Myth vs Science – Part Three

November 2, 2000

THE importation of entire steel orchestras for the recently concluded World Steelband Music Festival triggered a long and highly participatory discussion about the standardisation of instruments, at the final session of the International Conference on Science and Technology of the Steelpan. The issue was not listed on the programme, but somehow sprung from the topic.

“What Constitutes a Good Pan?” and dominated the available time, as persons representing special interests leapt to the microphone to sing the praises of their preferred styles; while the scientists examined some more complex considerations.

Many of the foreign orchestras that came here for the festival brought all their instruments. Sponsored by BWIA, England’s Ebony Steelband was spared much of the problem, but for those who attempted to ship bass pans and other bulky instruments, it was clear that standardisation would have helped reduce both cost and worry.

But bands have their pan styles and will incur great expense to change the instruments to satisfy some new standard, not to mention the retraining of scores of pannists, who will have to learn the orchestra’s repertoire afresh, if different pans were put before them. The Witco Desperadoes is a case in point, with its tenor pan note spread laid out in unique fashion and opposite to that of many of the other orchestras.

“Pan is not yet ready for standardisation,” said UWI lecturer/pan researcher Dr Derek Gay. “Its life so far, a mere 60 years, is a dot in the history of music. In addition, today’s materials are not the same as those used at the time of inception or even 25 years ago. Perhaps we should be looking at finding the precise mix of the metal for the various voices in the orchestra, before we attempt to ensure that all the notes are in the same place on each pan.

“Standardisation will mean not just the placement of the notes, but a predictable consistency in the metal from which the instruments are made, as is the case with piano wire; so that wherever a note of the same value is struck, the actual similarity of sound can be guaranteed,” Gay said. “Bear in mind, though, that the smallest quantity of steel you can order from a serious mill is about ten tons. You are then left with the problems of economies of scale, which will inform the cost of each instrument. When you look at all that, standardistation seems to be less of a priority than previously agreed.”

But John Schmidt, an American pan aficionado who travels the world following pan festivals and who invests in pan events, presented the business perspective; which turned out to be a popular view. “It costs a fortune to ship background pans to New York,” he said. “If the pans were standardised, a band could travel with only its frontline instruments and rent basses and cellos and guitar pans in the countries where they are required to play. The same would have been true for bands coming to the music festival. The savings could come back as more opportunities for steel orchestras, since promoters would be more easily able to afford full bands,” he said.

“Dr Uwe Hansen, professor emeritus at Indiana State University’s Department of Physics, endorsed Gay’s position: “Pan is a beautiful and powerful instrument,” he said, “but it is too young to start regimenting style and attempting to confine evolution. Scientifically it is also very complex, with all its notes located on a single surface. When you play one note, you really play all. I think there are a number of things to be more properly understood about the various styles before we seek to narrow design and tuning techniques.”

Pan Trinbago education officer, Richard Forteau, adopted a pragmatic position: “We had decided to go with the fourths and fiths tenor, double tenor, double seconds and perhaps the guitar pans in the first instance. But people who clamour for standardisation should understand that the basses in use at this time are the most varied and therein lies the problem. “Because a bass-pan has a life span of about 12 years, it is a difficult proposition to put to a band that they change their bass instruments to meet a standard. For a start, there is serious cost involved. And while we agree that the travel consideration could cut costs, no band wants to make that kind of outlay just to conform,” he said.

Felix Rohner, the Swiss pan innovator, argued that greater collaboration was needed between the various persons involved with pan experimentation. “The need for continuing dialogue seems more pressing right now than standardisation,” Rohner said. “Pan is not just a Trini novelty anymore. It is an instrument that has been given to the world and several people have ideas about what should happen to it next. We need to hear all those ideas before taking any steps that might slow its progress.”

Conference convenor, Dr Anthony Achong had a clinical view: “Pan must remain in the players and tuners domain,” he said. “It is not for scientists to make these decisions. We are trying to assist, to see if we can help you understand and interpret the instrument, not to take over its evolution.” Pan manufacturer Michael Cooper was practical. “Technology and science can only be relevant to panmakers if it is affordable,” he said, “or the whole body of knowledge will come to nought. The matter of standardisation may well require scientists of different disciplines to examine it thoroughly.”


Terry-J at I-Level

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