A Single Chromatic Handpan
Over the years, a few builders have tried to create a single chromatic handpan. The first that we saw was many years ago by Space drum in France. We also spent time experimenting in 2014 with the possibility of chromatic when we built 4 instruments that each had 10 out of 12 chromatic notes. Each instrument contained the entire Major, Minor, Mixolydian, Dorian, and Harmonic Minor scales of each center note. We considered the experiments complete failures however and cut the 6-8 note bottom shells off before selling the instruments with single scale top notes only. The problem that we have found with all of these attempts to build a single chromatic instrument is the resonance of the chamber. Even on the best of the experimental instruments that we built, there was still 5% of chromatic dissonance in the resonance of the chamber. This was particularly obvious between half steps, which want to often couple or sympathize with each other to some degree. With a very muffled instrument, it is perhaps possible. With a longer sustaining bright instrument, the resonance of half step notes seems to bleed into each other too much for our standards.
Chromatic Handpan Sets
Beyond trying to build a single chromatic instrument, we are one of very few builders that have explored multiple instrument sets that are chromatic together. This was actually the main reason that Mark decided to start building the Saraz in 2011. While single scales offer tremendous freedom for emotional and kinetic improve, they are also very tmusically limited and very often lead players to eventually wanting more. In our earliest days of prototypes, we built two chromatic sets of three Saraz. Together, they were chromatic from G3- D5 while missing only Bb4 as a fundamental although it was present as a harmonic. The set also had a D3 and E3 as center notes.
For the next set, we decided to take it to the next level of complexity and ergonomic possibility. We built a six Saraz set on Rolled Shells that covered C#3 – D5 while only missing Bb4 as a fundamental although it was present in 2 places as a harmonic. Mark Garner, Maxime Le Royer, and Peter Levitov presented the set at the first HangOut USA with a composition that modulated across numerous keys. Handpan enthusiasts present had never seen anything like it done before. In the words of Aaron Ximm, “we all witnessed history being made”. Perhaps the greatest achievement for us at the time however was to see the delight on Jim Dusin’s as he witnessed his Rolled Shells in action.
For our next set, we wanted to return to our roots of hammered shells and slightly expand on our note range in preparation for our first album recording, Reentry, with E.W. Harris. This 6 Saraz set was chromatic from C3- D5 while again missing only Bb4 as a fundamental. The set was imperative to recording a couple of the songs on the album that changed keys with every chord change. The last song on the album, Immortality, required 5 instruments to record the handpan parts.
For our next set, it was time to not only expand the range, but also include the elusive Bb4 fundamental. We built our finest Chromatic set yet that covered every note from B2 – D#5. For the first time, the set also included Bb4 fundamentals in multiple places. What made it our most professional set yet however was because it was built from 3 different sizes of drums including 19″, 20″ and our original 21″ diameter chamber. With 3 sizes of drums, we were able to utilize each size drum for the best resonance of each note. Bb4 fundamental sounds horrible on a 21″ diameter dome, hence why it was missing in all of the previous sets. It sounds great however on a 19″ Saraz. Additionally, other notes like A4 sound best on 19″ or 20″ diameter and even Bb4 harmonics sound far more stable on a 19″ diameter than 20″ or 21″ diameter. In the following video, we have a piece composed by David Kuckhermann and River Guergerian on the 2017 Saraz Chromatic Set. They also debuted the set along with Adam Maalouf at the Asheville Percussion Festival. In the following video, there is commentary by Mark Garner and River Guerguerian. If you would like to hear the composition without the commentary, you can find it on our home page.
Unlike our previous sets, we were able to keep our 2017 set and continue using it for various projects. It’s current “Captain”, River Guerguerian, has been using it lately with his World Jazz project, Free Planet Radio and featured it on their 2018 album, Stillness. As a “meditation” CD, the soundscape compositions take the listener on a jazzy journey across the world of Rhythm and Melody. River Guerguerian plays our 2017 Saraz Chromatic set on 5 of the album tracks.
The Future of Chromatic Handpan Sets
Chromatic Bass Handpans
While B2 – D#5 is a nice range of notes to cover a great deal of territory, Mark has been dreaming about lower and higher notes since the earliest days of the Saraz. We are currently working on a prototype chromatic set of four bass Saraz, each with 3-4 notes. There are three 21″ diameter domes and one 19″ diameter dome in the set, which will be chromatic from G2 – G#3. With this set, we will be able to have a dedicated Bass player in our Saraz Entourage Ensemble. This new series of drums will not only be available as a set however. The project opens the door to a wide array of low note instruments that can be designed to extend almost any scale. In the following video of a piece that Josh Rivera composed, he plays a 2017 G major Saraz with one of Mark’s first bass Saraz prototypes that has a B2, D3 and E3. As you can hear, introducing lower tonic notes can take a single scale in far more directions.
Example Chromatic Handpan Set
While more instruments equal a great range, we have also built as few as 3 Saraz that are chromatic when combined. An example of a possible chromatic scale combination is the following:
A hexatonic Celtic Minor that is one of our most popular scales: D/ (G) A, C, D, E, F, G, A (C, D)
Another Hexatonic Celtic Minor: Eb/ Bb, Db, Eb, F (Gb) Ab, Bb, Db (Eb)
Third Handpan in the Set
For the third drum, a number of other options would complete the set including variations of B major, C# minor or E major depending on the desired focus of notes. This is just an example however. With our extensive Offered Scale List, there are numerous options of scale variations that together would create a chromatic set of Saraz Handpans. The question to ask oneself is which scales are the most important to base the set around for ergonomic playing.
A Very Young Instrument
Mark’s dream since the very beginning of creating the Saraz has been to see the Handpan expand into all genres of music as well as enter academic and university music programs so the professionals of tomorrow can continue to develop this young instrument and explore its possibilities.
Ellie Mannette, the father of tuned steel, worked tirelessly in his early days to develop a chromatic set of Steel Pans. His work has continued to be an enormous inspiration since Mark’s earliest days of hammering and meeting him in 2012. Like Ellie’s desire to develop the Steel Pan Band, we are excited to help develop the Handpan into a professional array of instruments that can be played on any song and in any Genre of music.
Big cheers and a sincere thank you to the very few other handpan builders that share a similar desire in this development!
Also a sincere thank you to the players that have a passion, interest and desire to show what a chromatic set of handpans can do! You are an endless inspiration for us!
If you are an enthusiast, professional player or represent an academic or university music program and would like a chromatic set of handpans that ranges from 3 instruments to a much larger set that could be played by multiple people, Contact Us to discuss options, pricing and possibilities.