Hang a Gong, Get It On

Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer

Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer inventors of the Hang drum. (Photo courtesy Alex Langata)

If you crossed a sitar, steel drum and piano, you’d have something that sounds like the Hang, a steel wheel that you play by tapping lightly, as one would a keyboard. Though many refer to it as a drum, it is technically an idiophone, an instrument that vibrates in and of itself, as opposed to relying on strings or skins.

Among the many interesting things about the Hang is its modernity; it was invented in 2000, in Berne, Switzerland, by a pair of metal heads, Sabina Schärer and Felix Rohner. Although more likely to outfit in REI rather than leather, Schärer and Rohner are fascinated with the musicality of steel. Hanghang (plural of Hang) are “sound sculptures of the modern era, with highly sensitive resonance bodies tuned to a defined pitch.”

Schärer and Rohner artists turned instrument manufacturers, and partners in the company PANart, which has registered and trademarked the instrument. The Zen obsessiveness they bring to their work has reverberated with fans. The duo Hang Massive has more than 22 million views of its performance “Once Again,” and there are dozens of other Hang acts and enthusiast sites across the web.

The beauty of the instrument is that anyone can pick it up and have fun playing it. Mastery is another matter, but those with dexterous fingers and a good ear will make beautiful music with the Hang. Constructed of two sheets of nitrided steel, punched into a bowl shapes and joined at the rim, the top side, called the “Ding,” has been hammered in a way as to produce seven or eight tone fields. The bottom, or “Gu,” has a circular hole in the center.

According to Wikipedia, musically, the Hang combines some of the properties of a steel drum, but adapted to affect Helmholtz resonance, or “wind throb,” the phenomena that creates a sound when you blow across the top of an empty bottle. In 2007 the duo came out with a new version that offered more bass and a wider spectrum of sound, called the Gubal.

The inventors discourage it’s being called a “drum.” Technically, it is a member of the idophone class of instruments, which rely on neither membrane nor reed, but create sound by the vessel itself vibrating. Hang is a German variation of the word “hand.” In 2013 Schärer and Rohner were granted a US patent for their process for nitriding steel, which they say offers more stable tuning. They are now licensing the technology for other sound uses.

The Hang, now in its third generation, was featured along with its creators in the Italian documentary Spira Mirabilis (2016), in which The Hollywood Reporter noted, “Great mystery is made out of the production of a steel percussion instrument called a Hang by two absorbed craftsmen.”

It is esoteric, and highly theoretical work, to judge by Rohner’s writings on the PANart blog. Other entries ponder “Does it merely generate thrills, or might it produce sounds that heal?” Maybe both. An instrument embraced by street artists, ensembles and orchestral composers alike, the Hang is certainly an instrument of optimism.


One Response to "Hang a Gong, Get It On"

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