top of page

The Enchanting Science of Handpans With Mark Garner

What if the magical effect of handpans could be explained? Sylvain and Mark explore the hidden patterns and the unseen structures of the instrument, going all the way back to the roots of the steel pan. A reintegration of both contemplation and enjoyment of handpans.

Read "Meditation in the Toolshed" by C.S. Lewis

Podcast Transcription:

Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain. And this is the handpan podcast. Do you remember the first time you heard a handpan, how did it feel and do you know why to help answer those questions, I asked my good friend Mark Garner of Saraz handpans to explore with me the enchanting science of handpans, the intersection where observation and experience meet. So, here we go.

Sylvain: Well, Mark, I always enjoy our conversations and I've been, especially looking forward to this one. So thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Mark: Brother Sylvain, thank you so much for having me on the show. It's an absolute honor.

Sylvain: Yeah, yeah. This was a long time coming. Um, so as with anything in life, in order to go long, in order to go the distance, we must often go deep. And, um, one of the many reasons I wanted to chat with you is because you have gone deep, perhaps more than anyone else. I know you've actually gone back and, and, and read the scientific papers, done the research cataloged and documented all the trial and error, um, that you've experienced with the Saraz, taking it from its inception to today. And so I wanted to have a conversation about, um, the enchanting science of hand pans. And I want to add this, which is we don't need to know necessarily the science behind handpans to enjoy them, but science is a way of accessing truth and beauty. And I thought that with your help, we could all benefit from the, the reintegration of science and art when it comes to hand pans.

Mark: Right on, that's quite the introduction. I must be humble and say, I've only gone so deep, but it'll be interesting to see where our conversation takes us.

Sylvain: Yeah. And I'll let you go with it with some of the questions that I have, uh, you know, take it wherever you want to go with it, but maybe I'll start with this first question, which is what are some of the hidden patterns that happen behind the scenes that can help explain the magical sound of handpans?

Mark: Okay. Uh, well, the first thing that comes to mind is the wave alignment of the notes. And you want to go deep, we'll just go right off the, uh, right off the cliff here into science really quick. And, uh, of course this is a podcast, so it'd be nice to have a PowerPoint presentation to provide with this, but, uh, maybe I can email you a picture or something for your, for your posts. Um, so, uh, most people know what a wavelength looks like, you know, a little squiggly S as a full wavelength. And, um, so there's a really magical alignment. Um, in each handpan note, you know, most decent mediocre to high quality handpans that have been well-tuned with two harmonics and a fundamental. And it's what's, I refer to as a basic, a one, two, three alignment. And so what that means is it's the ratios of each frequency to the next, um, the fraction of each frequency to the next. And so the fundamental we'll call it the biggest wave. Um, the biggest S if it was turned sideways, and then there's the octave harmonic, um, the long axis of each handpan note. And so the wavelength of the octave harmonic is exactly half the size of the wavelength of the fundamental, and this works for every octave going up, um, you know, from C1 to whatever C 57 such a thing exist. And so this is, this is what would be called like a one, two ratio. Uh, and then the short axis is, um, what we in the handpan world called a compound fifth. And that basically it means it's, um, an octave than a fifth above. So, you know, if you have a C4 then fundamental, you're going to have a C5 on the long axis, and you're going to have a G 5 on the, a short axis. And so that short axis is harmonic is exactly one third of the size. The, um, the wavelength of the compound fifth is exactly one third, the size of the fundamental, and this would be a one, three ratio. And so between these, you get this one two three ratio. And when we talk about harmony, we're talking about how do wave forms lineup together. So, you know, a perfect fifth, a perfect fourth an octave. These are all really, really basic fractions, such as one half one third, one fourth, one fifth, um, that create, um, this beautiful harmonies, you know, is, um, the fundamental wave goes by our ear, two of the octave waves go by our ear or three of the compound fifth wave go by our ear. And so this one, two, three pattern is the most fundamental, basic, um, harmony possible. You know, it's a, it can't get any simpler than one, two or one, three, um, you know, one, four, and one five are going to be more complex. And so this is on every single, no to the handhand, you're going to have this really primary basic, um, harmonic alignment of these three frequencies. And then the little, a bit of research I've done into this by no means, am I an expert, but I am curious and happy and curious by the same question that you asked for a number of years and been more as a hobby looking into it. And, um, and I have a little bit of a background in psychology. I've got a degree in psychology, and it's always been a topic of curiosity for 20 years. And, uh, so when we look at a soundscape and how our brains process a soundscape, and we consider the most things are inharmonic, or what we consider in harmonic, and what that means is maybe for every single wave that goes by our ear, the insect made a ratio that would take 10,742 of those waves to line up with the wave of the chair squeaking under you. You know, something like that. They're, um, they're really, they're really complex. Um, basically inharmonic, they're too complex to be harmonic. And so what our brains often doing is trying to simplify the incredible number of sounds that we hear down into really simple ratios. And this plays out, especially with the voice, uh, that has a number of harmonics. And, you know, and I would say I would hypothesize that this is part of the magic of what we're drawn to music is because of these harmonic ratios, but specifically with the handpan, I'm curious. I hypothesize and also, just a question for the, it may be part of the magic of the instrument that every single note is based on the most primary harmonic relationship possible. And to my knowledge, I'm I say this as a challenge to your listeners to please email me and educate me if they know of any other instruments that are tuned like this beyond the steel pan, uh, which is also tuned in this one to three ratio, um, you know, guitar, you play guitar string, and it's going to have, um, I think it's 16 harmonics. Um, some of them are incredibly appealing. Others are not, uh, to my ear, I should say. Um, but you know, mostly stringed instruments are much more complex like the voice, um, but to have such not only, um, prominent loud, uh, high amplitude harmonics, but also with the movement in handpans, pretty much since I got involved with it. Um, more so than earlier on with what Panart was doing early on, um, the goal has been to try and isolate all the frequencies on the instrument down to just the fundamental and just the octave harmonic and just the compound fifth to be nothing but these primary frequencies. So, you know, this in combination with the multi directionality of how these frequencies come off the instrument, you know, the, uh, the fundamentals going in the instrument and off the instrument, the octave harmonic is, um, quite actually shooting away from the note on the long axis. And the short axis harmonic is doing the same thing, uh, shooting perpendicular to that. So, you know, you play a jam on a handpan and the, uh, the frequencies are going all over the room. And so this multi directionality of the instrument in combination with these harmonic alignments, or seems to be at least part of what grabs people and, you know, all of us that have played handpans and played outdoors and played on busking, or, um, played in the park. And, you know, we've all had the experience where someone stops in their tracks and comes over and says, what is that thing? What is that called? And is it made out of metal? Is it amplified? Like how are you getting that sound out of it? Um, so, you know, that experience is what's drawn me to ask these questions. What is it about this thing that grabs people in such a way, and I'm coming to believe that the harmonic ratio is part of it.

