The title of Rhys Chatham's 1971 Two Gongs is a paradox: it's a full and precise description to the piece, and at the same time is totally inadequate as a representation of the extent of the work's musical and emotional content. In a performance that must have required superhuman strength, endurance, and concentration, the composer and the percussionist Yoshimasa Wada keep two large Chinese gongs ringing continuously for over an hour. The piece predates the Japanese percussion ensemble KODO by a decade, and it easily outstrips that group's performances in its sustained intensity. Chatham and Wada, drumming with ferocious energy at a relentlessly fast tempo, create wildly diverse sets of overtones. The work evokes images of sonically overwhelming natural forces swirling out of control -- hurricanes, wild fires, tsunamis, blizzards -- and for the most part is really, really loud. Don't let the quiet opening fool you; you may want to turn down your speakers.
The piece may feel chaotic (and the use of the term "feel" is intentional because the work's visceral impact is not solely aural), but it's not an improvisation; Chatham composed the piece, shaping it by calibrating the overtones produced by the force of the attacks. In The Village Voice, Tom Johnson aptly described the piece as "a radical new kind of minimalism." There's only one event -- continuous drumming -- but there's plenty of energy and variety to keep the listener engaged. Two Gongs is much too loud for casual listening, but for the enthusiast who appreciates new sonic experiences, this CD shouldn't be missed.