Carnyx, Trombones and the South Sea

Splendid day yesterday.

Attended one of the finest lectures I’ve ever been to. If someone had told me before that I could be held in thrall for almost two hours in a slightly too hot conservatory for a talk about the history of the trombone, then I would have asked that person politely, but firmly, to kindly move away from my general vicinity.

But I was in fact held in thrall as John Kenny did exactly that. Beginning the lecture by marching into the conservatory playing a piece of music that managed to make the trombone sound more like an mistreated Moog synthesizer and then taking it apart bit by bit – whilst still playing the bits that remained  – until he was playing an invisible trombone, it was one of most lunatic beginnings to a lecture I’ve ever seen. It was very well done and very funny (The piece was called ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and I wish there was a Youtube video of it)

He then went on to discuss the development of the instrument and how it was unique amongst the wind instruments in it’s ability to play glissandi and microtones. (Playing the following intervals: a semitone, a quartertone, a sixth tone and then, rather incredibly (and only just detectably), an eighth of a tone)

Not only that, but a conch was played (very loud) and an extraordinary instrument of the Celtoi – the Carnyx. See the pic below. It’s a replica of an actual instrument found in Scotland dating from around 200BC.  It is extremely loud and was probably used as a war instrument, with it’s boar head acting as the bell of the instrument (complete with wobbly tongue!)


Not a great pic…here’s what the thing really looks like:


The Carnyx

The one thing I need to investigate is how different pitches are made using a single length of tube. As far as I understood it, by changing the raspberry blown through the tube one can play the different resonant frequencies of the tube, which will be limited to the natural harmonic series.

But he was able to play a quite complex melody on the alp horn. Given that it was a 12 footer  with a fundamental of low Bb, if I understand correctly that would allow the following pitches on the natural harmonic series to be played:  Bb1, Bb2, F2, Bb3, D3, F3, Ab3, Bb4, C4, D4, E4, F4, Gb4, Ab4, A4, Bb5..etc. Not a bad selection, but I’d be interested to know if those were really the only notes, or whether he was able to extract any others. I should have asked about this at the time…

Oh, and we now know that Handel wrote for the Sackbut, an early incarnation of the trombone. Oh, and the didgeridoo is a much more interesting instrument than I’d previously given it credit for.  (The trombone, John explained, conventionally just  plays an ‘ah’ vowel, whereas the digderidoo is able to convey all the vowels – and any other shrieks and vocals gestures you wish to amplify. Giving a huge range of sound possible)

So yeah, tons of info to process, but I’ll stop writing about it now.

South Seas? Just watched the first installment of the new BBC natural history series The South Pacific. Extraordinary nature photography seems to be almost routine these days (at least for the beeb), but somehow it still manages to be breathtaking, even if you expect it to be breathtaking. If you know what I mean.


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