Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music
Dr. Anthony Achong Comments on; The ''PanART Hang Documentary: A Propaganda-Filled, Dissemination of Lies'' (Part 1) Posted by Rudy Kendall on July 3, 2016 and Reply posted by Michael Paschko.
I initially intended to email this piece only to Felix Rohner who first drew my attention to the WST blog posted by Rudy Kendall but because of its importance, and because my name was mentioned in one of the blogs that followed, in order to put the records straight and inform the readers, I now betray my oath of not using the Social Media. I don’t know Rudy Kendall. I also read the blog reply by Michael Paschko. I know him. These blogs and others posted on the topic, contain a number of errors and lots of nonsense!
When Rudy writes (in his blog) what is right and makes sense he tends to follow it with an equal amount of writings irrelevant to the issue at hand. Some of these irrelevant issues were first introduced by Rohner through his writings outside the blog. I don’t have time for what’s irrelevant even though some of them, from both side of the argument, upset me: like when Rohner writes about my people of Trinidad having “lost their roots.” Or when Rudy in writing about the vision recorded in the Book of Revelations, where St. John describes the hair of Jesus as white as wool and white as snow; Rudy Kendall changes this to “wooly hair,” something altogether different, in order to suit his own interest. Don’t you know you never attempt to alter the Word of God for any reason whatsoever? However, even though his style is clearly different from mine, I commend Rudy for his defense of our people’s culture, our history and our Pan. Likewise, Rohner must be commended for his contribution to the Pan particularly for his introduction of nitrided steel; not a new material but new to Pan.
There is another indirect contributor to the blog, the “narrator,” who, as reported by Rudy, states, ''The central place of the tuner is symbolic, if not divine. It is he who knows how to put the sound back into the drum.”
Achong replies: What meaning can one give to this compounded nonsense? Absolutely none! Maybe the narrator is making reference to the musical drum and the drum tuner. But I state categorically, the Pan (in any form, standard Steelpan or Hang) is not a drum. The phrase “to put the sound back into the drum” has no technical interpretation for there is no sound to “put back” into the drum, so it does appear that the “divine,” who can do the impossible, is being implicated here. Pan Tuners (including myself, and certainly the hundreds that I know or have met and spoken to) are neither “symbolic” nor “divine.” Whether or not the “narrator” singled someone out for divinity or has the power so to do, on this matter of divinity I leave this “narrator” in the hands of God! While the “narrator” remains there, one can only hope that God has mercy on him for his utterance “The world of music welcomes an entirely new musical instrument,” seeing that he cannot tell the difference between a drum and a Pan, not even the difference between what is new and what is not, and most importantly, the true identity of The Divine!
Michael Paschko makes an almost equal number of errors but some of them are quotations so it is not always entirely his fault. I only have time for one or two. Okay, three!
Paschko says (1): "The pan generated a completely different principle from that of the oil drums. What the real meaning of this sentence is, we will see below.”
Achong replies: Whatever meaning is given to this nonsensical statement, that meaning cannot be correct. There are real musical instruments called “Pan” but there is no musical instrument called the “oil drum.” “Different principles” therefore cannot arise. You cannot compare the two! Only in America (so I thought, until reading Paschko) do you hear Steelpans being referred to as “steel drums” or “oil drums”; these are “hangover” expressions from the visiting American Tourists to Trinidad in the 1950s and 1960s, drunken by excessive “rum and coca-cola.” But the more sober, native Trinidadians, who are better educated on Pan, don’t use those expressions.
Paschko, in writing of nitrided steel, goes on to further quote: “This was a completely different principle than using a steel drum as raw form. This lead us to initial acoustical examinations: How can this raw form be tuned? How does it sound? “
Achong replies: As I said before, there is no different or completely different principle! This rawform (nitrided steel) as all others that have been tried, aluminum, brass, stainless steel etc, is tuned in the same way as one tunes the Pans made from the traditional low-carbon steel drum rawform. They ALL operate under the same set of principles. No “new” geometry is required either. Not all metals are equally good however. The sound is NOT in the metal (a common mistake) but in the Dynamics. This common mistake of “sound in the metal” is often made by listeners who, on hearing the sounds of a properly prepared Pan, are so mystified that they attribute the beautiful tones to the metal. I have seen this mistake even among Pan Researchers. The Dynamics is the first secret I have revealed to you.
Paschko refers to my book “Secrets of the Steelpan” (indirectly through a review by Rohner) so he and readers of this blog should read this 1200-page book to find all the facts, all the secrets and the correct answers.
