one-minute vacation
handpans and the hang  

Ten years ago, something caught my ears in the Cliff Martinez soundtrack for the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Stanisław Lem's Solaris.

Amid the pleasant ambient pads and electronic sounds, I heard a metallophone I couldn't place. A bit remniscent of a gamelan instrument, but not that; bell-like, bowl-like, but not anything Cambodian or Burmese I had heard... I didn't think to research it at the time, yet I never forgot the unusual sound. But I had been bitten.

Several years later, thanks to a YouTube video popularized on, I heard the elusive instrument again in a poor-quality video of a busker playing one in Europe. This time, in the forum comments, I learned the name to go with the instrument, the PANArt Hang, and got my first glimpse of its curious UFO-like shape.

'That's it,' I cried, startling my wife. 'That thing I heard on the Solaris sountrack!'

With a name to research, I thought, could I find one of these odd, unique, instruments and learn to play it? I had been toying with the idea of getting a xylophone, or vibraphone... some sort of melodic percussion. After years of working with sound in a very mediated way (as this site attests), the idea of a return to tactile and kinesthetic music making was very appealing.

But this was ideal. This instrument played to so many of my interests: pure sinusoidal overtones, the liberation of judicious constraint (the instrument has a fixed tuning and small range), an improvisational emphasis and no repetoire there are almost no composed or rehearsed pieces for most players, and little established technique; the instruments vary too much to compose for generally, and every player usually finds their own idiom.

I soon learned, alas, it was not that easy.


marincello unsoundwalk
rodeo soundial
handpans and the hang
as paredes têm ouvidos
flostam resonance #1
a day, a week, a year
field effects concert series
annapurna: memories in sound
quiet, please
serendipity machines
urban cycles
other recordings

A Pantheon Steel Halo, photographed on my porch at sunset.

With the Hang, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in 2000 invented a new instrument type, one with unique and, to my ear and hand, almost magical properties.

From cold, gas-hardened steel they summon a blossoming, warm, eerily harp- or guitar-like tone. When the entire instrument is well-balanced, and especially when it is tuned evolved to suit the structure and properties of the instrument, it can truly sing like what Rohner calls a 'chorus of angels.'

For many the sound is a revelation, even life changing. Words like 'mystical,' 'haunting,' 'otherworldly,' and the like appear regularly in people's reaction on first encountering it. Recordings do not do the instrument justice.

The Hang has changed over the years, going through several generations as PANArt pursues that in it that they feel are its greatest strengths. As of 2011, its makers continues to innovate, refining and evolving the Hang not to be a musical instrument, but what they term a sound sculpture, in a sense different from that that we sound artists usually mean by that. They use this term, I believe, to emphasize that the Hang is not made to be 'performed upon' or with, but approached in a different way: as a reactive, mercurial and subtle sculptural form with which one engages in personal exploration and sonic dialog, ideally in isolation and without preconception of what is to emerge.

Inspired by the Hang, a small number of other instrument makers (many with a background, like PANArt, making steel pans) have started to explore other possibilities in the form and derivatives or relatives of it. Principal among these are BEllArt in Spain, Pantheon Steel here in the US, Bali Steel in Bali/US, the Spacedrum in France, and the Caisa in Germany.

Though the name is not accepted by its makers for the Hang itself, the generic 'handpan' is now often used for the other instruments of this type; indeed, the most accessible community of players is

Despite the growing number of people interested in and working in the instrument form, the Hang and top-tier handpans are fiendishly difficult to fabricate and hence are extremely difficult to obtain. None of the more prominent makers (PANArt, Pantheon Steel, and BEllArt) have any distribution; no music store carries them.

PANArt has no website and no public email address, the only way to request a new Hang is to (hand) write a letter to them, knowing that they no longer maintain anything akin to a conventional waiting list. Acquiring a Hang requires years of patience and genuine good fortune (some would say, karma). It also requires a trip in person to Switzerland after (and only after) a (very rare) personal invitation from the makers, to select a Hang from the dozens similar to it, but each unique. The other primary handpan makers have closed waiting lists, or use lottery-like systems, to manage their own demand, which is typically at least two orders of mangitude greater than the number of instruments available.

