First imported to Europe in the 1780s, Chinese gongs (or tam-tams) are shown in this chapter to have migrated between commerce, science, theater, orchestra, technology, and stage prop. Their novel sound effect was adopted into opera in London and Paris for a range of music-dramatic situations that are discussed here as “gong topoi.” Yet the tam-tam’s unusually loud, non-pitched resonance challenged conceptions of musical tone, while its European dissemination required either costly imports or metallurgical experiments. By midcentury, Berlioz and Wagner were experimenting with more subtle playing techniques that might enhance their orchestration while masking the instrument’s metallic timbre. Less nuanced, the chapter proposes, were the theater practitioners who gratuitously struck the gong to enhance climaxes or cover stage noises, rendering it an all-purpose sound technology. Puccini’s Turandot consummated the tam-tam as audiovisual prop. Its loudness was subsequently reconciled with musical aesthetics in twentieth-century music, both popular and avant-garde.
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