Paschko says (2): “The second was the idea of the hands on the sheet metal. Trinidad doesn't play the Pan with the hands. In the whole world people are seldom playing with the hands on iron or steel.”
Achong replies: This statement is factually and historically incorrect. Pan players in Trinidad, in the early days, first played Pans with their bare hands or wrapped their hands with cloth. I have seen it in the early days, as a boy, so I bare record! I can vividly call to mind an event of some 65 years ago, of a man carrying what today could be classified as a “Bass Pan” but in those days were called “Doo Doops” (for its sound), while “beating” the instrument with his left hand which was wrapped in white cloth. My memory on this is so clear that if that player were alive today, I would recognize him for he stared directly at me! I thank him for that experience which has helped to shape my fondness for the Pan! In Pan Practice, covering the hand with cloth is regarded as “bare hand.” In connection with these “early days” Rudy Kendall is right when he speaks about the early Pans being convex (upward) like the Hang. While all early Pans were not played with the bare hand, it is neither convenient nor expedient to play the concave (downward) Pan, as found today, with the bare hands. Bare hand playing restricts the musical range of the instrument to the lower registers. Read the Chapter on Stick-Note Impact in my Book to find out why! This is why the hand-playing Hang cannot go much higher than 9 notes. The restriction on musical range is not on how many notes you can physically place on the Pan surface but how many can actually be played and be heard either by playing by hand or with a stick. This is fundamental to all Pans whether you call them Pang, Ping, Hang, Handpan, Tenor, Cello, Double Seconds, Quadraphonic etc. (Please Read my Book.) As the early Trinidad Pan Makers extended the musical range of their Pans upward, they also introduced, because of the fundamental reason just given, cloth bound then rubber bound sticks of various sizes. In cultural shows in Trinidad, performers would often “bring back” the early Pans played with bare hands. Paschko has probably never played the notes (all on the lower registers) of a Pan Cello or Double Guitar with his thumbs! In Trinidad, Steelpan Tuners like me, do! We may not do this in concert but when tuning and while up close to the notes, quite often, since we know what to listen for, it gives us a better understanding of the tone and the behavior of the note surface.
The real problem here is that aural music and its appreciation are very subjective. If one wants to say that a modified timber creates a new instrument I would argue that it merely creates a different sound. When a trumpeter places a mute at the horn end of his trumpet, does that create a new instrument or just a different sound? The same holds with the violin when, with your fingers, you pluck rather than bow the strings. Plucking is like using the hand (thumb) on the Pan, while bowing is like using the stick on the Pan. Now you can blow a conch shell as a musical instrument. But when you stand on the seashore with the conch shell to your ear, does the rustling wind and the crashing waves combine with the shell to create a new instrument? It is subjective isn’t it!
Paschko says (3): “The third was the integration of the air resonance into the Hang sound. The Hang is a vessel. Understanding the interplay between the modes in the sheet metal and the Helmholtz resonance was one important aspect that drove…………Gubal, Hang Gudu and Hang Urgu.”
Achong replies: I don’t want to get mired in scientific or technical details here so I shall try to be short and simple on this one as well. “Modes in the sheet metal” is not a good technical term, but I shall allow it to pass (only in the blog). The use of acoustical (air) resonators on Pans, or its operation as a semi-enclosed vessel, is not new. They have been tried and discontinued on Pans in Trinidad many years ago and suggested for the ill-fated G–Pan more recently. The natural resonances of a given Helmholtz resonator in any shape or size cannot be made to agree with a contiguous list of notes on the musical scale not even with all the musically tuned modes found on the Hang. When the Hang is played, you may not always be listening to resonances between the notes and the Helmholtz (Hang) cavity! But if, on the Hang, you depend on Helmholtz resonances, assuming you tune to a key-note (which you must), then you lose the higher partials on that note (unless you are slack in your definition of partials). But then also, the other key-notes are in trouble because the cavity resonances do not all correspond to the musical scale not even over a small range! The key-note on the physical note itself to which the cavity is tuned, also suffers by its interaction with the Helmholtz resonance and by the loss of its higher partials. You end up with a compromise (not good in music). The Pans fabricated by Rohner are tuned with weak higher partials from the octave upward anyway (when compared to standard Trinidad made Pans) so this loss may not be seen as detrimental (this is the compromise) although, at the same time, you must further limit the musical range on the individual Gubal, Hang Gudu and Hang Urgu. Making modified Hangs with single notes will not solve the resonance problem; the compromise remains.
