Wednesday, 6 July 2011

'Tis the Voice of the Carnyx

Not sure that this amazing looking thing can really be called the modern face of music, because versions of it (complete with movable mouth and tongue) date back for about 2000 years.   It’s a Celtic battle horn dating from the Bronze Age, called the Carnyx. 

I talked about it to John Kenny, trombonist and ethnomusicologist, one of the few performers who actually plays the carnyx.  Twenty years ago,  he helped the National Museum of Scotland to reconstruct the remains of a prehistoric carnyx which was dug from remote Scottish moorland at Leitchestown, Banffshire, Scotland, in 1816. 
The carnyx sounds like a mix of a didgeridoo, a wailing ghost and a wild animal. "It's modelled on a wild boar, so the sound grunts and cries a wild-boar like way" Kenny told me. And, since no authentic Bronze Age music survives, he only plays modern compositions.   There'll be some recitals in Edinburgh in August - here are the details.

Finding a repertoire is hard, but physically playing the instrument is harder still, for keeping that great boar's-head aloft takes stamina and balance. "I did weight training and consulted an acrobatic choreographer" said the dauntless Kenny.
He's been involved in the restoration of even more ancient wind instruments, including one nearly a thousand years older than the carnyx. "It's made of beaten bronze and held together with 360 golden rivets" he says. "It's so heavy that you play it while it's resting on the floor. It was dug from a bog in Ireland"

He also thinks that the carnyx may have another, more mysterious side. Although it was used mainly as a battle horn, some archaeologists suspect that it could also be a kind of totem. He thinks the one dug up in the bog might have been “killed” as a ritual sacrifice. That makes its other-worldly voice seems even more eerie. 

Anyway, if you can't get to Edinburgh, listen to some carnyx music  here.  It's not that melodious. But you won't hear much else that is like it.


  1. Thank you for the post about old instrument. It's interesting that despite of being legendary it exists in modern music field.

  2. Amazing that the instrument is so old but able to be played. I enjoy odd bits of history like this.



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