is unique and that once you enter into it, you can be anywhere at any time. You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything Everything seems to be right there, like the thousand angels on the head of a pin. Generally, it takes a long time to get here and there through space, but in the non-dimensional world you can be anywhere you want to be, and the musicians who are playing this way, in what we call syntonic music, might be playing in parallel universes. This is the way we like to approach our concerts.

We were just listening to the CD of a concert that I did in Avebury, England, with an outstanding cellist by the name of Emily Burridge. We were in the first Methodist Church in England, she said. As tone artists, we go into a sacred space to evoke the presence of a place. The music within the gong is very close to the esoteric choir of biblical angels called the Elohim, also called in India the Gandarvas or choruses of past warrior-saints. You can hear this come through the gong in a pattern, not quite Gregorian, but along that line.

I can take another of our CDs from another time and place and play it at the same time, and it doesn’t matter where one starts and one ends because this type of music is synchronous and naturally goes together. We could have five different CDs playing around here, as if in parallel universes, and if you were to sit in the middle of them, you could almost keep track of each one simultaneously. So it’s like being a great conductor of an orchestra, who has a seventh sense and who can hear seven different things at one time. Syntonic music develops that seventh sense in the listener. Usually with music, if I put on popular music here and another over there {Don gestures to the two stereo systems that have been playing throughout the interview}, there would be a conflict. There would be two different worlds that seem to demand that they be played alone. But our music isn’t that way. It’s the opposite in that you can listen to parallel, simultaneous occurrences, and this has a very mystical pleasure to it.

You seem to be reflecting a piece by John Cage, HPSCHD, where he placed, I think, six harpsichordists around a room, each with a particular set of music in front of them to play as they chose (or, if they preferred, to stop and chat with a passing audience member). The music was assertive music in the way that you just mentioned pop music. Do you think that playing Bach on a harpsichord is incompatible with somebody else two harpsichords down playing another piece of Bach?

I think it’s fascinating. It makes you exercise a certain part of the brain that has to do with intuition. 90% of our brain is still undeveloped, and it’s all in that area of the frontal cerebral cortex, which is to do with intuition. So, as we help people develop their intuition, they use more of their brain. I think that’s going to be the great value of this music.

You mentioned earlier the difference between a mystical experience and a religious experience. Do we treat our metaphors just a little bit too seriously. Do we take them too literally?

Is that a mistake or is that just interesting theater? It all depends on how seriously you want to take that.

Or is it, perhaps, just that one is the most appropriate way of describing a process.

Yes, yes. I agree and I go back to one of my early teachers, Sri Aurobindo who said “life is an adventure of consciousness”, and this eternal youth is in you and Randee (Don's partner has been in the room listening to the interview) here, and in me and everyone who nurtures that spirit of exploration. You know how sometimes we get caught in niches, and then that’s it, we’re stuck forever in that niche. We found our security. This gong music just doesn’t cater to that too much. It de-conditions. Thanks for punk and thanks for all the new music that keeps coming out of the current wave because it also causes a breakdown of the old. It’s a de-conditioning process; you have to first de-condition society in a sense, and the gong has that effect on people. In the proces,s something fresh and new comes out from the roots of the cells.

You’re speaking in a very communal way, as if the music-like experiences of the audience and the performers were one. This seems to be your approach. That reminds me of the punk attitude while the people on stage could be the people in the audience and vice versa.

I represent, I guess, what people call “new-age” music, but it’s really what I call the “next age”. Whatever is the next age is new age. I feel that musicians are artists for humanity and that every artist has, within, this humanitarian aspect, that they care for all the different cultures and peoples of the world. There is this one family, one humanity-consciousness within every artist. What we love so much is the fact that we can use the power of music to support it. I’ve been putting together a composition called the Global Gong Mantra Sutra. Maybe because I’ve been raised as a yogi more than anything else, but the idea is it has to be a yoga. It has to have some transvolutionary power to it.

So the Mantra Sutra works with this idea of simultaneous occurrences, parallel universes, everything occurring at the same time, where the mantras [seed thoughts] of the world are woven together in a kind of Tantric way. You know how it is, sometimes, when you’re working with sounds when all of a sudden you feel that another hand besides your own is doing it . That seems to be the crux. This is something every artist feels for humanity, when they have become an opening (or conduit) for some force coming through.

You speak from a clear position of sincerity, but there are many musicians who are imitating a style for career reasons, or for whatever personal advancement. But the people--the great public--have to distinguish between the person who’s sincere and the person who’s just using music opportunistically. How do you think we can do that?

I don’t know. The gong kind of takes you into a space where you become non-judgmental, where your isolated existential self disappears. It’s as if it’s erased. All of a sudden you feel that the other human being is yourself. As the Mayans would say, “la lek”, which means I am another yourself. So then you say to yourself, ' what about the self-judgment that we get into?' We all must realize that everybody’s on the same path getting out of the box. The most treacherous thing that I know in yoga is to have a spiritual ego, because they say it is almost incurable and no one can tell you anything. The same thing happens with some of our great artists. You can’t really blame them because that’s what comes with the territory. They’re going to, at one point, have to cure themself of this spiritual ego they have, where the world has to revolve around them.

My feeling is that sometimes we criticize only the package music comes in. But certain energies are transmutational and have to come into this world for its own benefit. They may come through a character who makes you wonder why such a person would ever be chosen to bring such energy through. Usually it is because they have a strong ego. If you have a strong will, call it a spiritual will, you are going to hang in there and you’re going to achieve something come what may. In comparison, somebody who might be more, pure in the sense of being egoless or less self-serving might not have the motivational energy.

Again, you’re speaking in a very personal term as if we’re sitting in the room here and you’re playing. It’s a very small and intimate circle. Do the possibilities break down once you record music and disseminate it on record?

Another interesting thing about gong music occurs when you approach your recorded concert as a sacred social rite. There is a great possibility that whatever is captured in recording is metaphysically anchored-- and no matter how many CDs go out in the world, the central essence is going to be there. When you listen to the gong in person, of course you’re getting the full pizza. When you listen to a CD, you may seem to be getting just a slice of the pizza. Yet it tastes just as good and has the same nutrition. Because every living tone is a whole universe. As you disappear into it, you become very large, esthetically.

Home page of Don Conreax's personal site

To purchase Don Conreaux's CDs

Article by Don about bronze singing bowls

Full details of Starhenge, the contemporary circle designed by Don