Treating the Hang-Helmholtz problem in the simple manner as above, is not fair to the Pan Makers/Tuners, so I need to be a little more technical (but I shall limit the level of technicality in this blog). The compromise I wrote about above is deeper than what it first appears to be! Once you allow the notes of a Pan (Hang, Tenor or whichever Pan) to interact too strongly with the resonant states of some other mechanical or acoustical resonator, the vibrational properties (frequencies and tonal structure for example) of the Pan notes are changed. Since the resonant frequencies of the two systems in question (Hang notes and Helmholtz cavity) are generally different and the intended mutual interaction is purely acoustical (through the air), and therefore weak and linear, there can be no interaction at all! In this case the “interplay” sought by Paschko, does not exist! What happens then, on hand or stick impact, is that the two systems are independently excited. You, at your ear and brain, are then simply combining and listening to, two simultaneous but independent sounds. If you proceed to match two of the frequencies, one on each system, so that the systems interact (“interplay"), then the simple explanation above suffices to explain the effect (for now). If, you now proceed to couple these two resonances too strongly, then the corresponding keynote and its associated upper partials on the excited note (only that note) are seriously affected even to the point of becoming untunable or of short truncated duration or both (this is a non-linear problem the details of which, are outside the scope of this blog but you can find it all in my papers of the 1990s onward and fully, in my book). Pan Tuners encountered this problem long ago but did not understand the problem. Their only recourse, the proper one, was to avoid those acoustical and mechanical resonators. Sadly, some more recent researchers are still unaware of this (maybe in my opinion, they are either stubborn or pretend to be, after being told) and try to include these resonances in their “inventions!” The result, “inventions” that do not and cannot work as proclaimed. Sometimes, only close examination can reveal the truth!” I am not asking anyone to close down their program; I am only giving advice against something that can prove to be costly and lacks room for further improvement (to the full satisfaction of musicians) or are unworkable in the long run. The ill-fated G-Pan mentioned earlier is a strong case in point. In addition to the resonance problem, there is more that has gone wrong with the G-Pan designs (read my book)!
With the Pan, what we call progress should not be the substitution of one compromise (or nuisance) for another compromise (or nuisance). Company policy should not be “who cares if it works or not so long as most people think it does!” As a Pan Scientist and advisor to The Steelpan Tuners Guild of Trinidad and Tobago, I cannot live with or tolerate such standards!
In order to be helpful to everyone concerned with this issue, I should make clear that the extent of the Helmholtz resonance problem is not too obvious on the present Hang precisely because of the hand-playing action which limits its musical range. If the range is extended upward and the Hang then played with proper sticks (hands would not do), the full problem would be revealed to the player and listener. The present Hang must be played directly with the hand or a matching soft, lossy, stick! There is another problem on the hand-playing Hang, that of Contact Noise, which only grows worse as you extend the musical range upward and play with the bare or covered hand. I shall not go into the details of this other problem here (by now readers should know where they can find the information).
If readers are waiting for me to say whether or not the Hang is just another Pan, well you can find it in my replies above if you haven’t already done so. But since it was Felix Rohner of PanART, who first drew me into this online discussion and asked for my opinion, being true to my profession, I categorically state the following: The Hang is a Steelpan (Pan) having limited musical range (low registers only) because of the chosen method of direct Hand Playing. Helmholtz cavity resonances are only partially employed but when fully employed, further restrict the musical range, even to the extreme limit of a single note. Resonances between the Pan notes and the Cavity will in all cases alter the tonality of all partials, even making the notes (as sets of musically related partials) untunable when the resonant interaction is made sufficiently strong. The strength of the coupling between note and cavity resonator, increases as the separation between the resonant frequencies of note and cavity is reduced i.e. as true resonance is more fully employed. For the sake of musical acceptance, compromises must therefore be made, precisely because of the use of the hand and the use of an attached resonator. Generally, because of the intrinsically non-linear mode of operation of the Pan (which I first proved some 30 years ago), resonant attachments will always adversely affect tonality. The case of the “loose chime” is well known to all Pan Makers! While it may appear attractive, to some, to incorporate resonators on the Pan, performance of truly pristine Pan Operation is always degraded. The physical properties of the hand (fingers and thumb) gives the Hang note impacts similar characteristics to that obtained when playing the Pan Cello with soft standard size sticks. The hand is a natural, personal item; therefore the tonal character of the Hang is player dependent.