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.
John Kenny resurrects not one but three iron age Carnyces at this year’s Cumnock Tryst. KEN WALTON finds out more from the man who brought the awesome instrument back to life, and previews the local aspects of a very Ayshire festival.
Ever wondered what the bestial image on the VoxCarnyx masthead is? Those in the know, or inquisitive enough to have looked it up, will recognise it as the topmost section of the carnyx, an instrument dating back to the iron age, fragments of which were first discovered buried under a Banffshire farm in 1816.
The fearsome bronze head, with hinged jaw and sprung wooden tongue, appeared to be the bell of a 2000-year-old brass instrument. It took till the1990s to put the theory to the test, when trombonist John Kenny, encouraged by Scots composer and music historian John Purser, joined an archeological project aimed at reconstructing the carnyx both visually and as a functioning musical instrument.
With support from the National Museum of Scotland and metal craftsman John Creed, the eventual first sight and sound of the reconstructed carnyx – an awesome man-sized construction comprising a lengthy blow tube, imposing boar’s head and named the Deskford Carnyx after the parish in which the original was found – was at the National Museum’s reopening ceremony in 2011. “We didn’t know what we were going to come out with,” Kenny recalls, fearful that such a beautiful object might simply sound like “a rather inert tube”. “It turned out to be magnificent,” he says.
So much so, that the world now has more magnificent specimens, and for the first time in 2000 years three carnyces will perform together this weekend at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. Saturday’s programme in St John’s Church, Ancient Voices, features Kenny’s ensemble Dragon Voices and a sequence of works by Kenny himself, 20th century French film composer Francis Chagrin, and a brand new work by Purser, whose poetry also weaves a narrative throughout the entire concert..
“We start with modern brass instruments, then work right back to the earliest proven examples we have of human beings creating musical sounds using lip vibration,” Kenny explains. Besides the trio of carnyces, Dragon Voices – an ensemble also consisting of Kenny’s son Patrick and former pupil Ian Sayer – perform on ancient sea horns. “In the iron age, Celtic craftsmen led the world in the art of making giant horns or trumpets out of beaten bronze and they were of extraordinary quality,” he adds.
Purser’s new work, Gundestrup Rituals aims to illustrate their uniqueness and is based on images found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, a richly decorated silver vessel discovered in a Danish peat bog and dating from the early iron age. Included among these is a powerful representation of three carnyces being played at once.
For those who imagine the sound of the carnyx to echo its warlike appearance, be prepared for a surprise. “They will be amazed at the extraordinary versatility of the instrument,” promises Kenny. “Yes, the traditional idea of it as a war horn is true. It can be very violent and powerful with a massive range of five octaves, depending on the ability of the performer. But it is also capable of a huge dynamic range, coloured by the strange combination of its unique harmonic series and resultant vibrations.”
The biggest revelation for Kenny in exploring its possibilities was to discover how quietly and uniquely mysterious it could sound. “Using modern brass players’ techniques actually resulted in quite a boring sound,’ he explains. “On modern brass instruments, we try to make uniform sound, and also tend to work in groups dedicated to our ideas of melody and harmony. These are very modern ideas in terms of the organisation of musical sound.
“So we had to discard those standard techniques in order to explore the natural potential of the instrument. As a musician and composer it was for me a Tabula Rasa moment, working with a blank page, a bit like that sudden moment in the14th century when artists, working also as alchemists, discovered how to make oil paintings. Here, with the carnyx, was another extraordinary moment working with new colours.”
Such possibilities, and the fact the original carnyces appeared to have been “ritually dismembered” before burial, led Kenny to believe the symbolism of the carnyx was just as likely to be as sacral as it was bellicose. “It’s actually much more effective when played gently and quietly.” Ancient Voices sets out to illustrate that infinite diversity.
The clash of sounds ancient and modern pervades much of the classical content of this 2022 Cumnock Tryst, which runs Thursday 29 September to Sunday 2 October. The Kings Singers (Fri 30 Sept at Trinity Church) celebrate a vast international lineage of a cappella choral writing that stretches from English Renaissance giant William Byrd to the whimsical Lobster Quadrille of György Ligeti, by way of Vaughan Williams and original Kings Singer, Bob Chilcott. There’s music, too, by MacMillan himself and a lighter-hearted send off of close-harmony Disney numbers.
On Sunday (Dumfries House, 2pm & 4pm) Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane unveils an Ayrshire curiosity, the piano music of Douglas Munn, an eminent Mathematician who lived in Troon until his death in 2008, and whose compositions – recently released on CD – are both skilful and charming.
If imported professional artists represent a smaller proportion of the line up this year, that, says MacMillan, is deliberate. “That trend has certainly grown over the years. It’s always been part of the Festival’s raison d’être to encourage a sense of ownership and deep involvement by local community groups, and to get them involved with the visiting professionals in different ways.”
Thus the combined involvement of local amateur dramatic group CAMPS and Strings N Things with BBC SSO musicians (Merchant City Brass) in Saturday’s A Musical Celebration of the Coalfields in Cumnock Town Hall; or Friday’s compositional collaboration between Drake Music Scotland, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland singers and local pupils from Hillside School in Blue Sky Counterpoint at the new Barony Campus.
Even the big festival finale on Sunday evening at Dumfries House – billed as the Scott Riddox Memorial Concert in memory of the locally-known singer – is an entirely local showcase with big ambitions. After individual contributions from the Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra under conductor John Wilson, The Festival Chorus and CAMPS, all the ensembles will come together under MacMillan’s baton for a performance of Gavin Bryars’ iconic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.