Sylvain: Wow. That is mind blowing. I mean, there's so much you just touched on and so much to unpack. Um, I love the multi direction feature of, of the instrument that you referenced. The fact that these harmonics are loud and prominent. That really, when you play a handpan note, you're activating a chord. I mean, no one really says that. Is there a basis for saying that when you play handpan note, you're really playing a chord cause you're playing three different frequencies or is it not a chord because it spans over several octaves?

Mark: Uh, you know, my, uh, professional music theory is probably even more limited than yours Sylvain, but you know, my, my definition of how I consider a chord is having three different notes. And, um, I don't, at least in my own personal definition, which may be incorrect. Um, I don't define a chord as just a one, three, five, you know, ratio, I think about jazz chords and what it might be like an F sharp minor seven flat nine or something. Right. Um, so maybe we should look it up on Google exact definition, but, um, I've always thought exactly what you suggested that each note is actually a chord. It's not a note.

Sylvain: Yeah. So I did a little bit of preparation before our call, uh, cause I don't know any of this stuff of the top of my head, but, um, so I'm actually looking at one of my Saraz handpans right now. The center note is a G3 note. So the fundamental I looked it up is 196 Hertz. Okay. 196 X 2 is 392 Hertz, which is the octave. It's actually perfectly the octave. And then 196 X 3 is 588 Hertz, which is almost what would be a perfect D5 note, which would be our compound fifth, which is 587.33 Hertz. So what we're super posing here is just basic math and music theory. And so it's interesting, and I don't want necessarily to open a whole new can of worms because we have so much already at hand, but it's not a perfect science, right? Because for the G3 note, which is at 196 Hertz that X 3 is not quite the mathematical value of the compound fifth. So are we cheating? Are we cutting a little bit at those intervals?

Mark: That's a really good question. Um, to take a half a step backwards, uh, you know, a Hertz is, um, it's one wave cycle per second is what that actually means. And so, you know, going back to our, our single wave distances, um, so you'd have 190, uh, six cycles in a given second as what that means. Um, so, uh, you know, you've already gone probably deeper into this than I think about on a regular basis to be entirely honest. And, um, I question whether it might partially be, um, you know, equal temperament and, uh, you know, that's a really good question. I, um, it's really good question Sylvain, I'm not a hundred percent sure.

Sylvain: And obviously there are so many variations to the sound of any given hand band. Um, so really that G3 may not actually be tuned to 196 Hertz. It could be 197 or 98 or 99. Um,

Mark: One of the things that came to mind was, um, there's two variables that are really going to influence the math, the perfect math. Um, one is equal temperament, um, which doesn't play out so much with octaves. I'm not a hundred percent sure on fifth without doing some math and research, but the other part is something that, um, I call octave stretching. I'm not sure if that's the official term, but I think most tuners would be fairly familiar with the idea. Uh, and it's, so the perfect example, I guess, is probably tuning a piano. You can tune the whole piano to perfect 440 relativity. Um, however it ends up sounding, um, stagnant or, uh, kind of thudy and dead, or, you know, it's hard to find the right English word for it, I suppose, but it doesn't have life in the same way. And the reason is because the, uh, wave forms quite perfectly line up. Uh, and the reason is because sounds when you go from a single point, such as G3 the further out you go, the sound waves, get to meet perfect harmony, they stretch a little further. And so let's see, try and explain this the best way for a podcast to put, let me put it in slightly different terms. So in handpan tuning and most tuning, um, you know, many people who use lino tune or other tuning software, um, we all talk in a sense. And so there's a hundred cents, um, between two tones between say a G3 and a G#3. Um, if we're thinking about this on a piano that's, um, between a white key and a black key, there's a hundred sense. And so when we think about, say an entire octave, now we're looking at 12 notes on the piano before it repeats and go from C4 to C5, there'll be 12 notes. So across that entire octave, there's about two or three sense of stretch. I think about it almost as like, um, you know, as opposed to like, um, a circle or a spiral going around the notes, you know, if you had a, the circle of notes and you're just doing a perfect circle and you keep going up through the octaves, it's actually a little bit more of a spiral and it's spiraling outward a little bit. And what, and what this means is that when I tunes a G3, I might tune the G4 a couple of cents sharp. And if I tune a G5 relative to it, I might tune it three or 4 cents sharper, um, to bring it into a bit better alignment. And we, I, you know, we're really like splitting hairs at this point and getting down to, um, what I consider what I jokingly call the personality of a note, uh, in these relativities. And so that might also be a variable and why the fifth isn't perfectly lining up. You've got me curious now, as I'm probably going to get online and research this after we talk.

