I’ve been exploring the Hang for a number of years now and in the process I’ve gained some personal perspective about the instrument that I’d like to share here.
First I’d like to extend my deepest gratitude to Felix and Sabina, who invented and continue to evolve the Hang. They have been an inspiration to me and many others. Their integrity and commitment to their art is inspiring. What they’ve created and continue to foster will be appreciated for generations to come. I’ll always consider my visits to the Hangbauhaus in Berne, Switzerland to be major highlights in my life.
Now I’ll answer some of the questions that people ask me about the Hang. Some of the content is based on my personal experience and opinions.
How old is the Hang and from what culture did it arise?
Most people who first encounter a Hang assume it’s deeply rooted in some ancient culture. They’re often surprised to learn that the Hang is a contemporary instrument that was birthed around the year 2000. Though the Hang is made by two people that live in Switzerland, it’s not really a Swiss instrument in a traditional sense. The design itself suggests something strangely familiar. Some see a flower-petal, others a mushroom, a tortoise-shell, a wheel, a shield, an extra-terrestrial space-craft, a planet, a galaxy…the imagination conjures a lot of images from the Hang but usually not of Switzerland.
The sounds and influences suggest the Steelpan from Trinidad; Gamelan instruments from Indonesia; Gongs, Bells, and Wind Chimes from around the globe; harps, guitars and various string instruments; piano and percussion like the clay pot Ghatam from India and the Udu from Africa. The Hang is truly a world instrument in a literal sense, with some “other-worldly” aspects as well. Still, it was conceived, brought to life, and is made in the Swiss capital of Berne.
Who makes the Hang?
The Hang was created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer and they are the sole makers of the instrument. They formerly designed and built Steelpans from the Trinidadian culture and had a popular Steelpan Orchestra that toured throughout Europe. They were once inspired to mold, pound and shape a new design using their own Pang material, an alloy that made their Steelpans some of the highest quality available, and from this step forward the first Hang was born. They call their company PANArt, where they continue to create each Hang in their workshop on the bank of the Aare River in Berne, Switzerland. They are also talented multi-instrumentalists who are committed to advancing their artistic vision while maintaining a sustainable business model that supports this vision.
What does Hang mean and how is it pronounced?
Hang means “hand” in the Swiss-German dialect specific to the people in and around the capital of Berne (sometimes referred to as Bernese). “Hung” is the common pronunciation in the Bernese dialect.
What is the significance of the “hand”?
When the hands are at their most relaxed state and come together they form the shape of the Hang. When a player is sitting upright in a comfortable position, minimal effort is required as the hands relax into the gentle slope of the Hang. Incidentally, “hang” translates as “slope” in the standard German language.
Each Hang is hand-sculpted with special hammers. The non-linear structure of the Hang offers endless pathways for hands and fingers to move and dance in a multitude of styles and positions. I’ve found that over time my hands become so malleable with the Hang that I don’t feel any separation between them and the instrument. The mind quiets as the hands take the lead…the heart responds and the hand answers. It’s like a synergistic dance that becomes a union.
My hands sometimes flutter over the Hang like raindrops, or wisp across the surface like the wind over a sandy beach or field of snow. The Hang is extremely sensitive to contact with the hands and the lightest touch can reveal the most profound effects. Like a magic lamp I can summon a powerful genie from the Hang with a gentle beckoning, arousing the elements of earth, water, fire, air and the great expanse which are all elemental in the Hang. When I play the Hang I’m an alchemist, transmuting a base element into an intimate encounter by allowing my hands to explore a new frontier of sound.
What material makes up the Hang?
“Pang” (pronounced “pung”) is the patented alloy of metals and other substances that make up the Hang. Felix and Sabina are also the creators of the Pang materials.
How is the Hang made?
The making of a Hang is a complex and creative endeavor that involves, among other things: the craft of metallurgy, the knowledge of engineering, the skills of tuning and the art of “sculpting” sound. Simply put, two metal shells are molded from the Pang material and fused together. Felix and Sabina’s hammers strike different areas where they shape “tonal fields” that house the basic melodic tones. This is only a peripheral understanding as the process is quite elaborate and involves the relationship between two hemispheres of differing yet complimentary natures. Felix and Sabina have dedicated over 30 years to the art of working with metal instruments and have applied a wide range of factors that have led to the Hang.
