Manu Delago, the world’s leading hang player, is demonstrating the instrument, which sits on his lap looking rather like a wok with a dented lid. Unearthly, bell-like chimes ripple into the air, underpinned by a patter of percussive beats. The texture intensifies as he begins to play four-note chords, then licks his fingers and bends the resonant tones on the hang’s surface. People around us stare, mesmerised. It’s hard to believe all this music is emanating from one small convex gong.
Neither Delago, a 27-year-old from Innsbruck, Austria, nor the hang have been around for long. The instrument was only invented in 2000. The hang (meaning “hand” in Bernese dialect) was invented by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, owners of PanART in the Swiss city of Bern. They were experimenting with different ways of forming hardened steel to improve its acoustic properties, initially for steel pans. The hang’s convex top rises to a central dome surrounded by a circle of seven recesses, the tuned tones, while the shell’s lower half has a round resonant opening. It shares qualities with steel pans, Indonesian gamelan, Indian tabla and gatham (claypot drum) but its sound is unique.
When I meet Delago, he’s just flown in from New York where he’s been playing hang, drums and xylosynth with Björk on her Biophilia tour. He has already recorded seven albums, collaborated with jazz artists Bugge Wesseltoft and Didier Lockwood, commissioned composers Peter Wiegold and Milton Mermikides, and formed a duo with clarinettist Christoph Pepe Auer that grew into the quintet Living Room in London (LRIL), led by LSO violinist and composer Tom Norris. Later this month LRIL will perform at LSO St Luke’s, and string players from the orchestra will join Delago to premiere his Concertino Grosso. Like many successful 21st-century musicians, Delago and his hang seem at home in all genres of music, from jazz to contemporary classical or stadium rock.
Delago grew up knowing he would be a musician: his father, Hermann, is a percussionist, composer and arranger. As a boy, Manu learnt drums and marimba and studied classical percussion. Soon after the hang was invented his father found an audio sample on the internet and wanted to use its distinctive sound in an arrangement. He bought the instrument, and his son soon began to master it. “It had such a rare, magical sound, with such variety, such possibilities, both percussive and pitched,” Delago explains. More importantly, there was no performance tradition, and no music. He had found his cause.
He continued to pursue jazz drumming, coming to London’s Guildhall School of Music in 2007, and moving on to study composition at Trinity College of Music. In the meantime, he posted a poor quality video of himself playing his own solo, “Mono Desire”, in his studio basement. It went viral and has had more than 6m hits. The hang was to be his calling card. “I had more confidence with the hang in London; the city has thousands of great drummers but I knew I would be the only one doing exactly this.”
“Mono Desire” brought him into contact with musicians worldwide. Björk heard it and asked him to write a hang part for the song “Virus”. When she met him and discovered he was a multitalented percussionist, he became one of only two musicians sharing the stage with her and a choir on the Biophilia world tour. Since then, it’s been remixed and copied, and brought him to many a festival stage, and was even used to evoke a sense of well-being in a 2010 Nurofen television advertisement.
“I can’t think of another situation in history,” Delago says, “where so many people have learnt how to play an instrument, and what to play, by watching exponents on film.” He knows what it is to be inspired by watching legendary drummers on YouTube; now he’s the one being imitated: ‘There are no mentors, no idols ahead of me. When I see people playing my music, it motivates me to do something new as I feel I’ve got to push things forward, I feel responsible.”
The challenges of composing for the instrument lie in its limited range – just seven notes on one hang – and the myriad types of sound available to it. Delago owns four hangs, all differently tuned to cover a complete piano octave, and usually plays with three. He’s developed ways of notating for the instrument, and his own intricate pieces for strings, bass clarinet and hang (for Living Room in London) can be found on the eponymous new album.
Of his new Concertino Grosso he says: “It’s a playful take on a baroque concerto concept. Coming from a jazz background, I like to break up the conventional orchestral hierarchy, and give every string player a solo.” In New York in February he had a hit with an adventurous work for choir and hang, premiered by Björk’s choir, Graduale Nobili.
All this would suggest that a hang revolution is under way. In fact, the future direction of the instrument is mired in controversy. In a bizarre reaction to its success, the hang’s Bernese inventors ceased to produce the type of “commissioned” hang that Delago plays, making his current set-up unique.
The new “free integral hang”, launched in 2008, is tuned to its own naturally occurring pitches, which do not necessarily fit with western scales or concert pitch, and is intended only to be played solo. The process of obtaining one is tortuous: applications must be made in writing; those judged to be suitable owners (criteria are vague) will eventually receive notification that their hang will be made. Many months later, new owners will be summoned to collect the hang, in person, from the Hangbauhaus at a cost of SFr2,000 (£1,375).
Online forums seethe with discontent over this supply freeze, but the PanART inventors are philosophically opposed to any increase in production. Other instrument makers have been quick to fill the gap in the market, though they cannot cross the patent line. So hang-like instruments, including the Halo and the Russian Dreamball, are freely available. Delago refuses to be drawn on the controversy, only commenting that “the original hang is definitely my favourite”.
The scarcity of that original may be working in Delago’s favour but one senses he would rise to the top even if hangs were available in supermarkets. As his fingers and thumbs patter over the instrument’s surface, an intensity darkens his face and I’m struck anew by the irony of the PanART makers’ words: “The free-tuned Integral Hang is intended for individuals who yearn for balance and inner peace in a world that can be chaotic and unsettling.”
With his jet-setting schedule and dynamic creativity, Manu Delago is the polar opposite of their meditative ideal – and the instrument’s best hope for a future in music.
Manu Delago and Friends, LSO St Lukes, London, March 28, www.barbican.org.uk
Living Room in London, Hendon Music Festival, May 6; Brunel Museum, Great Entrance Hall, Rotherhithe, May 7