Handpan is a term for a group of musical instruments resulting from a growing worldwide interest in the Hang, an instrument invented and built for the first time in the year 2000. This term handpan first appeared in the fall of 2007 on the website of Pantheon Steel, an American steelpan producer. It was used to describe its own development of a new instrument which was launched as an alternative to the Hang, following a stop in production of this original instrument.
The Hang was invented by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer and their company PANArt Hangbau AG in Bern-Switzerland, who came upon their invention after a great deal of in-depth, scientific research into the making of steel musical instruments. PANArt spent years researching and experimenting with different metals, forming and shaping processes, which eventually culminated in the discovery of a new hardened steel and form that could produce slightly softer tones while still being durable.
Inspiration came from the traditional steel pans of the Caribbean islands (Trinidad and Tobago, for example), though they took the technology further to invent their own, new instrument called the Hang. They developed the instrument after years of research into a new material called Pang. This material was intended to help further the evolution of the steel drum from Trinidad, which was PANart’s primary interest. PANart coincidentally stumbled upon the form which became the Hang. The Hang has its roots in the Steeldrum, Ghatam (India), Udu (North Africa), Gamelan (Indonesia), and several other world instruments.
The Hang was developed in the year 2000 and introduced at the Musikmesse Frankfurt in 2001. The name "Hang" is a registered trademark and property of PANArt and comes from the Bernese German word for hand, as the instrument is mainly played by hand.
First Generation Hangs were available from 2001 - 2005. But the popularity was more than PANArt imagined, and spiralled beyond their expectations. In the Winter of 2005, Sabine and Felix felt there was too much pressure to mass-produce their instruments and put on the brakes. They closed their doors for several months, so that they could dedicate the appropriate time and care to the fabrication of each instrument. They reported to their distibution network of music shops and suppliers around the world that they would no longer supply the Hang to them and orders for instruments should stop. Instead PANArt spent those months developing the second generation of the Hang.
In 2006, Second Generation Hangs, with a few adjustments, became available.
In 2008, after a decade of research and practise, PanArt settled on what they thought would be the final Hang design - the Integral Hang. There was only one scale with seven tone fields (D3 Ding, A3, Bb3, C4, D4, E4, F4, A4) and no other sound models offered. The Gu hole was adjusted to a subtly oval shape to improve the tuning. Other changes were made to the Ding. Again demand exploded and PANArt felt the pressure. They made it clear that their priority was not to make something for experienced musicians, but that their instrument could be played by any individual.
Their aims and ambitions were published in a 'Letter from the Hangbauhaus': " Playing with this Hang can lead to a form of freedom, an intimate conversation that can only unfold without pressure and coercion. If individuals are aware of this concept, they will be strengthened by this Hang. Thoughtless use can weaken a person."
At that time, buying a Hang involved an application process - writing a letter to the PANArt headquarters in Switzerland explaining why you wanted one so much and how you intended to use it. Patience was indeed a virtue, as you would then be left waiting for a reply and hoping for an exclusive invitation to go ther yourself in person. but potential buyers still needed to save their pennies for a while - at that time, the price was around 1200 euros! If you did manage to buy a Hang, you would also be obliged to sign a "binding" agreement stating that the Hang may not be resold for profit and must be offered back to PanArt at cost price first. Many considered that a "gentleman's agreement", as it was difficult to enforce, but at least it did aim to encourage honour among players.
Next (around 2009-2010) came the Free Integral Hang, which incorporated a few changes compared to its predecessor but it was only made up until the end of 2013. Since the beginning of 2014, the original PANArt Hang (in any of its forms) is no longer being made. However, there is a new kid on the block. PANArt has moved on to a new instrument called the Gubal (based on the Hang). The main difference is that the bottom of the instrument is extended, so there is a larger, rounded chamber underneath, which serves to deepen and emphasize the sound of the 'Gu' note. There is more contrast and range between then highest tones and the lowest tones.
The Gubal can also be played by hands, but because of it's differences to the Hang, PANArt see it as a new instrument - hence the new name Gubal (named after the importance of the deep 'Gu' sound, which was on the original Hang, but which is now emphasized and deepend on the Gubal).
There have been various stages in the development of the Hang, and several versions of the instrument. After the four generations of hang presented above, the first four alternatives which are generally included by the term handpan, were Caisa (2007), BElls (2009), Halo (2009), and Spacedrum (2009). Today, many handpan builders have entered the market and offer instruments that vary widely in quality.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND
The Hang consists of two hemispheres of steel - which basically look similar to 2 woks. The steel is much thicker than most woks, however, and has been treated/hardened by a process called "gas-nitriding". Once attached together, the two pieces look a bit like a UFO.
Notes are tuned into the top half of the instrument through careful and precise hammering. Each note is meticulously crafted through many varying strikes of a hammer (namely the heart, crown, trunk, root and foundation blows - terminology coined by the 'PANArtists').
These notes are on the 'top' half of the instrument. Eight notes are arranged in a tone circle from low to high and arranged around a ninth low note (Ding) at the center of the tone circle. All are tuned harmonically (with fundamental, octave and the fifth above the octave)
The side considered the 'bottom' has an opening (Gu) in the center which allows the generation of the bass note through Helmholtz resonance.
PANArt emphasized that the tuning of this version of their instrument was basically "free" - in other words, the person tuning it did not rely entirely on calculating precise mathematical frequency ratios, but on the impact each note made on the sound of the instrument as a whole. So the tuner took into account the artistic design of the sound structure as a whole, rather than exact frequencies of individual notes (similar to the way Trinidadian steelpans are tuned). This makes it a pretty unique insturment and one which is very difficult to imitate.