Sylvain: I do like that phrase, the personality of a note and handpan notes are so dynamic in that sense, they're not static at all. And also they kind of drift over time and they might change according to the temperature or the air pressure. Um, so it's, it's quite fascinating and there are so many variables, but I think what's wonderful about all of this, which again is way over my head, um, is that artistry and mathematics have a lot in common: joy, the wonder, the surprise, the enchantment, the handpan is an experience of the mind as it is an experience of the heart. And, you know, I, if someone wanted to describe experience of a rollercoaster at Disneyland, they could talk about it experientially, but you could also have the engineer that designed it, talk about the velocity and the gravity. And so I find it really cool to at least it's my hope that we can with these facts. Um, we can, reenchant science for the disenchanted.

Mark: I love your metaphor about the, um, the roller coaster. It's so true. You know, how do we, how do we think about anything in life? Is it science? Is it art? Is it spirit? Is it, you know, something, the mystery of it all.

Sylvain: So if you had to make a case for this, what would you say to the fact that each hand pan is truly unique? In other words, what are some of the variations that affect an instrument and what makes one handpan using one certain type of steel in one certain scale, different from another that's seemingly identical.

Mark: Ooh, good question. Uh, well, I think we should start at the foundation and work our way down to the finer details to answer that. Um, even if we start with a deep drawn shell and it starts with the exact same shape, um, most builders I know are going to end up with minutely different shape, um, to the final shape of the instrument. Um, because you know, you've got to form, the notes, and you've got a form, the dimples, and you've got, um, manipulate what's called the interstitial space between the notes, um, to get it to where it's ready to tune. And then there's my new differences in those things after it's tuned as well. And so that would probably be the most fundamental quality, even starting with the exact same shell, the exact same metal from the exact same batch of metal, the same, you know, whatever it may be, nitriding or stainless steel. Um, you're going to end up with a minutely different shape and will, why does that matter? Um, the shape is gonna be the foundation of the internal, um, push and pull of the tensile strength and the, um, detentions. And what does all that mean? Right. Get into these technical terms really fast to put it very simply quite often, either the space between the notes or the note membrane itself is pushing or pulling on the other. So either the space between the notes, pushing on the note or the notes pushing on the space and, um, balancing this out is, um, in my humble opinion, um, something that comes with, uh, experience and is the goal of the final product stability, but this internal tension that we can't, we can't really see it. We can see things that hint at it. Um, but it's often much more or subtle than the eye can see my experience. We can't smell it. We can't taste it. We can't, we can kind of feel it with the balance of the hammer and the reflection of what happens when we hammer it. Um, but it's mostly an invisible force to our perception. And, um, so this is this invisible force, this push and pull this internal tensile strength, this tension, elasticity. Um, all of these words are attempting to, uh, describe the spores that's in the steel itself. This is what really makes each instrument unique. Um, so then we look at, okay, well, how does it make it unique? Um, if the push and pull is really strong and unbalanced on say one side of a note, say on the short side of, um, the short axis of a note, uh, it might choke up that heart Monica. It might mute that harmonic turned down the loudness of it turned down the amplitude of it to where it won't be as balanced it's in, in the note overall and, and, you know, good tuners, um, use this to their advantage, um, and use this. I often think back to I'm really early on spending some time with, um, Rob at, uh, Ellie Manette's shop. And, um, he said something to me like tuning's easy, it's, um, balancing the instrument. That's the real, real trick. And so manipulating this invisible force we'll coninue to call it a is really what that means. It means finding that balance. And so maybe no, it's really Blairy. Okay, well, add more tightness to it. Add more constriction or tension to the border. We'll balance that back out. So getting these balances between the two harmonics and the fundamental, um, that's one of the things that really creates the uniqueness of an instrument, uh, at an individual note level, but then at the overall full instrument level, how do the notes all balance each other? Um, does one note have a really hot loud compound pound fifth, and the next note it's almost completely muted, um, or have they been balanced out and when you get into these really fine details, um, I don't know of anybody that makes, you know, every, every instrument's unique by every builder, in my opinion, I've never seen two that are exactly the same and, you know, I'm Kyle and the guys that the folks at Pantheon, I mean, they've gone to incredible lengths to mechanize some of their processes, really technological brilliance that you and I both seen firsthand and still every one of their instruments is unique. You know, once it comes down to the person tuning it, Jason or Kyle, or, and what's quiet, um, actually thousands of hammer strikes, um, by hand or pneumatic hammer that deviate from one instrument to the next. Um, otherwise I think there's finer details. You know, there's things like, um, tones around the shoulders of the notes and, um, you know, the, the overall texture of, um, of the alloy itself like, um, are two sheets of steel ever really the same, really talk to metal fabricators. No, they're not. And that's the difficulty of, um, engineering machinery to work with metal is the, the alloy itself does deviate from one sheet to the next. Um, we've seen it firsthand, you know, the diff it seems like, like consider carbon content, for example, um, the carbon content and a piece of steel, cold rolled steel. Um, I've worked with everything from, uh, three, one hundredths of a percent up to, uh, eight, one hundredths of a percent we're talking 0.03 or 0.08 of, um, 1%. And it's, um, it's profoundly different. I mean, it sounds like it's such a minuscule amount, but when you look at those two figures relatively, there's almost three times as much carbon in one sheet as the next. And, uh, the, the sound of the instruments are obvious really obvious if they're nitrided it. The nitriding is obviously different. Um, the bounce of the hammer is obviously different. Um, I, you know, got a couple folks that have sank a lot of Saraz shells over history, and it was always funny when we'd get a new batch of steel and, um, one of them be like, is this a new batch of steel? It feels completely different than the last 30 shells I'm saying like, well, yes, actually it is. So, yeah, it's, um, yeah, there's, there's really a number of variables that make each one truly unique.