Is the Hang easy to play?
The Hang can be very easy AND very challenging but for me musical skill has less to do with it than my attitude and the environment that I’m sitting in. I find that my experience with the Hang offers endless opportunities for exploration when I approach it with sensitivity and some elasticity. When I impose fixed ideas or lead with my ego it can become tedious. Being in a quiet and peaceful setting helps me to relax more and arrive at this state of ease.
For me, the Hang offers a path to freedom from thinking about scales, keys, notes, and many of the fundamentals that are normally associated with music theory and left-brain activity. This makes it slightly easier for me because I don’t like to think about that stuff when I play, but I’ve found that this freedom comes with a new challenge: to yield rather than to dominate; to approach the instrument with curiosity over virtuosity; to explore the nature of the instrument rather than impose too many pre-conceived ideas over it. When I see the Hang in this context, anything can and does happen.
What kind of instrument is the Hang?
Attempts have been made to normalize, label, and/or categorize the Hang and this has sparked some debate. It’s been an occasional topic in the blogosphere and on YouTube, where it’s been virally referred to as a Hangdrum. A literal translation of “hangdrum” is “hand drum”. Having worked with the Hang for a number of years and having no prior drum experience I find that label perplexing. Many common drumming techniques, and especially if performed on the later generations of the Hang, can conceal some the Hang’s greatest rewards. It can also be hazardous for the preservation of the Hang, as well as the eardrums of anyone near it if the drumming is heavy-handed and distorts the sound. I also think calling the Hang a drum dilutes the concept of a drum, which is generally accepted at its most basic level as skin stretched over a shell. While there are many different kinds of drums, Hang is not one of them. They are two separate entities that share some common ground.
In similar fashion the Wikipedia entry for the Hang immediately categorizes it as an Idiophone, which comes from a system of musical instrument classifications penned by two people in the early 1900s. Paradoxically, idiophones do not include drums. In the Hang we have something new, something that stretches our imaginations and entices us to think and feel differently about design, sound, and music in general. I think a new perspective is worth considering before we rush to standardize it.
I understand why we feel the need to label everything under the sun. It’s a convenient way to buy, sell and relate to concepts, ideas and merchandise. It can also close our minds from considering the potential of what is being presented. We’re in a new era where old ideas are being challenged and the Hang is a good example of a simple way to practice thinking differently. Accepting and embracing the unknown generates curiosity. It also encourages fresh perceptions and is the basic tenet of many spiritual paths as well as artistic expressions. In Zen Buddhism there’s a valued concept called “beginner’s mind” that refers to an attitude of openness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. In Yoga there’s a term called a “softened gaze”, reminding us to relax our awareness from a fixed point (or idea) to allow for a more expansive outlook. Then there’s the prominent religious concept of faith that’s deeply reliant on the unseen and mysterious.
The more I work with the Hang the more I see it as a mystery: unfolding, expanding and possibly unending. We’re invited to think outside the box (or the drum or the pan). I like what Deepak Chopra said, “instead of thinking outside the box, get rid of the box”. With the Hang we’re challenged to think differently about how we play and listen to music and how we see life itself. It’s a non-linear, holotropic continuum that needs room to grow.
Back to the question…if someone asks me “what kind of instrument is it?” I try to engage in a conversation about a new concept rather than default to a convenient label. I think of the Hang as an instrument for our time…a time when we yearn to reach beyond the status quo. The Hang blurs boundaries and confounds categories. Nothing about it is “normal”. The tendency to categorize and label everything can now be relaxed. Try it with anything and see what happens! With the Hang there’s no need for a category… it’s simply a Hang.
Are there different sizes, scales and tunings of the Hang?
There are only slight variations in the size of the different generations of Hang but the quality, function and general concept has progressed significantly since its inception in 2000.
When the early generations of the instrument were being developed there was more uniformity in the intonation that matched with more common instruments. Felix and Sabina were offering a vast array of global and custom scales that were tuned to the 440Hz standard that western instruments rely on for regularity in pitch; making it sound “right” when instruments tuned to this standard play together.
