Pioneer hangs with the stars
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