You might call it rock music but it’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. Neil Hudson meets the duo who literally want to rock your world
Hannes Fessmann is sitting in front of a large polished stone which looks like a cross between an egg from one of the Alien movies and a toast rack. When he places his hands upon the jet-black ovoid and begins to move them slowly back and forth, something strange happens. The stone emits a sound but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
It sounds to me as though a male voice choir has suddenly struck up and as though the sound they make is echoing around the inside of a cathedral. The noise comes in undulating waves, dominated by a deep, throoming, oscillating hum which seems to go beyond just hearing because I can also feel it. In fact, it’s affecting my whole body. As the 37-year-old German ‘sound sculptor’ continues, other, more nuanced, notes creep into the symphony, with what resemble arias mixed with long, almost hypnotic tones which remind me of whale music.
The overall effect is one of complete surprise, followed by joy and then awe that such a relatively small object - the stone he is playing is a little larger than a football - is capable of producing such acoustics.
Hannes, who recently exhibited the stones at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as part of their Weekend of Wonderful Things to mark their 40th anniversary, calls it an artform but, as I later find out, its applications may go much further than that and could even have health benefits.
Hannes was invited to England by Leeds-born Steven Halliday, 47, whose background is also in music, him being half of the house music production duo Agent Sumo (if you went clubbing from 1998-2003, chances are you’ve probably danced to one of their tracks). Steven grew up in Leeds and attended Cardinal Heenan School, after which he gained employ in the film industry but music was always his passion. At one point, Agent Sumo was the biggest house music producers in the UK. But when the dance scene changed around 2004, he went to live in Barcelona to expand his musical repertoire, learning how to score for orchestras and choirs. He then moved into advertising industry, his knowledge of music in demand by retailers hungry to fund the right tune to market their products: “They would ring me up and ask me what song they needed for a particular product. I worked on all sorts, including one for VW which won an advertising award.”
More recently, he has moved into music technology – creating a virtual musical stone - on laptops and is working on a number of projects at present. But it was a trip to India which led him to meet Hannes.
“Both Hannes and I went to a place called Auroville in India, which is an experimental city in southern India, with different areas, so there’s a music village and an art village and so on. We’d gone there at different times. Hannes went to instruct them how to use and make the stones and when I found out about them, I found out about him. I was looking for something new to do musically and I just knew this was it.
“I contacted Hannes and asked him if there were any in the UK and he said no, so I set about creating some kind of network for it here.”
If you remember film 2001: A Space Odyssey, some of the music in that was composed by György Ligeti and he used a hundred-piece choir and had them all singing out of tune, which is what makes it so eerie... I thought it sounded like that.Music producer Steven Halliday talks about the sounds the stone make when played
To that end, Steven is close to completing a one-year masters degree through the University of Huddersfield on the stones and their application and he was instrumental in setting up the YSP exhibition. But other, potentially groundbreaking, research is ongoing, as Hannes explains.
“It’s called microcirculation, it’s to do with red blood cells in the tissues between the blood vessels. Normally, a lot of the time, these can glue together but what has been found is the mechanical vibration of the music from the stones breaks the bonds and enables them to flow again, which is very healthy.”
And, he says, it may also have another, even more astonishing application, to help with heart surgery, although he stresses research is ongoing.
“Part of the research is also looking at how the tone of the music speeds up or slows down a person’s circulation and this has been tested already, so we have a study on this which is close to publication. However, we think this technique could be of use in something like open heart surgery, where a lot of the time they have to stop the operation because the circulation has slowed down or stopped, so the idea is we could have someone playing a stone and being directed by the surgeons to speed up the circulation of the patient or slow it down in that way.”
He also reports that the stones’ vibrations can be a positive experience for people suffering from cerebral palsy, helping to relax their muscles without drugs, Alzheimer’s and even the deaf.
Indeed, one does not need to touch the stone to be directly affected by it. Let your hand hover over the stone while it is being played and you can literally feel the sounds flowing through you. Actually playing one of the stones is even more invigorating. It’s easy too, addictive and feels strangely soothing. The technique involves wetting one’s hands and then placing them on the smooth surface, then rubbing them slowly back and forth over the stone. If you can image the sound a wine glass makes when you run your finger round the rim, it’s like that only multiplied a hundredfold and wreathed in a kind of chorus of other ethereal noises.
Hannes’s father, the esteemed German professor and pedagogue Prof Klaus Fessmann, helped pioneer use of the stones after he was introduced to them about 25 years ago. Hannes was 12 at the time and remembers going with his father to Switzerland to quarry stones and later he ended up making them full time. He collects his stones - made from basalt, gabbro, marble even sandstone - from all over the world and has sourced them from Italy, India, American, Ireland, even the Lake District. He has made dozens, some small enough to carry with one hand but others weighing several hundred kilos.
Hannes says: “The sound is so even and immersive, it’s very relaxing. When you listen to it, you can just let go. It works on your brain and your body. When people directly experience it, they say it’s beautiful and engaging.
“We live in a world which is all about radio and TV and no-one walks any more but this is a very simple way to get vibration into your body, ultimate to give you more energy.”
Steven adds: “When I first heard the sound they make... if you remember film 2001: A Space Odyssey, some of the music in that was composed by György Ligeti and he used a hundred-piece choir and had them all singing out of tune, which is what makes it so eerie... I thought it sounded like that.
“There’s an old story associated with a place called Mahabalipuram in India, which says in ancient times people would gather in caves and they would all rub their hands on the columns there until the point where the whole cave would shake and it would be then that the gods turned up.
“There is something very spiritual about the sound of the stones and I think we have much more to learn from them.”
Stones were originally created by Elmar Daucher as sculptures in the 1970s and refined by Hannes’s father Professor Klaus Fessmann
Once polished, stones are played with wet hands
Hannes now sources, makes and plays the stones, some of which weigh several hundred kilos
Hannes recently exhibited the stones at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Leeds-boorn music producer Steven Halliday is due to complete a masters degree researching the stones