Sylvain: That's so incredibly remarkable. And to me, it just adds to the romanticism of this instrument. Um, it's a good instrument for contrarians or for people who like exclusivity because when you own a handpan it's a, one of a kind instrument, no one else in the world has the same. Ah, that's cool.

Mark: Yeah. You truly, you're really, really true. They're Sylvain it's each one is its own thing. It deserves its own name, you know, becomes a member of the family.

Sylvain: Yeah. So I want to switch gears really quick and, um, hear more about your story because you and I met at handpangea in 2013 and, um, that's when you had brought a prototype Siraz at the, um, what did your handpan journey look like leading up to that event? And then the second part of the question will be, if you could give us a brief history of the Saraz hand pans since then.

Mark: Okay. Well, um, wow. The years have gone by, Sylvain, ah, the good old days Hampton had such a magical time. Um, well, yeah, I've probably had been making instruments for about six or seven months when we met, um, had actually gotten some instruments in tune. And so it was definitely still in the prototype phase. And, um, leading up to that, I think it was in the previous November, maybe I'd gone to a small gathering down in Georgia and, uh, debuted Saraz prototype number one, um, maybe six or seven months before we'd met. And before that, I'd probably spent about a year, um, since I got the crazy idea to try and build these things. And, uh, that was an interesting year. I, I first got the idea and I spent about a week online, you know, I think I read the entire builder section of, um,, The old forum. And, um, I learned a few things, you know, I got some interesting ideas and I quickly deducted the, I needed to find people who knew actually how to tune steel as there wasn't really a lot of information. And there was, I forget the guy's name, uh, all, um, ha Hoffman maybe, or I'm butchering. His name is German guy that had a, uh, PDF online about how to build steel drums. And I read that and none of it really made any sense to me. And so I started looking around for steel drum builders, and I went out and I spent a few days with a guy Dennis Martin out in Washington. He, um, he was one of the first steel drum builders to use pneumatic hammers and popularized it back in the nineties. And, um, as far as I know, he's thinking he was the first person to sell them as well. Um, so I spent a few days with him. I learned how to, you know, sink it oil drum and form notes and, uh, use the, uh, hammers and, um, tearing some steel drum notes. We worked on a set of double seconds and, um, it was really interesting, fascinating experience. And, um, and then when we met, I also got an opportunity to meet, uh, I guess it was, I guess was actually the previous summer. I gotten a chance to meet, um, Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin of Pantheon steel. And at that time they were passing rumors around that they might make some tooling for people who wanted to get into it. And I'm so bless their hearts. I became the most of noxious, enthusiastic person about building that, uh, either of them one probably ever knew and, um, kind of just started pestering them, pestering Aaron, and Hey, you guys really want to do this. I mean, I'll, I'll be your first customer, like, come on, let's, let's do it, let's do it. And, um, and you know, Kyle had sold hammers to a few people, um, and the still drum days with, um, Pantheon steel, this is original company. And, uh, I think he sold some hammers to, um, Ezhan at Echo sound sculpture ages before. And, um, maybe also Mark Wilson and, uh, England, um, steel drum days. Don't quote me on that. But anyways, um, so, you know, I got some hammers from him pretty quick and, um, and then started, you know, really kind of pestering Jim a little bit. And he, um, he built a really nice thinking table for us that we still use it's motorized and spins. And, um, thank you. And Jill saw it maybe during one of your tours shop, ages past, and, uh, they designed a tuning stand as well. They sold for awhile and, uh, I guess it was two or three years. They sold some different equipment, uh, to folks like myself that were getting into it and, you know, and it was also a really great opportunity to go and visit them and pick up this equipment and, um, uh, Jonathan Heaven at the time, I think he was staying with me for a few days. He's of course gone on to make, um, extraordinary instruments as well. And, um, him and I went and picked up, um, big Mo is what Jim called it. And, um, we, uh, brought it back and started hammering shells and exploring it. And then beyond that, I also, um, went up and spent a few days that Ellie Mannette shop and, um, looked over, um, Rob and Ellie's shoulders a little bit. And, um, forget the other gentleman was there students from sinking and, um, got a couple of insights into what they were doing. And, uh, and then our mutual friend, um, Rusty James was going to, uh, Russia, um, to Victor to visit Victor Levinson. And so, um, I piggybacked on his trip and spent a few days there as well and looked over Victor's shoulders for a few days. And, um, you know, the one thing I learned from all of them is they all made it look a lot easier than it was for me when I got home. And at, Nope, I remember Victor had a couple of wise words of, you know, really trying to isolate different frequencies to control them. And, but most everybody said, you know, you can, you can watch basically. And, uh, they weren't very, other than Dennis, Dennis was very informative in his lessons. And so, you know, I, I saw him I'll do it. And I think I walked away with a bit more confidence that I could do it, uh, then was definitely warranted, uh, as I got home and it just didn't work the same. Um, in retrospect, I can see a lot of reasons for that, that I didn't have any design I was going off of. So, you know, I was tuning, but I was still shaping at the same time to try and figure out what's the right shape. And, um, so I spent a lot of time hammering and, uh, you know, I think I clocked it. I think it took a 200 or 300 hours before I got to my first in-tune note of, um, hammering. And, um, it was like, you know, ready to jump with joy. And then after a few months I got to the first instrument that was fully tuned and I think I'd spent, I don't know, 30 hours tuning the first instrument or something to get it there, something godly enormous compared to what we do now. And, um, so yeah, it was, it was quite a journey leading up to the first instrument and, and then, you know, you finish the first one. It's like, okay, well, cool. I made one. And then I think it was my favorite, one of the first 10, you know, it's, I mean, I really looking back, I think I called the first 20 prototypes, uh, um, at this point I think I'd call the first 300 prototypes, to be honest.

