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Percussionist makes music without frontiers

PUBLISHED: 13:40 12 January 2012

Manu Delago

Manu Delago

Pawel Szewczyk

Manu Delago brings Austrian influenced percussion music to Kings Place

That there should be an instrument called a “hang” suggests a raft of Christmas cracker jokes (from getting the hang of it to being well hung) that I’ll get out of the way immediately since the hang turns out to be a delicate, enchanting thing which merits seriousness. If you’ve never heard it before, try this month when the world’s leading hangman (OK, there’s another) demonstrates what he, and it, can do at Kings Place.

The “he” here is an Austrian called Manu Delago. The “it” is a saucer-shaped object which looks like a cross between a large wok and a small steel drum and is played by laying it across your knees and tapping the sides – although, with a master like Delago, tapping is an understatement.

He produces fabulously complex rhythmic patterns with a subtle, haunting colour range which sounds like something ancient, tribal, probably from Northern Africa.

In fact, it’s nothing of the sort. The hang is new – invented a decade ago by somebody in Switzerland who now manufactures it in small (and expensive) numbers. There’s a waiting list, a growing cult status, and the basis of it all was a sequence of video clips posted by Delago a couple of years ago on YouTube as a self-advertisement.

Up to then, he’d been a relatively conventional percussionist, born in 1984 in Innsbruck, Austria, where his father led a town band and the young Manu (it’s short for Emanuel) spent his early life as part of it, marching up and down in lederhosen.

“Every village in the Tyrol has one of these bands,” he told me when we met last summer at an Innsbruck cafe, “and marching is very much part of it. But ours also gave proper concerts, for which I played the marimba – not something you could march with – and for which my father wrote new pieces.

“As a composer, he was always looking for different sounds. One day, searching the internet for different instruments to make them, he came across the hang and ordered one. That was the start.”

Meanwhile, Delago Jnr studied classical percussion at the Innsbruck conservatoire, continued his studies at the Guildhall School in London and ended up at Trinity College of Music for composition lessons.

As he says: “There was no music for this new instrument so I had to start writing some – always for myself to play but often alongside other performers. Integrating the hang into conventional groups of fixed-pitch instruments isn’t easy because the tuning doesn’t fit. But I now have four hangs, all with different tunings. So I experiment.”

With a brand new instrument, everything is experiment and, in the few years which Delago has been professionally active, he’s not been idle. Apart from the YouTube videos – one of which has had four million hits – he’s made six CDs of his own work and featured on countless others in a bewildering variety of genres.

For much of last year, he was touring with the singer Bjork and a 24-strong all-girl choir from Iceland. But this coming March, he collaborates with the London Symphony Orchestra in the premiere his own concerto for hang. Meanwhile, at Kings Place, comes an evening you can only call unclassifiable.

It features Delago’s own mixed instrument quintet, Living Room, most of whose members are LSO players, and the music ranges from Mozart to Michael Jackson (in various arrangements) plus a new score by composer Peter Wiegold.

“It’s contemporary classical with influence from jazz and pop,” he says by way of explanation. But perhaps a better way to sum it up is music without frontiers – open to all possibilities – as it can only be when it’s based on a new instrument without tradition or convention.

Manu Delago is writing the rule book of the hang as he goes along, with everything a “first”: an entry on a blank page. So far, he doesn’t even have disciples. But it won’t be long.

Manu Delago and Living Room are at Kings Place, York Way, King’s Cross, on January 23 at 8pm. For details, visit www.kingsplace.co.uk. They are also at
LSO St Luke’s, Old Street,
on March 28 at 8pm. For details, visit www.lso.co.uk/eclectica

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