Cumnock Tryst: Ancient Voices

St John’s Church, Cumnock

Journalists are frequently minded to avoid the temptation not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. There’s no doubt that the tale of the ancient carnyx is a story worth telling. This 2000-year-old Celtic instrument, with the fearsome head of a boar and wavering tongue, was originally discovered as buried fragments two centuries ago in Scotland by archaeologists. In more recent years a multi-disciplined team of enthusiasts has reconstructed the carnyx, not once, but several times. The question is, does the reality of its musical quality equate to the sexiness of its origins and its striking, physical beauty?

There have been previous opportunities to test that on single examples, but on Saturday at the Cumnock Tryst festival we heard for the first time three of these instruments played simultaneously in a new work by John Purser, the composer, historian, playwright and poet whose mammoth radio and book project of the 1990s, Scotland’s Music, gave birth to the carnyx project.

Gundustrup Rituals was the final destination in this hour-long presentation, Ancient Voices, performed by the man whose expertise as a trombonist enabled him to join forces with Purser and metal craftsman John Creed and conceive the all-important performance techniques that would bring the recreated carnyx to life. 

He was joined in Cumnock by two other trombonists and carnyx acolytes, Patrick Kenny and Ian Sankey – the trio collectively known as Dragon Voices – in a quasi-dramatic show-and-tell that extended the instrumental armoury to giant conch shells, cow horns and Irish bronze age horns. The music running up to the grand finale was largely by Kenny himself, with a fanfare by the eccentric French film composer Francis Chagrin incorporated within an opening, initially antiphonal, sequence for modern trombones. Well, that’s why that the printed programme told us; it was hard to distinguish it if you didn’t know it.

Then Kenny’s attention turned to the primal menagerie of ancient blown instruments, a series of short pieces designed to demonstrate the awesome potential of their primitivism, performed with the younger players constantly shifting up and down the aisles, each segment prefaced with punchy verses from Purser’s poetic pen. Largely improvisational in style, with call and response in abundance, and the odd shock of a sudden piercing fortissimo, this quasi-dramatic part of the concert was like a teasing, preparatory warm-up to the main event.

When it came, Purser’s new work was a vision and sound to behold, three gleaming carnyces (with a fourth alongside looking like a sub on the bench) issuing a sonic repertoire that extended from subterranean gargles and sombre, low-lying pre-Brucknerian close-harmonies, to high-pitched triumphalism and those hair-raising moments where cacophony gave way to the golden perfection of a major triad.

Again, words played their part in translating the images that inspired this piece – one of these depicts three figures playing carnyces simultaneously – into such a spunky, ritualistic performance. “We are three”, chanted the players, a kind of post-Dumas declaration of unity. I, for one, enjoyed the spectacle; and yes, the facts spoke for themselves.

Ken Walton

Picture: Stuart Armitt