Demand is so high only in part because of the reflexive allure of the rare and difficult to obtain. The instruments are, in my own opinion, fully worthy of their cult status. They are extremely expressive, lovely and trance-inducing to hear and play, yet highly constrained in ways that make them immediately approachable, forgiving, and intuitive.

Though in capable hands they prove remarkably deep—new ways of playing them continue to be discovered—they can also be played by young children or those who don't consider themselves 'musical' almost at once. Indeed, starting without expectation or 'training' often produces the most interesting results.

And most of all, there is that unearthly timbre and subtle reaction to the touch that comes as the players develops what one devotee memorably dubbed 'listening hands'....

Supply, meanwhile, remains low because every instrument is hand-made, usually to order: a product of craft learned more in the body than mind, and of a fabrication and tuning process that is a deep mix of science and artistry. To date, the few attempts to automate the manufacture of this kind of instrument so as to meet (or exploit) demand have failed.

As a result, the instruments, which are expensive when new, yet commonly sell used (e.g. on eBay) for more, usually much much more, than the original purchase price: a complex state of affairs that creates true iniquities, and one which PANArt and other makers continue to grapple with.

Discovering the Hang is hence often a bittersweet thing. For those who hear it, and love it at once, it opens new possibilities. It seems, as Felix Rohner has said, a gift to us all.

But for many, many people those possibilities and gift remain out of reach.


Marincello Unsoundwalk
A Pantheon Steel Halo, photographed on my porch at sunset.

Through a combination of good luck and monomaniacal perseverance, I achieved the miraculous myself and acquired a second-generation Hang right around the time of the birth of my daughter Ember. The seller, himself a new father, saw a resonance in our lives in my comment that I hoped to find a Hang to play with my soon-to-be-born daughter, and chose me among the dozens of interested parties to pass his (secondary) instrument on to. Moreover, he did as its makers ask, and sold it to me for the price he himself paid.

I will be forever indebted. Playing the instrument in the weeks after her birth was a point of connection between us, and it means more than I can say that she is growing up used to hearing, and playing, 'daddy's instruments.'

In subsequent years, my obsession with and involvement with the instrument form has only grown.

Through my participation in online forums, I ended up connecting with and eventually helping Pantheon Steel, maker of the Halo, the first commercially produced alternative to the Hang itself. Over the last few years I have taken charge of the Halo Helpdesk and customer relations; and I assist Halo-makers Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin design tunings for the instruments. If one today writes Pantheon Steel with a question, most likely I will be the one to answer.

As a result of my connection to Pantheon Steel, I have been blessed with access on occasion to instruments that I hand-deliver to customers, and to the occasional prototype. In one of the quirks of modernity, however, I've still never met Kyle or Jim in person: their shop is in Farmington, Missouri, while I languish in San Francisco.

The sound of the Hang and Halo has already worked its way into my soundwork, appearing as a source material in my pieces Embertide and Watercolors for example. What I share here are some of my recordings of the instruments themselves.

None of these was intended as more than a scratch recording, a way of documenting a state of play at a specific time; none was recorded in a studio, or with carefully positioned microphones. And my own playing is still rudimentary at best. A cursory search of YouTube will find videos by genuinely gifted players in many styles.

