Dragon Voices: Celtic Horns of Ancient Europe

Dragon Voices: Celtic Horns of Ancient Europe
John Kenny
Delphian DCD34183. 66’42

The link between music and archaeology is a comparatively new field of study, helped in recent years by the enterprising European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP) in conjunction with the University of Huddersfield. I reviewed another CDs from the project here and a live concert featuring John Kenny some of the instruments on this CD here. The instruments featured here are Celtic, and include two examples of the carnyx, a two-metre-long bronze trumpet surmounted by a stylised animal head that flourished from around 200 BCE and 200 CE. The upper part of one was found in 1816 in a peat bog at Deskford, Scotland, and was reconstructed in 1993. The other is the Tintignac carnyx, discovered in southern France in 2004 and reconstructed for this project. The third instrument is a reconstruction of the Irish Loughnashade horn, also found in a peat bog, and dating from the first century BCE.

Not surprisingly, the problem with such instruments is what to play on them. We have no idea of what sort of music was performed in those ancient times or, indeed, what sort of sound they made in their original condition. The carnyx seems designed to terrify enemies in battle as their elongated necks, fearsome heads and wagging tongues appeared en masse above a low hill. The sound in that situation was unlikely to have been close to what we would now describe as ‘music’, any more than is the sound of a present day machine gun.

WP_20160507_18_45_02_Pro.jpgWith limited present day scope for terrifying enemies, John Kenny’s solution is to use the instrument in a very contemporary way, with a series of soundscapes devised and recorded by himself in a studio using multi-tracking techniques and applied natural and other sounds. Having seen him perform live, it is clear that he takes a theatrical approach to performance, and there is more than a slight feeling on this recording, as in the live performance, that the focus of the music is the performer, not the instrument. There are 21 tracks, generally of about 3 minutes each. The evocative descriptions of the various pieces imply exotic ancient tales and myths.

Filling a CD with fearsome enemy-scaring noises would not have been a commercial success, but I do wonder if this recording has stretched interpretation a little too far. The weird noises than the modern reconstructions of these instruments can make could also be made with many other less exotic instruments. What would we think if people in 2000 years time discover a 21st century trumpet, for example, and just used it to make weird sounds?

That said, the sounds are fascinating, if you can make the leap of faith into the sound world of John Kenny, rather than that of the ancient Celts.

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