Music review: Ancient Voices, St John’s Church, Cumnock

Dragon Voices’ performance of the Gundestrup Rituals, a specially-composed new work by John Purser, showcased the astonishing versatility of the Iron Age war horn, the carnyx, writes Ken Walton

Cumnock Tryst: Ancient Voices, St John’s Church, Cumnock ****

Anyone straying casually into St John’s Church in Cumnock on Saturday may well have mistaken the sights and sounds for a wacky Sunday school entertainment.

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Across the performance area, a line-up of four curious bronze contraptions with beastly heads, waggling tongues and painted eyes glared challengingly at the audience. Three men wove an animated narrative around their presence, blowing through them to create primal noises our accidental visitor may have assumed to be more zoological than musical.

John Creed's three reconstructions of the Deskford Carnyx, played by Dragon Voices: John Kenny, Patrick Kenny & Ian Sankey, at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh PIC: Ali Watt
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These burnished bronze visions, gleaming with reflective light, were in fact recreations of the Iron Age carnyx, an instrument known to us through archaeological discoveries of fragments and only pieced together in recent years by craftsman John Creed.

They were the centrepiece of Ancient Voices, a programme devised by trombonist, composer and carnyx player John Kenny and his group Dragon Voices, which includes his son Patrick Kenny and former pupil Ian Sankey.

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It bore the hallmarks of an illustrated lecture: a sequence of music written by Kenny that also used ancient conch shells, impressive bronze horns and threaded poetry by John Purser. It climaxed with a new work by Purser, the Gundestrup Rituals, inspired by the image of three carnyx players found on an Iron Age cauldron in Denmark, and marking the first live consort of multiple carnyces in 2,000 years.

The journey to the Purser was at times exhilarating, unceasingly itinerant, occasionally amusing, but always fired by an enthusiasm Kenny sees no point in suppressing. Scene-setting pronouncements on trombones gave way to the sonic menagerie of giant shells and horns.

Then the Gundestrup Rituals, illustrating the astonishing versatility in sound and range of the carnyces, from guttural depths and radiant heights to purebred ringing major triads that encapsulated their awesome nobility.