Gorge Theory: Use Toms

Whatever Gorge may be, it must contain its own stratigraphies, its own forms, its own analyses, separate from those of what we call art. Gorge requires, encompasses, constitutes its own theory—Gorge Theory—of which every track is an exegesis.

Gorge Theory: Use Toms
A sheer cliff face of dark gray stone, mottled with streaks of white and rust. It's covered in a palimpsest of graffiti, much of it illegible, etched into the stone and visible in the photo as chalk white lines. A few green leaves poke out.

Gorge is a style of experimental music inspired by mountains and rock climbing.[1] It's a mysterious sound, once thought to have originated in secret mountaintop clubs somewhere in Nepal. It has since been revealed to have originated in Japan in the early 2010s, a conversation between a small set of practitioners releasing work on the GORGE.IN label.[2][3] In the intervening decade, give or take, the influence of Gorge has spread around the world.

If you haven't spent a lot of time listening to Gorge, it can be difficult to pinpoint what defines the genre. It encompasses a wide variety of styles, connected primarily thorugh mutual reference to a complex internal mythology of Himalayan Giants, deep geological time, and esoteric rituals conducted on shrouded mountain peaks. At its most fundamental level, Gorge is defined by three constraints, which are laid out in the Gorge Public License (GPL).[4]

  1. Use Toms

  2. Call it Gorge

  3. Don't call it Art

The latter two constraints are fairly self-explanatory. Gorge is Gorge.[5] Gorge is not art. Art is not Gorge. Gorge is Gorge. Whatever Gorge may be, it must contain its own stratigraphies, its own forms, its own analyses, separate from those of what we call art. Gorge requires, encompasses, constitutes its own theory—Gorge Theory—of which every track is an exegesis.

The first constraint, however, implies an important question, one which is central to the development of Gorge Theory: what is a tom, and how can it be used? The surface level answer is that a tom consists of a membrane stretched across some kind of frame, and that it is used by striking the membrane to produce a resonant percussive sound with a relatively simple harmonic signature. We might go further to say that a tom contains no rattles, snares, or other such accoutrements that might modify its characteristic sound. We might distinguish it from the more shallow frame drums by saying that the frame over which a tom’s membrane is stretched must be greater in depth than in diameter. We might define it on the basis of its relationship to the traditional Sinhalese thammattama, from which the English word “tom-tom” is derived. But Gorge is geological in nature, the music of mountains formed by complex processes taking place over billions of years, and Gorge Theory must dig beyond surface level answers toward the deeper strata of possibility.

To dig, we have to listen. Gorge is not just a set of vague constraints laid out in the GPL but a living practice of music, in which various toms and their various uses are repeatedly demonstrated. Every track is an exegesis. Take, for example, Hanali’s An Entrance Point to Gorge.[6] The beat is driven by a bass-heavy percussive tone that might be reflexively identified as the sound of a tom. Hearing this, and recognizing it, we might think we’ve identified what a tom is, at least in the context of Gorge. But the sound of the tom is not the tom itself, nor is it merely the recording, nor is it reducible to our particular experience of listening to the recording in the context of this particular moment. Instead, we might understand the tom as what Pierre Schaeffer calls a sound object, “the coming together of an acoustic action and a listening intention.”[7]

Hanali’s toms in this track are bass-heavy, distorted. They scrape against each other in a field of gritting static, surrounding and compressing the listener. They carry the weight and the hardness of stone, building and growing heavier as the track progresses through four minutes and thirty-six seconds that feel like a geological epoch. Epoch, from the Greek Epoché, meaning cessation, a stopping point in time, the suspension of judgment. For the philosopher Edmund Husserl, Epoché refers to a phenomenological reduction by which an observer might experience a given phenomenon in and of itself, without judgment or preconception.[8] For Pierre Schaeffer, it is this practice of Epoché that enables a listener to perceive a sound object.

If a tom is a sound object, can it also be a membrane stretched across a frame? What is the relationship between the membrane, the sound it makes, the recording of that sound, the playback of that recording, and our own act of listening? Can a tom be all these things? Can it be more? The initial question—“what is a tom, and how can it be used?”—only seems to lead to more questions. These questions in turn demand that we listen.