The development of a Hang requires a talent likened to sculpting. The artists behind the hammers were impassioned to move forward to cultivate their vision and evolve beyond a static, standard format. They were enhancing the quality of their Pang material and exploring techniques that ushered their creation into new realms. As the later generations of the Hang evolved so did the nature of the instrument itself. The Pang material felt more like a living membrane. The overtones that arose from these instruments had exceptional and somewhat mystical qualities, especially when played with a light touch and in a quiet and still environment.
With the onset of the “Integral” Hang, Felix and Sabina no longer felt the need to produce diverse scales. This Hang had evolved as a self-contained unit more suitable by itself than in the company of other instruments or even other Hangs. The resonance was deeper with rich overtones that encouraged a player to listen in a different way that had been described as “harking”. The drumming issue was resolved with the Integral Hang; it was much more responsive to subtlety and nuance than to common drumming techniques.
After the Integral Hang had made its mark, Felix and Sabina announced a bold step forward. The “Free Integral” Hang would abandon the standard A-440 format and would be tuned by “ear” and “feel” instead of using a tuning device to find an exact pitch. The Pang materials had also evolved and slight changes to the design made each Free Integral Hang a fully unique entity with heightened response to the most delicate touch. In my experience with all generations of Hang, the Free Integral is the greatest achievement to date from Felix and Sabina. It seems to have been designed to foster a peaceful inner-journey in quiet and intimate settings.
This advancement has given them freedom to cultivate the “soul“ of their art and has given players like myself more freedom for creative expression and boundless exploration.
Can the Hang be played with other instruments?
Fortunately I can play other instruments with my band because the Hang doesn’t always blend easily in ensemble situations and in particular where amplification is needed. The spectrum of sound that radiates from the instrument can be daunting for electronics to process in certain situations. As the Hang has evolved, so has this challenge. I try to play with a delicate touch to accentuate the subtle but powerful characteristics that radiate and dance from the Hang. Playing with other instruments or in noisy spaces can easily mask these essential elements. Even though it brings an entirely new experience to live performance, the qualities of the Hang that are so appealing to me are traded for another experience. The Free Integral Hang, being tuned by ear and feel, would require other instruments to make tuning adjustments in order to find common ground (more on this coming). With the unaccompanied Hang I don’t need to follow or lead. I can be rhythmic or elastic, fast or slow, dynamic or static; or I can stop playing altogether and use the power of silence. This is a kind of freedom for me.
When I was first introduced to the Hang, I felt compelled to acquire more of them so I could have access to more notes. I felt I needed to play 2 or 3 Hangs at once. I had elaborate compositions that required a lot of thought. I tried drawing diagrams of where the Hangs were positioned so I could attempt to recall a song. This was an intriguing process at the time but I soon realized I was trying to fit the Hang into a pre-existing musical mold rather than explore something new; something within the nature of the instrument. Now I’m discovering a new kind of freedom with solely the Free Integral Hang on my lap in a quiet space.
What is the tuning and scale of the Free Integral Hang?
When I stopped thinking of the Hang as being in a particular scale it shifted my perception. When I started working with the Free Integral Hang, that shift went into overdrive. It was as if a sacred geometric code was revealed that opened an unending matrix of melodic, harmonic, and textural possibilities as long as I was patient and willing to explore this path. I don’t hear a particular scale in my Free Integral Hang and that frees me to move beyond the linear concept. I once believed that my creative options were limited to the amount of “notes” at my disposal. Now I see that holding this belief was my only limitation. While there are vast selections of obvious and implied keys and scales accessible with my Free Hang, there’s something much more essential at hand when I turn my analytical brain off and just explore.
Back to the ideas around tuning…I realize that through most of my childhood I was conditioned to hearing “correctly” pitched instruments that were usually being played in predictable sequences or scales. Then I discovered certain unconventional composers and that provided a refreshing alternative to the mainstream. I later found an interest in world music and realized that many of the instruments were tuned differently from what I was accustomed to. The harmonic depth of a single bell tone or sitar string or shakuhatchi flute swayed and danced in a way that felt more alive as it encompassed a wide spectrum of sound and mysterious overtones. We don’t hear enough of this in modern music and especially in our present time where we’re subjected to perfection and predictability to the point of monotony.
