Pioneer hangs with the stars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Tim Dou­glas

When a video of Manu De­lago play­ing a rad­i­cal new in­stru­ment — the hang — went vi­ral in 2007, he al­most called his lawyer. A fan with­out per­mis­sion had taken the video from the Aus­trian per­cus­sion­ist’s web­site and up­loaded it to YouTube, where it has now been seen by more seven mil­lion peo­ple.

“I was very sur­prised,” says the 32-year-old from his adopted home in Lon­don. “To be hon­est, I had no idea how YouTube worked back then. I thought ... is this fraud? Then you re­alise, ‘Wait a minute. This has had way more hits than on my site.”

That’s when De­lago’s life changed. The nascent pioneer of a strange-look­ing in­stru­ment with a strange shape and stranger sound was sud­denly very much in de­mand. Some of mu­sic’s big­gest names — in­clud­ing Ice­landic su­per­star Bjork — be­gan call­ing, and De­lago has not stopped since. This month he will per­form Thomas Green’s Con­certino Grosso (for hang) with the Queens­land Youth Or­ches­tra in hon­our of long-time con­duc­tor John Curro. De­lago is ex­cited about in­tro­duc­ing Bris­bane au­di­ences to the ar­cane world of his ex­otic in­stru­ment. “I think Tom’s com­po­si­tion is great, the way it has been put to­gether,” he says. “It’s a very chal­leng­ing thing to do ... to write for this in­stru­ment and an or­ches­tra.”

The hang is a mem­ber of the id­io­phone fam­ily — in which sound is cre­ated by vi­bra­tion with­out the use of strings or skins.

Hav­ing been in­vented in Switzer­land less than 15 years ago, it is one of the youngest in­stru­ments in the world. The hang com­prises two shells — an amal­gam of steel and brass — welded to cre­ate a UFO-shaped drum, into the top (the ding) of which toned im­prints are ham­mered around a cen­tral tuned note. The bot­tom side (the gu) of the in­stru­ment fea­tures a flat tuned sur­face.

Since the hang’s launch in the Euro­pean mar­ket in the noughties, De­lago’s name has be­come syn­ony­mous with the in­stru­ment.

“When I dis­cov­ered it, I was play­ing a lot of marimba, drums and piano. Hang had all these things to­gether in one in­stru­ment,” he says. “It plays melody but also grooves and beats, so that was in­ter­est­ing … But it also was a sound I hadn’t heard be­fore. I was cu­ri­ous to take it fur­ther and com­pose and per­form with it.”

How does he han­dle the no­tion of be­ing a mu­si­cal pioneer? “It’s in­ter­est­ing. It’s a new in­stru­ment, so there’s no his­tory,” he says. “You can’t study the great con­cer­tos of the past and see what oth­ers have done. It’s not as log­i­cal as a piano or gui­tar, where you know where the notes are. Ev­ery hang ac­tu­ally is dif­fer­ent.”

It’s that unique fea­ture of the in­stru­ment that was one of the great­est chal­lenges for Green’s com­po­si­tion.

“I had quite a few con­ver­sa­tions with Tom where he drew a huge bit of pa­per and drew a map of where the notes are,” De­lago says.

“It is a beau­ti­ful in­stru­ment. But it is beau­ti­ful and chal­leng­ing at the same time.”

De­lago, who stud­ied mu­sic and com­po­si­tion at Mozar­teum Univer­sity Salzburg and later Lon­don’s Guild­hall School and Trin­ity Col­lege, has spent the past decade tour­ing the world with his col­lec­tion of hangs. He per­formed with Bjork in 2013 and 2015 on her Bio­philia tours, and spends the rest of his time as the front­man in his own band, Manu De­lago Hand­made, and per­form­ing with sitar player Anoushka Shankar.

He sees end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties for the hang. “I’m al­ways try­ing to find new ways to play it,” he says, “be it in­cor­po­rat­ing elec­tron­ics, or such things. It is im­por­tant to find a way of find­ing a new voice through any in­stru­ment.”

Manu De­lago, back left, with the Anoushka Shankar En­sem­ble in New York in 2013

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