Sylvain: I mean, just what an incredible start. And I'm just trying to imagine what it must have been like to travel the world and to enter this global community of, of other builders and handpan enthusiasts. What was the fuel to, to keep going when it all seems like such a challenging, um, um, you know, steep learning curve?

Mark: Mm. It was a very different time to get started. Um, I don't regret getting started at that point in any way, shape or form, but it was, it was much more difficult than because, um, Ayasa wasn't making amazing shells and, um, there weren't people online selling no forms and hammers and, you know, there was no discussion or hardly at all about how to do it publicly. And, um, so people, you know, everyone who got started in that day and age really had to figure it out for themselves. Uh, and or people like, you know, Sean Beaver of symphonic steel, you know, had really extensive steel drum background and at least had an idea of what they were getting into and just had to hone those skills down for the appropriate nature of the handpan. And, um, so it was a difficult time to get into it. Um, I think I was, I was definitely really naive, you know, I remember coming into it and thinking, all right, well, I mean, I can probably figure this out in a couple of months and, you know, maybe I'll spend 15 or $20,000 total before I get to the first one and we'll be going strong. And I mean, I wasn't even like close even slightly close to the investment that was going to take. And, uh, and I had some money in my pocket at the time, you know, a decent savings account and I burned through all of that. And I, uh, and then I maxed out, uh, two or three credit cards and, uh, and I kind of came to a point where I was like, okay, well, I've really got to at this, or I'm basically going to lose everything that I've worked for in my life up to that point. Um, to be really honest with you, it was I think economic pressure, um, that really got me out of bed to push hard for a number of, um, months there. And, you know, and with time it's, uh, every little hurdle is like, uh, well, there's an achievement. And then there's a new hurdle. You know, you get to the top of one Hill and think, ah, finally got to the top of the mountain and then you look around and see, Oh, wow, there's way bigger mountains that I still need to climb. And, um, but nonetheless, there are moments of achievement along the way. And, you know, I've always kind of been a person that easily gets, um, gets bored and, you know, do something get pretty good at it and be like, all right, well, I've done that let's move on. And the one thing about building handpans is it took a number of years to even get close to that of like, Oh yeah, I've done that. Uh, it, for the first many, many years, uh, three, four or five years, it was still just continual developments because it's such a young art form. And so, you know, that was really engaging and motivating and, you know, and even to this day, I still, um, tweak fine details and, you know, alter fine details will, is I'm hanging out with Jason, who does our emails yesterday. And he was telling me that someone had written this and asked like, Hey, you know, can we get the, can I get the mathematical formula for all of your note shapes? And, you know, we both kind of giggled and laughed. We don't have one, there's no consistency because we've really, we've done it by experience more so than a math. And so it actually deviates a little bit from note to note and, you know, and I'll tune an instrument, I'll think to myself, maybe I, you know, maybe I want to shrink the short axis a little bit on this, A3 or, you know, maybe I want the dimple to be a millimeter or wider all around. And, uh, and while it seems fairly insignificant to be changing notes by a millimeter or two, um, it has this really significant, um, influence on the timbre of the notes and the tambour of the instrument overall. Uh, so, you know, I mean, it's, it, hasn't been more than two months since we altered a note form. Um, so you know, these things continue to develop and that's engaging and that's, I think what keeps me going, and, you know, even at this point, I'm getting close to nine years now since I first got the crazy idea to do this. Um, that's really what keeps me moving forward is, um, something novel and new getting into making stainless instruments a couple of years ago, it was like a whole new rabbit hole to explore. Um, otherwise, you know, if I just, if I did nothing but make D Minors all day, and I think I'd be bored out of my mind and really lose my passion for it.