In the Thiefist track Deep PsyTrans,[9] the toms demonstrate a distinct synthetic clarity. They dance around each other, cold and sharp-edged like talus deposits at the base of a cliff. It’s easy enough to recognize them as toms by the way they sound, but that sound bears only a conceptual relationship to any physical drum. These are the electronic toms of the drum machine, synthesized and laid out in their mechanical grids. Ceci n’est pas un tom. And yet it is, clearly, a tom. So what is a tom when it isn’t a tom? And how can it be used?

Failing to pinpoint the necessary and sufficient conditions of what constitutes a tom or its use in the context of Gorge, and hearing in Gorge as it exists a wide variety of toms and their uses, we might instead consider the tom as a space of developing conceptual possibility. Rather than asking what a tom is, we turn toward the exploration of what a tom can be. Suddenly the question “what is a tom and how can it be used?” takes on the character of a challenge, a distant mountain peak to which we must ascend.

For the first two minutes of Kazuki Koga’s track Lhotse - ल्होत्से - ,[10] there is no identifiable percussion. Instead, the track revolves around distorted voices and rumbling drones. Two minutes in, some distant lithic clicks, a bang, a shout, scattered metallic percussion that quickly fades into the silence at the end of the album. On first listen, it’s difficult to identify the toms in this track, yet no one would deny that it’s gorge. Can voices be toms? Can silence? Such questions remain open, but some necessarily indeterminate answers might lie in considering how these things can be used.

A sound object, as defined by Schaeffer, contains two components. First is an acoustic action, what we might identify as the sound of a tom, be it recorded, synthesized, distorted beyond recognition, silent, or even strictly conceptual. Second is a listening intention. For a tom to be a tom it must be heard as a tom, not with the intention of identifying its source—of separating the signifier from the signified—but with the focused intention that allows us to experience the phenomenon of tom in and of itself. Gorge is not made in the beating of the tom but in hearing it with focused intention. Maybe this is what it means to use toms: to listen, to hear, to experience Gorge.

Consider a metaphor. A membrane is stretched over a frame and struck by some nascent force. The force is the sound. The frame is the listener. The membrane is an encounter between the two, the plane of vibration that resonates in the space of possibility. The force is the tom. The frame is the bootist.[11] The membrane is Gorge. Gorge is Gorge.

If we consider a tom to be any sound object that produces the state of vibration known as Gorge in a listener, it follows that to use toms is to practice Gorge. This would seem to take us in a circle—Gorge is Gorge—but there is something revealed in the circle’s traversal. One doesn’t climb to the summit of a mountain only to return to the base and say they haven’t gone anywhere. The practice of climbing is its own purpose, and the same can be said of Gorge. To use toms is to practice Gorge.

A single floor tom is placed in the center of a dimly lit stage. A performer, cloaked in black, stands behind it. If there is an audience, they are silent and still. The performer raises a mallet over their head. A curtain is drawn across the stage. On the curtain, a mountain, jagged gray stone against a rippling sky of dark blue fabric. It almost seems real. Time is suspended. Epoché.

  1. For a more general introduction to Gorge, see An Introduction to Gorge from this blog. ↩︎

  2. See this Mixmag Asia piece on the origins of Gorge. ↩︎

  3. https://gorge-in.bandcamp.com/. ↩︎

  4. The original text of the GPL can be found at http://gorge.in/about/. ↩︎

  5. The title of hanali's second album (GORGE.IN 2012), described as a sawanobori (stream-climbing) aiming for the origin of Gorge. ↩︎

  6. From the album Gorge is Gorge. https://gorge-in.bandcamp.com/track/an-entrance-point-to-gorge. ↩︎

  7. Treatise on Musical Objects: An Essay Across Disciplines (1966). Translated by Christine North and John Dack (2017). University of California Press. Page 213. ↩︎

  8. See Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Originally published in German in 1913. ↩︎

  9. From Realized EP (GORGE.IN 2015). https://gorge-in.bandcamp.com/track/deep-psytrans. ↩︎

  10. From the album The Summit Of The Gods (Virgin Babylon Records 2022), described as a deconstruction of the Gorge tradition of "using toms to make spellbinding grooves." https://virginbabylonrecords.bandcamp.com/track/lhotse. ↩︎

  11. Those who practice Gorge are called bootists. Don't call it art. ↩︎