It’s rare to hear a singing voice in contemporary music genres that isn’t digitally auto-tuned. We’ve become acclimatized to synthetic sounds and images coming from cell phones, computer monitors and processed music. These obviously have their place, but it would serve us to look up more often and listen to sounds in a more natural state. This is what I appreciate about the Free Hang. It’s like nature encapsulated in an intriguing form. The resonance can feel ancient. Perhaps this is why a simple tap on the instrument can have such a calming effect…we can absorb the sound of the moment while our awareness expands into the mystery, then a feeling of peace ensues…maybe this is our natural state of being.
Why is it so difficult to obtain a Hang?
Relatively few people who I meet along the way ask me about obtaining a Hang, but since it’s been the subject of some confusion I’ll add my opinion and observations.
There are only two people in the world who make the Hang; Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer. They create each Hang as a unique entity, which is a hand-made elaborate process; making it possible for only a small percentage of the requests to be fulfilled. They’ve found a way to cultivate their vision and personal freedom…which includes the process of choosing who they invite to visit them in Switzerland to look for a Hang.
The unconventional business model that they’ve created is puzzling for many. We’re programmed to expect the demands of consumerism to be fulfilled to whoever has the money to pay for any given product and have it shipped directly to our door. I don’t doubt that someday a factory will be delivering Hang-like instruments to our doorsteps and it’s already happening on some level today. Felix and Sabina have had lucrative options presented to them but they chose a different path. They create a sustainable number of instruments of the highest quality and invite a small percentage of the people who have requested a Hang to visit them in Berne.
This is probably how it was done in earlier times. I imagine visitors to Antonio Stradivari’s workshop, sitting with the master over a beverage and exchanging ideas and learning about the incomparable instruments that he created. I’m not sure if this actually happened with the early Stradivarius buyers, but this is Felix and Sabina’s way with the Hang. There are wonderful stories and very useful instructions to be absorbed during a short visit to the Hangbauhaus and Felix and Sabina are very attentive and hospitable to their visitors. Aside from being hosts and guides to Hang-seekers throughout the year, they are the creative artists/metallurgists and instrument makers that also manage the less appealing aspect of business and proper distribution of time. In general they prefer to stay in the background and are very careful about granting interviews and have no interest in the world of glamour and self-promotion.
They’re also the most trusted tuners for the Hang and when an accident happens they’re the ones who typically bring the damaged Hang back to balance. This is another reason why they’ve emphasized proper care and playing technique for the Hang. It will maintain its balance and even sound richer and more beautiful over time if it’s approached with a conscious effort to explore the nature of the instrument. I’ve played my Free Integral Hang for sometimes hours a day since March of 2011 and it continues to open in the most sublime and delightful ways.
Closing thoughts (for the moment)
Trying to describe the Hang, and in particular the Free Integral Hang, is like trying to describe the concept of infinity or present-moment awareness; words don’t do it justice outside of perhaps the realm of poetry. Felix and Sabina have come the closest that I’ve seen and some of their writings are available online at the link below. I highly recommend the “Hang Guide” section where they describe the Free Integral Hang to recipients of the instrument.
Many of the qualities of the Hang are available to all of us anytime. We can invite a new perspective in life when we the embrace mystery and soften our focus. Nature can help remind us of our connection to the greater whole. I hope to meet you on the road sometime to share the nature of the Hang. If you’d like to host a concert please feel free to contact me and we can discuss the simple details, and if you have comments about this writing you can also contact me through the same email: firstname.lastname@example.org
While traveling on my solo tours I’ve made a point to shoot and editing video featuring the Hang in magnificent natural surroundings. My trusty camera, tripod, and remote control are invisible yet invaluable assets in this process.
Click on the video link of this website and enjoy some of the sights and sounds from the road!
I have several CDs available that feature the different generations of Hang. You can hear some samples and order the CDs or download tracks here: http://www.mattvenuti.com/listen-buy