Mouthpiece of the Gods

Mouthpiece of the Gods

John Kenny, internationally acclaimed trombone soloist and the world’s only player of the great Celtic war horn, the Carnyx, presents an event part recital, part lecture, part detective story – how the carnyx was discovered, forgotten, and eventually reconstructed. How it has risen to take its place as an exciting contemporary musical instrument – how it is played, and what conclusions we can draw about he people who made it 2000 years ago. However, Kenny also puts the carnyx in context by showing how it is related to a great family of instruments world-wide, from the dawn of time to the present day, performing music on instruments from many periods and cultures: trombone, sackbut, Polynesian Conch, Mayan Pod Trumpets, alphorn, and didgeridoo. The story is still unfolding – he will show you the great Tintignac Carnyx of ancient Gaul, and litus and cornu made by the Etruscans, lost after ethnic cleansing by Rome, but now reconstructed in collaboration with the European Early Music Project. Many composers have dedicated works for solo trombone to John Kenny, and in addition to performing on this dazzling array of instruments, both exotic and ancient, he performs both his own compositions and contemporary classics.

The Carnyx is a Celtic instrument, prevalent throughout Europe from about 300 BC to 200 AD. Although depicted on numerous metal and stone objects of both Celtic and Graeceo-Roman origin, no complete carnyx has ever been found. The most substantial fragment was unearthed in the parish of Deskford, on the shores of the Moray Firth in Northeast Scotland in 1816. It is a lip-reed instrument (like all our modern brass instruments) made of bronze, surmounted by a stylised wild boar’s head, complete with a hinged jaw and lolling wooden tongue. In playing position, this head stands four metres high. The project to reconstruct the Deskford Carnyx was initiated by the musicologist Dr John Purser, funded jointly by the National Museums of Scotland and the Glenfiddich Living Scotland Awards. Silversmith John Creed carried out the reconstruction, in consultation with the Archaeologist Fraser Hunter, John Purser, and myself.

Since coming back to life in 1993, the carnyx has proven itself an instrument of extraordinary power and subtlety – it’s dynamic range is as great as any modern orchestral instrument, with a pitch range of five octaves. It has featured in over 60 performances and lectures throughout Europe, been the subject of radio and television documentaries, and can be heard on six CD’s, including this one. Both the original and reconstruction can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. In 1997 a charitable company, Carnyx and Co., was set up to explore the potential of the carnyx both as an educational and musical resource, and to set up projects in the field of musical archaeology. Since 2013, John Kenny has been a member of the European Music Archaeology Project, bringing to fruition the rediscovery of many more instrument of the ancient world.

Click here watch John live at the British Museum during “The Celts exhibition” 2016

Sample Program:

La Belle et La Bette solo Trombone(10.00)BetteJohn Kenny

This piece was written in 1994, in response to an invitation to perform and lecture at the International Trombone Workshop held at Minneapolis, USA. The knowledge that your audience is entirely composed of hundreds of people who play your own instrument, who understand its difficulties and qualities intimately, is a very strange experience – a great honour, but frightening! I decided to compose a piece which is both a personal exploration of my own relationship with the trombone – and which might be described as “de-constructivist”

Ancient Voices (6.00) Plain chants from 7th – 12th Century Scotland

It is axiomatic that the trombone’s dominant characteristic is its affinity with the human voice – from its earliest development the instrument has been used as a support for, or in imitation of the human voice. It even developed into a clear family choir, of soprano, alto, tenor and bass – each structurally identical, differing only in size. This affinity has continued into modern times, and is explored by much of the music in this program – yet we have no definite answer to when and where the trombone actually started. The earliest references present us with an instrument already established, known and used. What did the first players play, and where? My own belief is that the instrument gradually developed in the hybrid world of church and court in militaristic central Europe, it’s uses reflecting the dichotomy and blurring of the sacred and secular sword – a voice at one sombre and beatific, well in tune with the intonations of monks, and yet also capable of great power and violence – Monteverdi later makes great use of this dichotomy. So, perhaps it is to plain chant that we must look to find the first, fundamental characteristic of the trombone?

Scotland is a small nation at the Western extreme of Europe – the Romans penetrated, but never conquered the Celtic peoples who lived there, or in Ireland, and so it is here that we can witness the last and greatest flowering of Celtic civilisation, before it was finally submerged by the Viking, Saxon, and Norman invaders of the 8th to 12th Centuries. Yet the Gaelic Celts imported one major influence from the Romans, and made it all their own: Christianity, which after the fall of the Western Roman Empire flourished in splendid isolation on those windswept northern shores, intertwining with Celtic myth and legend until a magical, mysterious religion reached out, through Irish and Scottish monk-missionaries, to re-conquer the hearts of Germanic “savages” from Iceland to the Danube And these monks sang, and wrote down what they sang in some of the earliest musical notation in Europe – these chants come from the Antifer written on the Holy Island of Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth, between the 8th to 12th Centuries.

Ran Na Madadh~Allaidh (Cry of the Wolf: 8.00)theJohn Kenny.

During October 1997, whilst on tour throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland with The Gathering, in a program that included both the world premier of John Purser’s Throat and my own Voice of The Carnyx I found myself preoccupied with the program for my CD Forest~River~Ocean, and felt the need to produce a piece in contrast not only to the eponymous piece Nigel Osborne, but also to Throat by John Purser, and my own piece for five multi-tracked carnyces, The Voice of The Carnyx. I was also finding myself irritated by the oft-repeated, glib commentary that “the carnyx is played like a didgeridoo”. There is justification for this remark, of course, because I frequently employ techniques drawn from the didgeridoo in my playing of the carnyx , most noticeably circular breathing – but this does not make the carnyx a Celtic didgeridoo, and in Ran Na Madadh~Allaidh I deliberately set out to keep all the material in single breath phrases. Also, I wanted to explore less violent, more contemplative ideas than in my earlier piece. This is an exploration of the purest sounds I can obtain on the instrument, and their systematic coloration with degrees of vibrato, pitch bending, addition of voice to the tone, inhaled tones, varied tonguing techniques, and control of the amount of air allowed into the pure note. The general dynamic level is quiet.

