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Blast from the past: John Kenny opens TEDGlobal 2013

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John Kenny and piper Roddy Weir. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

This morning, trombonist and composer John Kenny calls TEDGlobal 2013 to attention with the droning, warbling sounds of the carnyx, a Celtic Iron Age vertical trumpet topped with a bell shaped like a boar’s head, with a moving tongue that produces a wild, almost human ululation. Once known throughout Europe as a battle horn and often depicted on Roman coinage, the instrument disappeared around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. In 1816, a carnyx was found in Deskford, in the Moray Firth of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, of which this is a faithful reconstruction.

“This reconstruction is made of three different alloys of bronze, none of which exist today,” said Kenny in an interview before the conference. “It’s called a warhorn because it was in war when the Romans met it. But it’s my belief that it was only used as a warhorn in time of war. Most of the time, people lived in peace. So I would say it’s a ritual instrument.”

Kenny also composes music for the carnyx. “It has a very wide tessitura — I find I’m capable of about five octaves, which means it’s wider than any orchestral instrument used today. It’s louder than a modern trombone, but can reach as quiet a volume as an alto flute.”

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The carnyx was given its name by the Romans — its Celtic name is unknown. When the Deskford carnyx was completed in 1993, Kenny became the first person to play the instrument in two millennia. He is accompanied today by piper Roddy Weir.

The original Deskford Carnyx is on display at the National Museum of Scotland.