Darrell Jónsson talks to Gilli Smyth of Mother Gong

Listening to Mother Gong's 2006 release, you can still hear the singular magic that Gilli Smyth brought to Gong over forty years ago. On this Voiceprint UK recording, accompanied by many of her regular accompanyists (such as Didier Malherbe, Gwyo de Pix, Graham Clarke, Tim Hall, Daevid Allen and Orlando Allen) it is clear that Smyth's musical vision has gathered little if any moss. As archetypal poetess and provocateur, her space whispering now bursts with witch chants and howls as timeless as the sacred grove. Her years in Australia have enhanced her art for drones, while audibly her band mates have gained nuance with their space rock improvisations. Nearly 40 years ago Smyth brought a very needed deep feminine voice to progressive rock. Over the decades she has continued to tour and record with various incarnations of Gong, Mother Gong and other visionary acts. Also as a poet she has published several books of artful verse.



    In 1994 Smyth put poetry and music aside long enough to write an historical essay that resulted in a book, 'Gong; Politico Historico Spirito'. Even if at the end of her book she bursts into a performance rhyme titled "We Who Were Raging in the late 60s and early 70s", the effect goes far beyond that of a rant. Instead of rehashed nostalgia Smyth details the inspirations and effects of Gong's modus operandi, carefully reflecting on the events and alternative realities of those times. Her essential story of Gong's journey is bound to please those who rode or are continuing to ride similar spiritual, artistic and political seas.


    In the following interview, like in her writing and music, Smyth does not strain to be hip. Instead she spins the ongoing unique threads of a sincere and thoughtful quest. Through all the 20th and current century's tumult, she chronicles the survival, hope and enchantments of Gong's ongoing poetry, psychedelia and jazz.

Darrell Jónsson: In your book 'Politico, Historico, Spirito' you quote Daevid Allen as saying "For me Gong is not something from a past time. Gong was originally created as a vehicle for new ideas, ideas which were ahead of the time. I think it can be seen Gong brought through ideas that were not mainstreamed until five, even fifteen years later". Where do you see some of those ideas of Gong reflected in current music & culture?

Gilli Smyth: For me the interesting aspect of this is political. There was a kind of opening in the sky in 1968 with the revolution in France, echoed by protests against Vietnam in U.S., civil rights, etc. And now after a couple of decades of excessive consumerism people are turning back to ideas of sharing, of non-consumerism for the sake of the planet, the belief that music, poetry, art, is far more fulfilling, not just for the skilled but for everybody. That is really "the great sharing". We lived in communes this is the communal mind. In fact I am working on Part 2 of "Historico Politico" which will be the history of the Uncon in Amsterdam [Gong's 2006 'Unconventional Gathering' - Ed.] and how it relates back to counter culture ideas in the 60's and 70's. The wheel turns, the world is always changing, and there will be changes far beyond what we could have imagined.

DJ: How many of these ideas came from your exposure to and friendship with non-rock musician artists like Don Cherry and Julian Beck?

GS: Don Cherry in particular was a very dedicated person and spent his later years playing music in schools instead of being a superstar. He played with us in the first Gong in 1968 and at the Museum of Modern art in Stockholm where he lived. I forgot my purple robe there and after all the escape from Paris when we were hunted as "revolutionaries" and then on return, I was astonished to meet him one evening in San Michel carrying the robe to the gig there. That was the kind of magical thing he did, and his flute was so pure and magical, like Pan in the woods. I don't remember exchanging ideas so much with him as exchanging music. In that first Gong of 1968 I was singing with Ziska and together we devised the sound which is now called "space whisper", and it was here that playing with Don Cherry reached its height. Then she had to leave Paris too, and that Gong broke up.


DJ: Like Sun Ra, Magma, La Monte Young and other 20th century musical artists, Gong seems to have been involved with creating a functional mytho-poetic world or even cosmology to form the basis of much of their work. What inspired Gong to take their art to such cosmological proportions?