Sylvain: Yeah. I'm glad that there are aspects that are still, you know, mentally creatively stimulating to this day. And obviously it's an evolution and we're, we're all on a journey, but, um, I want to go back cause I don't want to miss this. You mentioned, uh, Ellie Manette and you met with him. Uh, you've told me the story before, but the reality is most handpan players don't come from the world of steel pans. You know, I didn't, uh, and I didn't know who element that was, but the, the steel pan is, um, is a very new development in the world of musical instruments. And it dates back from, um, a lifetime ago, barely. I mean, uh, in the fifties or in the sixties, Ellie Mannette was, uh, was pushing the advances of the steel drum and he passed away a couple of years ago, but this is recent history. And so within a lifetime, uh, he took steel tuned instrument from Trinidad in Tobago from something that wasn't necessarily self contained or clearly defined to a world recognized musical instrument, uh, that the steel pan is. And then he got to experience the handpan. Tell me about that encounter.

Mark: Hmm. Well, um, I think it's really an important thing for a hand panplayers and builders to recognize is, um, while no doubt, we all owe gratitude to Felix and Sabina and Switzerland for, you know, inventing the hang that we've all fallen in love with and it's led to the hand pan. Um, but the birth of the instrument in my humble opinion, um, absolutely starts in Trinidad, Trinidad, and Tobago with a steel pan. It's the same technology, it's the same tuning structure, it's the same bowl. Um, you know, you play on the opposite side, but otherwise it's, it's absolutely the, the father, mother ancestor, whatever, um, someone wants to say about it. Um, and you're right, Ellie, Ellie came to the States in the fifties or so. And, um, he had spent at that point, let's see, he had spent about 20 or 30 years working on the steel pan. And, um, and he told me the story about how he was a very, very lucky young lad and Trinidad to be given a scholarship to go to, I believe it was Oxford in England. And so he went and he spent about a year there and, uh, he hated it. And all he thought about the entire time was coming back home and, um, developing the steel pan. And so he eventually dropped out of Oxford and he went back to Trinidad and he was, um, he was basically disowned by all of his family and friends that thought he had just completely ruined his life and this incredible opportunity that he had had to go and study in England and really make something out of his life. And, um, instead he came back and his, in his own words to me where he really wanted to be able to play. Mary had a little lamb on steel drums on steel pans. He wanted to be able to play music. And at that time it was more of like, I don't know, maybe they were closer to pentatonic at most, or the way he described it to me was they were more like Cow bells that had a few different frequencies on them. And they were played more like percussive instruments. And so, uh, and nobody wanted to hear him banging on steel as any handpan builder knows it's a loud, obnoxious job. Um, incredible irony, how much noise it takes to make something so beautiful. Uh, so he was out in the swamps of Trinidad with the mosquitoes hammering on steel and over the course of about 10 years, he started to figure it out. And, um, he built the first chromatic sets and, you know, and of course there's two or 300 people that have contributed massively to the steel pan as well. But, um, Ellie is generally considered the, um, the father, um, and it's worth considering the, in the 20th century, the steel pan is the only new acoustic instrument that was invented. Uh, so this is very young. Um, it's also worth considering that what Ellie developed in that time was only the fundamental of these notes. He had not put any harmonics on them yet. And that the, the first, the long axis octave harmonic, um, was developed around the 1960s. Um, I'm not sure it was Ellie. I think it might've been someone else that started doing it first. And then I want to say it was close to the late seventies, 1980s. It's like really not very long ago. Uh, I mean, I was born in 1979, um, that the short axis harmonic, um, was, became really popular. And then in the late eighties, early nineties is when, um, they were starting to do shoulder tones, like Ellie was tuning, um, a third octave onto every note, um, around the early nineties. Um, when I mentioned, I went and spent some time with Dennis Martin, he had the very first, I think it was a leap. It was a lead pattern, was a cello pan. I forget, I think it was a lead. He had the very first one Ellie had made, um, with, um, tuned shoulder tones on it, uh, with a third octave on every single note. And I mean, it honestly brought tears to my eyes. The first time he played it for me, it was absolutely exquisite, beautiful piece of artwork. Um, so anyways, it was an incredible treat to get to meet this man that he passed in his early nineties. Uh, I guess it was about two years ago now. And I had a really interesting experience with him showing him the handpan, of course, you know, I hadn't built any yet. And, um, but I, my first, um, hand pan was a halo, uh, from Pantheon steel and, um, an Ellie knew, uh, Kyle Cox, um, because cos teacher had studied directly under Ellie. And, you know, at this point, Kyle had made a, I don't know, um, maybe 500 or a thousand steel pans. And, um, so he was pretty deep in the scene. And, uh, he had been to some conferences with Ellie and Ellie had actually, um, spent a workshop at a festival critiquing one of Kyle's, um, steel pan sets. Um, I think it's the one maybe that Kyle still has. And it was like, uh, I probably not getting all these details. Correct. So Kyle, if you're listening to this, please forgive me, Ellie and heaven, please forgive me as well. Um, but, um, I remember the story being something to the degree that it was one of Ellie's layouts and it was on a build that was similar to the modern builds of that day, which were not drums. They were actually sheet metal that had been welded together to a skirt. And this was something that pan yard was doing. And Ellie was pretty critical of that style, not doing it on a, um, on a steel pan, but not doing it on a steel drum, excuse me, Kyle had done it, um, built one of Ellie's layouts on it. And so he critiqued it. And I remember Kyle telling me he didn't hold anything back. He was really honest about what he thought about all of it, but it was, um, it was a really touching experience. So, you know, anyways, I show up at LA shop and I've got, um, a hand pan made by, um, by Kyle. And so he knew exactly who Kyle Cox was and, uh, and he'd never, um, seen anything built like the halo before ever tuned by, you know, a piece of tune steel that had been, um, the shell had been spun and, uh, Jim spinning machine, um, the notes were pressed, um, uh, you know, you can't see one hammer strike anywhere on the instrument, I mean the halos are immaculate, um, in that regard. And, uh, and so Ellie was blown away by the thing he couldn't believe. I mean, you know what, I think it was less so, um, that it was a hand pan and it was more so the machining that had been done to it and, um, and the tone that came off of it with the, uh, the control of the dimples. And, um, I've got some classic classic photos of, um, him and I, and I mean, Ellie's like, you know, I think back about the experience and it felt like taking Ellie one of his grandkids for the first time and you know, him just absolutely delighted to have his, you know, grandson or his granddaughter on his knee. And, um, and just like a little child, again, it's really funny. He was so excited about it. He, um, he actually spit on my halo just a little bit. And, uh, afterwards I thought to myself, you know, I've got Ellie Manette's spit on my halo. I'm not, I'm not wiping this off. And, uh, and I actually let it rust and I have a, I have two or three spots on my halo of rust that are from Ellie Manette's spit. It's pretty funny.

