Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hang and Gubal Concert by Matt Venuti

Matt Venuti on the hang
It's not often that you get the chance to attend a concert featuring two instruments that were "birthed" in the 21st century.  I'm not talking about household items such as brooms and garbage cans being repurposed to create music like in Stomp.  Nor am I talking about hearing an instrument in an unexpected context, as will happen next week when Robert Bonfiglio and his harmonica join the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.  I'm talking two instruments that first appeared on earth in the last 15 years -- the hang and the gubal.

When I opened this month's newsletter from the Yoga Sanctuary, I noticed that the studio was hosting a concert by Matt Venuti.  I clicked through to the video and listened to Venuti sing a lovely song while playing the hang.  In the midst of a busy season, a night of quiet music in an intimate setting sounded like just what the doctor ordered.

Hang at rest
The hang (pronounced "hung") is an instrument in the "idiophone class" (which, I have just learned, means that the sound is made through vibrations rather than through the use of strings or membranes).   It is similar to a drum, but the instrument's Swiss creators prefer to think of the instrument as being in a class of its own.  Each hang is hand crafted from two sheets of steel.  The top piece (referred to as the "ding") is hammered until the tone that the maker wants has been coaxed from the metal.  The trick then is to finish the rest of the instrument while retaining that tonality.  The bottom piece (the "gu") is smooth and has a rolled hole in the center. Because each instrument is made by hand, each has its own unique sound.  Venuti brought two of the UFO-looking instruments along for his concert, and I could hear a slight difference in their tenor.

Playing the hang involves a combination of caressing and beating on the instrument with your hands.  To "tune" the instrument, Venuti spun it around on his lap until his hands landed in the right place as he played. The hang can also be played standing on its side. To me, the sound is somewhat similar to that of a steel drum, but the context was so different from, say, listening to John Patti perform with Jim Morris that the analogy doesn't seem quite right.  (Click here to listen to the title track of Venuti's CD entitled "Rise.")

Venuti also played a few songs on his prototype of the gubal.  (The instrument is not being launched until May, and Venuti is the proud owner of the only gubal in the United States.)  The gubal looks even more like a spaceship than the hang, as it has a cylindrical piece that extends from the bottom that could serve as a cabin. The gubal has a rolled hole in the top of the instrument, and it has a deeper resonance than the hang.

In past years, Venuti's concerts were purely instrumental.  On this tour, he has added lyrics to his compositions.  He calls them sounds of life, loss, love, and surrender.  Venuti's wife passed away five years ago, and his language flows from his efforts to come to terms with that loss.  While the words don't specifically reference his wife, having that background added poignancy to songs with titles like "A Place to Breathe."   The lyrics were uniformly beautiful, and definitely enhanced the evening.

I left the concert feeling pensive rather than relaxed.  We live in an uncertain world.  The question is not whether we will suffer losses and difficulties, but how we will deal with those circumstances when they occur.   Venuti's music suggests approaching life with an open mind and an open heart.   Easier said than done, but it's a goal worth aspiring to.   

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