GS: People have probably forgotten what huge changes in culture were happening, especially with the threat of nuclear mayhem, and that musicians like us were in permanent danger from the "conservative" establishment and institutions. The idea of different worlds came naturally, but gives an artist a huge and wonderful palette. The best remedy for a conservative establishment is absurdity and far-reaching imaginations.

DJ: Talking with you in the past and reading your book, there is the impression that you and members of the band as much as having a flood of ideas were very much engaged with a proactive 'creativity ethic'. How did the visions and rigors of creativity shape your daily lives?

GS: When we all lived together in a big house in the forest (about 15 people) the rhythm of life was geared to playing daily and whenever possible in this strange big room called "the hunting room" hung with boar's heads. Vegetarians all, we shuddered and hung things over them...but there was a constant stream of creativity day and night, frequently the band left on gigs but there were always other people in the house and the forest.

DJ: How do you see the future of Gong's extended community continuing in the present and in the near future?

GS: I have no idea. All I can say is that the November Uncon in Amsterdam was the most tremendous experience. 1200 or more people coming together, sharing deeply, uplifted by music. One hopes there will be more of that, but what an effort it was for Jonny at GAS to put it on!

DJ: How has Mother Gong's and your other projects approach evolved differently from Gong over the years?

GS: I see the initial Gong band and philosophy as Yin Yan. Then in 1974 I left the band, desiring a simpler pathway based on the feminine nature of creation, although I have always been against the great gender divide, as basically one step up from the physical level, to the intellectual or spiritual level, where there is no gender difference between male and female, we all have the full complement of human experience, human emotions, human fears and longings.

DJ: Did the November 2006 "Gong Unconvention" at Amsterdam's Melkweg mark a new era or threshold for Gong's many interrelated activies?

GS: Will the musicians in Gong work fully anyway, in music, in all different ways, and we found a great joy in playing together like that, so we hope it happens more, but the way the world is you never have any idea what is going to happen.

DJ: What current and future projects, do you or Mother Gong have, that Terrascope readers will find of interest?

GS: Our projects include the upcoming release of the Mother Gong set from Uncon (shortly with Voiceprint) and I am also writing a political book on the kind of questions you are asking me here.



DJ: Has the role of the feminine changed in music in the decades since you began working with music? If so where do you see and hear feminine aspects expressed differently than may have been in the 1950s and 60s?

GS: You know the world has changed so dramatically in relation to women since...when you look at old movies for example you wonder how women could ever have stood the constant belittling, discrediting, being prevented from taking a full part in society...from ever becoming Prime Minister, or air line pilots, or head of the Defence Force (not to fight, but to negotiate).


DJ: The influence of the Hippies and Beatniks is well documented by this time, yet it seems much of what happened in Post WWII European diasporas had resonance's with movements and concepts that were evolving early in the 20th century and before. Are there any 17th, 18th, 19th or early 20th literary or musical influences that pre-dated any concepts or ideas that you found being validated in the 60s?

GS: It's true, there have been tremendous social movements.... from the French Revolution to the Peasants Revolt, the early feminist movement with the meeting at Seneca Falls, the Diggers and Levellers.... hippies are just one more in the long line of people , idealists...trying to effect social change for the better, usually under very authoritarian right wing governments that repressed all the people who did not fit into the "Party line", who wanted equality, as well as freedom and brotherhood (and sisterhood). There are so many misconceptions about hippies, like sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Those were really not important but part of the search for freedom. and it was political freedom that was the motor of the movement, freedom to live in peaceful ways and not join the army, freedom from materialist concerns fabricated by the manufacturers. And for which people had to have "a day job", any job, instead of learning to live on very little, and just living.

Interview and introdution by by Darrell Jónsson. Editor: Phil McMullen © Terrascope Online, 2007


Artwork for heading: by Phil McMullen, after the Voiceprint Records CD cover 'Mother Gong 2006'

Photo of Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth from the movie 'Le Tarot' (Jackie Wester) sourced at Gilli Smyth Website

Photo of Gilli at Deya by Jeremy Dunn, sourced at Gilli Smyth Website

Link to Gong website

Link to Voiceprint Records website