Somewhere on an interstate in the United States, a guy is driving a van loaded with hundreds of pounds of gongs, bells, chimes and other metallic instruments, and that guy is Mike Tamburo. The van has been Tamburo’s home, more or less, for the past three years. He’s been doing over 100 performances a year, traveling from town to town, lugging his heavy metal gear of 50 instruments and generating some intense, hypnotic vibrations wherever he goes.
Tamburo was a part of the duo Crown of Eternity, but the relationship at the heart of that group didn’t hold together, and so he’s taken his solo show on the road. In January, he released a new record, Michael Tamburo Plays Metal. The title is potentially humorous, especially for those who might be approaching the music without any advance knowledge of what Tamburo is up to. He’s playing metal, for sure. But he’s playing metal, the material, as opposed to metal, the genre. There are no distorted guitars or howling vocals or pummeling double-kick barrages. And yet, there is a spiritual similarity, somewhere between Tamburo’s deeply meditative and transfixing music and some variants of heavy metal. Fans of artists like Sunn O))) and Earth might find this resonant, long-form sonic-massage music to be akin to the glacial metabolism of doom.
One of the points of this music, it seems to me, is to slow down the listener’s sense of time, to prolong their attention span, and also to make the physical reality of vibrating sound waves almost palpable. In that regard, Tamburo’s music is connected to the “deep listening” practices of Pauline Oliveros, or to the lulling atmospherics of Brian Eno’s ambient music. If the normal “song” lasts for three or four minutes, Tamburo makes recordings that unfold over the course of 10 to 20 minutes. They reorient the mind in the same way deep breathing can reorient the lungs and heart, and ultimately the brain. You pace yourself in a whole different way when engaging with this music.
If you’ve ever sat by the surging roar of the ocean and found the enveloping sound of the waves to capture your attention, or if you’ve ever listened closely to the layered surround-sound of insects at night during the summer, or perhaps to the hum and drone of tires on concrete or the blasting force of a jet engine, then you’ve probably been open to the kind of cocoon-like sonic environment that Tamburo creates with his gongs.
I spoke with Tamburo last week by phone from the road. He performs at the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center on Saturday.
Tamburo grew up in Pittsburgh, and he developed an interest in gongs and drones through his exposure to Indonesian gamelan, which he heard as a teenager there. Coming of age in a kind of eclectic punk/DIY scene, an artistically curious young person could find themselves thrown into a variety of musical worlds.
“Pittsburgh has such an interesting music scene where you have a little bit of everything,” Tamburo said. “One night we would go see some kind of avant-garde jazz, and the next night we would go see gamelan music, and the next night we would go see a punk rock band. I’m just an avid music fan.”
Tamburo also plays and records using the hammer dulcimer, an instrument whose metal strings, resonance, and thrum share something with the gongs he so fond of. He’s recorded experimental albums with loops and electronics, guitars and other instruments as well.
If you spend time with Plays Metal, you’ll hear some familiar patterns, the slow articulation of the first five notes of a minor scale, the periodic low-end throb of a root note, and other bits of repeating intervals, but the trembling metal creates a sort of glow and hum that washes over everything, and the tempos get so slow, creating a trapped-in-amber feel. It’s a little like the sonic equivalent of watching a lava lamp churn in graceful blops and blorps. It’s organic, but not exactly regular or predictable. In a way, Tamburo’s gong recordings and performances are different from other music. They’re a kind of sound that is made to be listened to, but not necessarily to be listened to in the same way that one listens to other music. One of Tamburo’s first encounters with gongs was in a yoga studio, which is now a setting where he regularly performs. The type of audiences that come to hear gongs often approach the experience as an extension of mindfulness practices or of meditation, yoga and other types of mind-body pursuits.
“People who are interested in consciousness seem to be the people who are interested in my music,” Tamburo said. “There’s a culture of really listening over time. It’s very different from listening to a song and melodic progression. With the gong, there are these slight tonal variations that seem to pull consciousness in. It seems to create some kind of space where a lot of visualization happens. You’re listening to something in the way that you listen to music, and so the brain is looking for patterns. It tricks the brain.”
Tamburo is keen to explore the physicality of sound, both in terms of the materials that vibrate to generate the sound waves, and how those vibrations, in something like a gong, don’t happen in the same way at every spot on the gong. When a gong is struck, it’s vibrating in a number of different ways and intensities, and each one of those different vibrations is potentially making its own different sound— all of which radiate out from the gong into the more or less single tone that we hear. But close listening reveals that single sound to one made up of many component parts.
For this reason, Tamburo prefers not to use amplification when he performs, since a microphone only captures something like a snapshot of one localized set of frequencies emanating from a gong. (He said the recordings of his gongs are like a different medium altogether.) The same is true of recorded music in general — that it represents a limited slice of the sound generated in a live music setting — but somehow or other, music with an intense vibrational component, like a large chorus, a drum ensemble, a brass band, or the sound of gongs, can drive home how vitally different the two are. Listening to a recording is to experiencing live music what seeing a picture of a sunset is to being outside during a beautiful sunset and feeling the warmth on your skin.
In addition to his performances, Tamburo also does workshops designed to encourage non-musicians and beginners to engage with making music, to find a connection with the vibrations generated by the instruments.
Expect a calming and relaxing environment in which to bask in the glowing sound waves that Tamburo coaxes from the gongs.
“It attracts people to be still and to listen,” he said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Mike Tamburo presents an evening of Sound Meditation with Gongs, Bells and Metal at the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center, 200 N. Davie St., Greensboro, on Sat. Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. $35.