John Kenny, a trombonist from Britain, blasting a carnyx on a beach in Tarquinia, Italy. Francesco Marano
LONDON — Peter Holmes, a 76-year-old former aircraft engineer, was standing in his tidy living room in North London recently holding a Scandinavian war horn more than four feet long. When asked how the instrument, known as a lur, is played, he said: “I’ve no idea. No one’s played it for 3,000 years.”
With that, Mr. Holmes put the lur to his lips and blew. Rather than an angry bellow that might transport a listener to a lonely fjord among Viking warriors, it sounded more like a bugle played by someone with a lisp.
Mr. Holmes, an expert on ancient music, built the lur and other long-forgotten instruments at the University of Middlesex’s engineering department, where he is designer in residence, and in his cluttered garden shed.
He is also a central figure in the European Music Archaeology Project, or EMAP, a 4-million euro (about $4.6 million) effort started in 2013 to recreate the sounds of the ancient world. The project unveils the results of its work this year. It started with a concert in Glasgow on Saturday, to be followed by a touring exhibition that opens on June 6 in Ystad, Sweden.
A duet between the Deskford carnyx and the first-century B.C. Loughnashade horn, found in a bog in 1794 in what is today Northern Ireland. The track is named after a doomed love affair between two Irish poets. Delphian Records
John Kenny, a trombonist from Birmingham, England, who also plays the carnyx, an Iron Age horn, said that ancient instruments were important because they offered a different perspective on the past. “I’ve witnessed the most extraordinary skills used to reconstruct buildings, clothes and language, but those don’t put you into the imaginative world people used to live in,” he said. “Only music does that.”
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“If you reconstruct a sword,” he added, “no one apart from a homicidal maniac could use it for the purpose intended. But reconstruct an instrument, and anyone can experience it.”
The project, half funded by the European Union, with the rest coming from an assortment of institutions and state agencies, covers the Paleolithic Era to around A.D. 1000 and the Dark Ages. Calling on the skills of archaeologists, philologists, acousticians, metal workers and others, it has brought back to life instruments ranging from ancient bagpipes to 30,000-year-old vulture- bone flutes (although some say those are merely vulture bones that some poor animal chewed holes in).
Engineers and enthusiasts like Mr. Holmes have been recreating ancient instruments for decades, he noted. His own forays into the area came about because his love of the trumpet led him to trace its origins further and further back until, in 1962, he found himself reconstructing an antecedent to the instrument that had been found in Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt.
“It used to be just a few of us enthusiasts doing it, but now it’s become a lot more professional,” he said. “We’re using high-precision engineering tools, 3-D printers, all sorts of things.”
Mr. Kenny, 59, was introduced to the carnyx in the early 1990s when a Scottish musicologist, knowing of his interest in early music, knocked on his door and told him he was needed to help reconstruct one that had been excavated in 1816 at a farm near Deskford, in northern Scotland, but was languishing in a museum storeroom.
A carnyx towers six feet above the player and is topped by a serpent or boar’s head, with a mouth sometimes able to flap open and closed to mute the sound.
The first reconstruction sounded like flatulence, Mr. Kenny said. “It wasn’t a human instrument,” he added. “It had no inner life, and I was sure that was because we didn’t use the original techniques to make it or the original alloys.”
A second version — which cost 28,000 British pounds to make (about $40,000) and required a craftsman to hand-hammer metal for 400 hours — fortunately soared. Mr. Kenny has been playing it ever since, on a long-term loan from a charitable trust, even though, he said, he occasionally knocks the head off.
Mr. Brown plays an ancient Scottish tune on a replica of a 30,000-year-old instrument. The wing bone for the four-holed instrument was supplied by a Spanish wildlife protection agency that conducts post-mortems of dead vultures. Delphian Records
The EMAP exhibit will feature the Deskford Carnyx as well as re-creations of others, found at a tomb in France and at sites in the Italian Alps and England. The re-creation of the instrument found in England was made by Mr. Holmes.
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Mr. Kenny, influenced by that striking head, initially played the carnyx as a war instrument. But he soon realized it “was just like a human.”
“If you shout all the time, you lose your voice,” he said. “So I decided to explore its other voices. And the minute I did, I realized it could produce the most enormous amount of colors — far more than a trumpet or trombone.”
That range is evident on his album for Delphian, due out in September, a record that at some points sounds like a dragon awakening, at others like avant-garde jazz.
Another EMAP member, Barnaby Brown of Cambridge, England, plays reconstructions of the Greco-Roman aulos, a kind of double oboe played by sticking each half in a corner of the mouth, a bit like using chopsticks to impersonate a walrus. Unlike the carnyx’s, its music is only ever soulful and intimate.
The Swedish instrument maker Åke Egevad plays a replica of a hornpipe — made of a cowhorn with fingerholes — from 1050 A.D. The tune is based on Swedish folk motifs. Delphian Records
It was “the most popular instrument of the Greco-Roman world,” Mr. Brown said. “You couldn’t have a sacrifice without it. You couldn’t have fun without it. You couldn’t have a party, a wedding, a funeral.”
The aulos requires a technique called circular breathing, and when Mr. Brown plays it, his cheeks puff out and his eyes bulge. The goddess Athena was said to have invented the aulos but to have thrown it away when she realized how ghastly she looked playing it.
“It looks far worse than it is,” Mr. Brown said. “The only thing that’s hard about it is, the breathing requires musculature in the lips, and, right now, I can only do it for about six minutes.’’
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“In Greco-Roman times they used to play all night and had to wear a leather strap,” called a phorbeia, across the cheeks “so they could keep going,” he added.
Mr. Brown doesn’t see musical archaeology as recreating the music of the past; instead, he said, it is another way of creating new music for today.
“The reason I’m most excited by playing these instruments is I get to compose,” he said, “because the original music doesn’t survive. We have a few bits of Greek music, but that’s it.
“It’s a complete fallacy when people say, ‘You’re hearing the music of the Stone Age,’ ” he continued. “What rubbish! You’re hearing the music of the person playing the instrument. Does that ruin it? No, it makes it even more thrilling.”
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