Monday 13 September 2010

A whole new instrument?

I was ambling along London's South Bank yesterday, which was more than usually busy because of the Thames Festival, and came across a knot of people. From the centre came music, a bit like a steel drum or gamelan. Elbowing small children out of the way to get to the front I found a young, earnestly bearded chap playing something that resembled a cross between a turtle shell and two woks welded together to form a giant lentil. He was tapping it rapidly with his fingers, picking out different notes by striking different spots on the upper domed surface. The resulting sound is actually much purer and smoother than a steel drum—like a bell but also a bit like a harp—and has a dreamy resonance the mesmerising qualities of which were evident by the crowd of slack-jawed onlookers, veritable moths to his flame.

Afterwards I asked him what the instrument was called and he said it was a "hang". That had a sort of south-east Asian ring to it that made sense. I asked him where indeed it came from and he replied, "Switzerland".

Now if you're trying to get your head around the image of an alpine goatherd picking his way through the edelweiss with a small UFO on his back, on his way to steel band practice, think again. There is nothing traditional about the hang—it was invented in 2007 by a company called PANart. As far as I can tell it's basically a steel drum but with the enclosed space forming a Helmholtz resonator (the same principle as when you blow across the top of a bottle). I gather the metal has been nitrided, a hardening that I guess must affect its musical qualities.

Check out this video and you will never look at the pots and pans in your kitchen the same way again.

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