The title of the piece, and the sound world I try to evoke, came to me during a solitary walk through the harsh, windswept wilderness Cape Wrath. There are no roads here, and virtually no people. Caithness and Sutherland together comprise a vast glacial flow country of 22,000 square miles, with only 13,000 inhabitants – making it the most sparsely populated area of Europe. It is easy to feel very alone, at the mercy of the elements, and easy to understand why animist cults developed to appease the powerful and malevolent gods and spirits which seemed to manifest themselves in nature. From time immemorial one of the most feared, mysterious and yet horribly tangible spirits recognised by all Europeans is the Wolf – and so I have tried to identify with that spirit, to capture my own fantasy in an animist piece. It is an incantation, both to emulate and to appease that spectral beast.

Quick Sands, for solo trombone (6.00) Etienne Rolin

In 1983 I had a series of solo recitals in Paris, and decided to spend my spare time at the Centre de Documentation de la Musique Contemporaine, reading and listening to scores by post-war French composers, in the search not only for trombone repertoire that I could interpret, but also for composers from whom I might try to commission new pieces. Every time I found a score that really interested me, I would look for other pieces by the same person – and, whilst I was on the third score by one composer whose work had particularly caught my attention, a big man leaned over and asked me what I thought of the music. When I replied with enthusiasm, he burst out in a loud American accent “no kidding man – that’s my shit you’re listening to!” It was, of course, Etienne Rolin – in Paris to hear the premier of his Jardin Baroque played by Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. A few hours later, with a mammoth hangover, I found myself on a train heading south to Angouleme, where Etienne and I spent the next three days improvising, recording, and exchanging ideas. It’s a process that has continued for 20 years.

Composer, painter, saxophonist, flautist, record producer – Etienne does it all with relentless energy and enthusiasm. Professor at the Bordeaux Conservatoire, he is an internationally acclaimed improviser, director of the successful EROL record label, co-founder of the new music publishing house Questions de Temperament. His output is enormous – from virtuoso solo and chamber works to electronic and orchestral music. Our initial composer/performer relationship has both developed into duo performance and role reversal – not to mention the many varied ensemble formations we have set up between us. Quick sands was composed in 1997, and premiered the Intitut Francais d’Ecosse, Edinburgh, in November that year, and subsequently recorded for our duo CD Locking Horns in the 12th Century chapel of the Musee Tumulus de Bougon, France.

The Voice of The Carnyx (7.00) John Kenny

For Carnyx Quintet (one live, four pre-recorded)

This piece is for one live and four carnyx’s multi-tracked , and as such it was recorded in single takes by John Whiting in the main hall of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh . One day soon I hope it may be possible to perform with five musicians live, but as yet there are only two playable carnyces in the world!

The first question everyone asks about the carnyx is “how did they play it?” – and the short answer is, we just don’t know. We know they were played in time of war from Roman accounts – terrified invaders described not a mere musical sound but the very landscape coming to life! These instruments were used in multiples, obviously to great effect – but they were almost certainly used in time of peace for other functions in society, perhaps rites of passage, funerals, festivals. The instruments were magnificent in their stylized embodiment of a wild-boar’s head, highly tooled and crafted, out of exceedingly valuable materials (indeed, analysis of the bronze alloy shows that the Picts hi-jacked some of the constituents from the Roman invaders!). It is certain that the players of such an instrument occupied an important place in society, and likely that the craft of playing would be passed down from father to son, becoming a guarded mystery. These were a highly sophisticated people, with a mighty oral poetic tradition – most unlikely, then, that the playing technique of the carnyx should not be fully explored.

As a modern brass player it is fairly easy to get a sound out of the carnyx in the conventional manner – however, because the tube and “mouthpiece” aperture are so wide the breath disappears very quickly. One blast and it’s all over! I found I could achieve a range of nearly five octaves, with a most unusual overtone series and some overtones much stronger than others. In addition, the wooden tongue becomes a percussion instrument as it moves inside the head; the head itself has a bronze “soft-palette”, and so the sound emerges through a divided resonating gourd. The full range of brass players tonguing effects can readily be employed – but to find a distinctive voice for the carnyx, I believe one must look closely at the instrument itself, and what it represents: a wild boar. This beast, once common throughout northern Europe, was a terrifying adversary, fast, powerful and vicious – and totemic to the Celts. The scream of this animal is shrill and almost human – and so I have combined my voice frequently with the instrumental sound, to try to animate it. Finally, to overcome the problem of lack of sustaining power, I have incorporated the technique of circular breathing, further bending the sound by changing the shape of the oral cavity in exactly the same manner in which we produce the varied vowel sounds of speech. Given the ancient Celtic predilection for drones in music, I think it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these people learned how to circular breath – many other ancient cultures have done so, most notably Australia’s Aboriginal folk, who’s Didgeridoo is the world’s most ancient lip-reed instrument.

The Voice of The Carnyx was recorded in the splendid glass-vaulted hall of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, on May 24 1993. John Whiting recorded the individual tracks and then played them back in the space, with me playing “sound-on -sound in “real time”. The final section, an amalgam of ideas from the rest of the piece, was then subject to live digital sound transformation. This is the first ever notated piece for the carnyx, and the first composition for the instrument for at least 1,800 years – since then many composers have written for it, in a huge variety of combinations. The carnyx has sprung back to life, and I hope that other players will now help to enrich its voice.