Sylvain: Oh, that's so good. Yeah. Uh, man, I had heard that story before, but it's, it's awesome that you did that and thank you for sharing that story. I think it's, yeah, it's really important for us. You know, handpan enthusiastic of this new generation of tuned steel to know about the origins of our instrument. And there really isn't a chasm between the steel pan and the hand pan. It very much was a continuum. I mean, what you just shared about shoulder tones on steel pans. I had never known about that. I think, and I had always attributed the term to the handpans, but yeah, no, it's, we're part of this, this larger story.

Mark: That's exactly how I see it. It's, we're all part of a bigger organism that, uh, none of us own it and, you know, none of us will ultimately be able to own it. It's something that will outlive all of us. I hope of our instruments outlive all of us and the people that come after us will continue to develop it further. I, uh, I, I remember some, you know, Ellie was a, he was a fiery, fiery old man. He was, um, he's in his mid eighties when I met him and, uh, really high, strong, really type A personality. And, um, anybody, he was incredibly humble and he, um, he said something to me when I was there. He's, you know, one day he's like, you, you keep doing this, um, boy, you know, he like called the young boys. You know, boy, you keep doing this. And one day you're going to be a better tuner than me. And, and, you know, I thought at the time, like, I mean, this guy is like the master of this art form, you know, how will I ever even come close to being as good of a tuner as Ellie, but it spoke to something in his nature. You know, he spent most of his time in the States, uh, since the fifties, I believe when he came to the States, I'm wandering all over and teaching in different colleges and sharing everything about how he built his instruments, teaching other people to do it and through the process. And, you know, and that's, that's ultimately what brought this instrument in North America. That's why everybody who's a North America Americans ever built, steel drums has done it, uh, 99% of those people. And it's ultimately why the hand pan exists is it is the exact same technology of tuning the notes. And, uh, it is a perfect continuum as you've said. And so, you know, I think it's important for all of us, cause it's, it's easy to, you know, it's easy to come up with a good idea and be like, ah, I came up with this great idea. This is mine now. And you're really take ownership and have some sense of, um, entitlement and ego around it. And it's important. I think for all of us to realize that we're standing on the shoulders of giants, that, you know, people have come before us that, um, have developed all these things and we've taken these ideas forward and people will come after us and they'll take our ideas and, uh, and they'll develop them further. And, you know, I feel like there's a, for myself, at least there's a great satisfaction in being a step in the journey instead of the destination and, you know, helping the people who come after us more so than trying to take ownership on anything, you know, this is, this is my finish, or this is how I tune, or this is my scale or, you know, whatever it is. I feel like that just kind of leads to a, uh, an inevitable sense of, um, anger and, um, dissatisfaction. And, um, it's a way to not have a good time. That's torture yourself, you know, better things to be concerned about in life. At least for myself, I can't speak for anyone else. Of course.

Sylvain: Well, these are definitely pertinent thoughts for this time, as we know, but you're right. Like we, we benefit from the generosity of all the people that have come before us. Um, I'm, I'm thinking random thought, but like when you're, I started getting heavily into making sourdough bread recently,

Mark: I've noticed that it's looking good. Really good.

Sylvain: Yeah. So, uh, my friend Matt gave me a starter, so you need that culture to get started.

Mark: Absolutely.

Sylvain: And, uh, so I've, I've gone deep into, into that. It's my new escape, but you know, like even for making something as simple as bread, it is humbling because you need to rely on a system that, um, has grown wheat and has milled the grains into flour, and that has brought it to your grocery store and you need access to clean water and salt. I mean, where do you get salt in salt Lake city? It's, it's just such a, an intricate system that we all benefit from. And, um, and yeah, trying to, uh, keep any part of that system isolated. And then it prevents us from making bread, delicious bread that we share with our neighbors and our friends and, and the same with music. So it's, um, yeah, it's very inspiring.

