With ‘Secrets of the Steelpan – Unlocking the Secrets of the Science, Technology, Tuning and Operation of the Steelpan’ Dr. Anthony Achong is presenting his life’s work, a summary of his extensive studies on the steelpan. Here you can read a review by PANArt tuner Felix Rohner.
In 1995 I met Thomas Rossing, a well known physicist and acoustician from the USA, in Cancun/Mexico at the Congress of Advanced Materials. When I tried to involve him in a discussion, he soon realized that my knowledge of acoustics were quite pale and weak and he said: “Felix, first you have to read my book.” He was referring to his standard work ‘The Physics of Musical Instruments’ published together with the Australian physicist Neville Fletcher.
Of course, the first thing I did back in Switzerland was ordering two copies of the book because there also was the tuner Sabina Schärer. Now we had something to study on together. The challenge was to better apprehend what we were already doing with the hammer on the sheet steel and with the sticks in the steel band for now several years.
What a steep chunk of knowledge! Which laws apply to musical instruments, how do they work? At the same time we were building world instruments to verify what the theory says. The pang instruments were born this way: we studied drums, cymbals, gamelan instruments, gongs but also aerophones and cordophones.
Today, at a advanced age I’m truly grateful to Thomas Rossing that he invited me back then to look closely and accurately at things. The Hang and the Gubal are the results of earnest empirical research on the sheet metal.
Now a very extensive book lies in front of me, written by Dr. Anthony Achong from Trinidad, the home of the steelpan. The retired professor of physics at the University of the West Indies has spent a lifetime with the sounding sheet metal. He knew and consulted a lot of steelpan builders and tuners, carried out countless experiments and gave lessons for students and instrument makers. In the year 2000 he organized the ‘International Conference on the Science and Technology of the Steelpan’ (ICSTS). PANArt participated in this conference with some papers.
With ‘Secrets of the Steelpan – Unlocking the Secrets of the Science, Technology, Tuning and Operation of the Steelpan’, Achong is presenting his life’s work, a summary of his extensive studies on the steelpan.
A treasure of knowledge covering 1200 pages. Initially I was quite reluctant to immerse in this abstract world, but after some time I gained some foothold in it - perceiving that he was talking about the defence of an art: the art of the living sound from sheet metal.
As you keep on reading, the respect of the artistic accomplishment behind a well tuned steel band will augment more and more. It shows how demanding the work of the tuner is, how a tuner has to educate his own hearing to be able to hear the most subtle modulations of a sound reaching the ear of men as an impulse to life. “You will become 50 until you are a tuner!” once a native from Trinidad said to me when I was 30 years old. Today I deeply understand this sentence because now my hammer forms the sheet metal with ease.
The sound coming from the sheet steel and its embedding in a resonant body can unleash a strong force. The tuner has to handle it responsibly, because this kind of magic can also be misused to pilfer money out of peoples pockets and delivering bad sounds in return that drain the players energy instead of giving it.
The honest efforts of Achong to attract tuners and theoreticians to his knowledge is apparent in every line of this book. The author of the book is always involving the reader, the human being. At no time the book is only dry theory. He is well aware of the complexity of the matter and strongly believes that the reader will be able to uncover this treasure by just continuing to read it entirely instead of skipping parts of the book because they seem to be too complicated.
In this way even a complicated formula will unleash deeper significances even to a laymen. This is the personal experience that I had. The book is a real godsend to every instrument builder working day in day out on the sheet steel and surrendering to the complex concatenations. It gives him the courage to lead his hammer on the metal with confidence and trust again.
This book represents a great chance for every sound sculptor to catch up with the current technology and science of the steelpan. He is able to dismantle misconceptions and refine his art. Thereby he is providing an important contribution, a “contribution to the story” as the tuners from Trinidad use to say.
Instruments like the steelpan or the Hang are complex systems. The studies of the physical correlations can prevent the tuner from depleting his energy and producing dead sounds. Every tuner that dares to approach the work on the sheet metal and is willing to learn will be able to largely benefit from this book. It is truly the standard work for steelpan building. Older publications like ‘Steelpan Tuning’ from the Swedish physicist Ulf Kronmann are utterly obsolete.
Building a steelpan is no more a tinkering or handicrafts where one puts stencils on a bellied bottom of an oil drum, hammering margins around the notes, tempering the steel over a fire and then tuning dents to a certain pitch.
Building a steelpan nowadays represents an art of tuning an instrument according to certain sound dynamics that will fulfill a designated part in a steel orchestra. This art is primarily about the modulation of the partial tones that makes the steelpan sound spirited and livelily. In absence of this modulation the resulting sound will be dead. The instrument will drain energy from the player even if the sounds have harmonic qualities. Instruments like the steelpan as well as the Hang or the Gubal are meant to embellish the lives of human beings. Dead movements on dead metal make no sense and have no substance.
Several chapters of the book cover the research of the modulation, amplitude modulation as well as frequency modulation. The reader will apprehend with ease how a good steelpan has to sound. For Achong it is very evident that steelpan tuning is an art. It requires solid craftsmanship and an experienced ear.
Further exciting chapters cover the choice of suitable material for steelpan building. Achong proves why brass, copper, aluminum are condemned to failure. He perceives good material in a type of sheet metal, that can be hardened and refined under the blows of the hammer. This is the decisive factor to obtain the “sweet sound of Pan”. Good materials are those that are able to build up high compressive stress under the hammer blows.
The uniqueness of the steelpan lies in the convex-concave arrangement of oscillating tone fields that underlie to compression. This compression is indispensable for a livelily sound but also not visible. Here lies the problem: The essential of steelpan building is contained invisibly inside the steel.
In a large chapter Achong covers his criticism for the patent application of the so called G-Pan. In this application several procedures for building an instrument called ‘Steelpan Drum’ are described, which considerably deviate from traditional steelpan building and should represent improvements. He emphasizes how important it is to understand, that a steelpan is not a drum. It is a main concern for the author to point that out. A steelpan played as a drum does in fact sound terrible in his ears because the player ignores the subtle art of the steelpan builder this way.
Panist and tuner in the authors opinion are knotted together much tighter as this happens with other instruments. He makes a comparison with the computer: the tuner programs the sheet metal and the player has to work with that software. A high sensitiveness is requested to invoke such an instrument to sing.
In the chapters covering the excitation of the tone fields with sticks the reader can easily understand, how crucial the energy transfer to these highly sensitive shells is.
Whoever has ever had the chance to attend a concert of a Trinidad steel band, will agree with Achong: The art form created by Trinidad must not fade or disappear! Achong’s book can contribute a lot to young tuners, so that their sounds from sheet metal will continue to enchant people.
Secrets of the Steelpan
Xlibris 2013, 1200 Seiten