But I do hope these recordings give you some small sense of the instrument, and why it has such a hold on me.


sirenity 14.3 MB

Late night exploration of a new treasure, recorded in the first days of 2012, on the first Halo Cirrus made in a tuning I dubbed 'La Sirena' after the vision of light beams in slapping martine green water it inevitably evokes for me... it's (E) G B C# D E F# G B. The Cirrus is the newest addition to the Halo family, with a register midway between the original low-pitched Genesis and the high-pitched Stratus, which was introduced in 2011.

everything is fine 7.4 MB

No, really; all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all shall be well... the Shakti prototype (see below), adapted with a borrowed G# into a variation I naturally dubbed Shanti. I do hope Pantheon Steel offers Shanti at some point... I find it relentlessly, infectiously, uplifting and reassuring.

pappadom 6.7 MB Late at night, and my ladies (all three) sleep, leaving me a rare midnight moment to improvise on a very unusual prototype Halo. Its tuning, (E) F# G A# B C# E F#, I soon named Shakti, after John Maclaughlin's fondness for this hexatonic mode, which is an unexpected blend of the aspirational propellant of Raga Desh and the unfamiliar darker terrain of the 'Hijaz' mode of harmonic minor. (Listening back on this I speculated that my inevitable drift into 7/8 when improvising comes from an adolescence spent listening to Rush and Yes.)
idle hands 6.4 MB

An experiment combining an Ake Bono Halo Stratus, Ursa Minor Halo Genesis, and a few notes from my PANArt Hang. Though all I ever hear are my hesitations and mistakes, this is probably the recording I am most proud of to date, and it also demonstrates the pleasures that comes with having access to more than one instrument: the ability to affect harmonic shifts, and the somewhat trance-inducing effect of playing the same note on two different instruments.

pole stars 22.4 MB Two improvisations on an Ursa Minor Halo Genesis; the second starts about four and a half minutes in. In some ways this may be my favorite tuning that I've played; I find it dark, haunting, and lovely, like a star-filled clear winter evening, the last light of dusk still on the horizon...
ake uno 8.5 MB A first encounter with the Ake Bono Halo Stratus, a new model in a much higher register than any I had played to date. This recording had to be de-clipped, as I had my gain set too high; a few artifacts remain. This tuning in some ways best reprents what I think of as the 'classic' sound of a PANArt Hang (though this is not one): rippling like laughter and bells converted into running water, tuned with a tension-filled and mysterious pentatonic minor scale...
spring rain 9.4 MB A wandering ditty inspired a light refreshing rain falling outside our open porch door on a bright San Francisco morning. This track combines an Ake Bono Halo Stratus and Melog-Selisir Halo Stratus, both high-pitched instuments.
angela climbs a boulder 4.5 MB Much more composed than is my norm, this recording combines Hijaz Halo and my second-generation PANArt Hang. It was inspired as the title suggests by a friend scrambling to the top of a boulder along the Tonto Trail within the Grand Canyon at dusk, to watch the light go down. It was so quiet we could hear a bat's wings as it flew by; I was pleased recordings this a few nights later to capture the sound of bats outside the door of my apartment in the south rim village.
blue moon gold sun 11.3 MB An experiment combining a scratch recording exploring Hijaz, a harmonic minor tuning I like, on two Halos, with a favorite field recording or two. I intend to produce an album in this vein, exploring the interweaving of these two elements. Something about this particular track struck me as the ideal music for one of the tribes of Na'vi to play in Avatar... a sonority and mood appropriate to them.
to the dunes 7.4 MB Though a poor-quality recording, I have to include this improvisation, a personal favorite. This was performed on a Hijazkiar Halo, on one of the few nights I had access to it before hand-delivering it to a friend. The tuning is among the trickiest I've played, being a modified harmonic minor mode full of harmonic pitfalls and snares...
halo-hang improvisation 5 MB An early experiment combining my second-generation PANArt Hang with my (at that time new) Pantheon Steel Halo (in the Kiavara tuning); the latter takes center stage. This was my first exploration of the harmonic possibilities of having more than one instrument to play at the same time; a single instrument is typically very limiting harmonically, and playing chord progresssions or 'changes' is often not possible or very constrained. I was suprised at how well the instruments meshed, given their very different native timbres.
hang-halo improvisation 7.8 MB Another early experiment combining my second-generation PANArt Hang with my (at that time new) Pantheon Steel Halo, this time with the Hang central.