Mark: Yeah. I agree with all of that. That's a very similar thing, you know, bread, and handpans, every loaf is unique and it's amazing what, just the difference if humidity or temperature can do during the fermentation or, or how it's cooked it's, um, it's almost like it's woven of the moment. And it seems like, you know, there's a lot to be said for, I think art in general, if there's something universal about any of it, it is it's woven from the art of the moments that we put into it and its creation.

Sylvain: Wow. I like that. I like that a lot. So maybe to wrap us up, what do you do when you're not making handpans and what, what inspires you outside of the world of steel what's what's on your mind these days?

Mark: Hmm, well, I took a really, really nice hike yesterday, um, with Jason, that, um, handles our emails for the last, uh, geez, I guess it's probably been six or seven years now. And, uh, we are currently embarking on doing a hundred miles of the mountains to sea trail, um, from Mount Mitchell past, um, uh, shining rock wilderness on the other side of Asheville and we're doing it in sections. We're doing about five to 10 miles a week. And, uh, we've done about, uh, I think we've come out to about 25 miles now in the last few weeks and we're continuing to do a weekly hikes. Uh, it's, it's been so beautiful. So when they get outside once a week and, um, stretch the legs and go up over some mountains and get a good workout and catch up with a good friend. And, um, this last section was really beautiful, great overviews and gorgeous forest and such a blessing to be surrounded by the Hills of the Southern Appalachians around Asheville. And, um, beyond that, I've been doing a lot of cooking, um, this year because, you know, of course it's a strange one of the strangest years of our lives, um, with COVID of course. And so I'm not going out to eat at all and hanging at home. I've been grilling a lot on a big green egg and learning to bake on it, which has been really interesting exploring, um, pizza, crust, recipes, and, um, smoking things. And, um, along the, you know, 25, 30 hours smoking sessions and, um, of, you know, whatever it may be, um, briskets and, um, other stuff. And, um, lots of have been doing grown a little garden in the front yard this year. Uh, you know, all the classics and beans and tomatoes and Basil cucumbers and squash. And, um, and otherwise I, in the last couple of years of, um, I've gotten really into, uh, some Dallas starts, um, she gong and meditation and, uh, and it's really, it's changed my life in a lot of ways. It's, it's taught me to relax. It's taught me the backup and be a bit more mindful of my, um, my body and my mind and my emotions and, um, be a bit more of a witness to my life than consumed in it. And it's led to tenfold, happiness and relaxation. And, uh, it's given me a much more clear insight and perspective on what really matters, you know, what are the values that matter? Who are the friends and family that we really love and the food we eat and, um, what's really important. Uh, so that's been incredibly helpful and otherwise I try and get a good night's sleep every night, read some good books, think about the next handpan that needs to be built.

Sylvain: I love it. And you, you have an incredibly artful life. I saw those pictures from your hike on your Instastory and, and, um, you've always been a very likable person and I've always enjoyed spending time with you, but I can tell that those past couple of years have been particularly peaceful and inspiring, and it's just really cool, but

Mark: Yeah, it's been a real real treat. Uh, you know, of course know you as a friend first as a customer and then more and more as a friend and always a treat to hang out with you and, uh, Jill and she's been at gatherings as well. And, uh, I'm excited to hear you guys are back on the East coast and perhaps our paths will cross again sooner than later.

Sylvain: Yeah. I have to look on Google maps. See how far Asheville is. I think it's probably a good nine, eight, nine hours, so we'll have to plan that, but, uh, hopefully we'll make that happen.

Mark: Nice. I look forward to it.

Sylvain: Yeah. Well, thanks again, Mark. It's always good to catch up.

Mark: Thank you so much for having me on the show. It's absolutely honor.

Sylvain: Well, I hope you enjoyed this conversation about the enchanting science of handpans at this time. I'd like to introduce you to one of my very favorite illustrations. It's written by a famous Oxford professor and author of the 20th century named C S Lewis. The essay is called meditation in a tool shed, and I'll read the first two paragraphs quote. "I was standing today in the dark tool shed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door, there came a sun beam from where I stood that beam of light with the specks of dust floating in. It was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved so that the beam fell on my eyes instantly. The whole previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed and above all, no beam. Instead I saw framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that 90 odd million miles away, the sun looking along the beam and looking at the beam are very different experiences." In this episode, we talked about the science of hand pans. We looked at the beam, but we also alluded to the magical and personal feelings. We've all had. That's looking along the beam, both are valid experiences, stepping back to contemplate and stepping in to participate. I put a link of the whole essay by CS Lewis in the show notes of this episode of and I highly recommend it. That's all I have for this episode. Thank you so much for listening to the hand pan podcast. And I'll talk to you in the next one.

1,031 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Ronielle Buduhan
Ronielle Buduhan
Sep 23, 2021

Wow, I really enjoyed listening to this episode, as I have just received my first handpan and wanting to go deeper into the process of creating, purely for satisfying my curiosity.

Please keep up the good work!

Ronielle Buduhan

Montréal, Québec, Canada 🍁

bottom of page