Thinking of talking up a musical instrument during lockdown – don’t try this one at home!
In pondering (as you do) what life was like during the Bronze Age (2500 – 600 BC) there is a tendency to think that the past was silent from a musical perspective - but this was not the case. On display in the Early Peoples gallery of the Ulster Museum are two of four Bronze Age horns found in a bog (1840) at Drumbest, near Ballymoney, in County Antrim, which are the best preserved examples of their type.
Made between 950-700 BC, there are over 100 Bronze Age horns surviving from Ireland, which is apparently more than the whole of Western Europe put together, and some 26 of these were found in one hoard also in a bog at Dowris in County Offaly.
Attempts to extract a sound from the Dowris horns has had mixed results. One such episode, in the late 1800s, involved a Robert Ball who was a member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. ‘In the act of attempting to produce a distinct sound … he burst a blood vessel and died a few days later’ (so you’ve guessed it - don’t try this at home!).
Undeterred by this fatality and in the true spirit of experimental archaeology, progress was made. A closer inspection of the Drumbest horns showed that there were two different mouth piece arrangements: - one at the end, more in the style of a trumpet and the other had an opening in the side, more like the mouth piece in a flute (both seen here in this Royal Mail commemorative stamp).
Another breakthrough came from realisation that they needed to be played in the style of a digeridoo using the technique of circular breathing. This is the ability to inhale air through the nose and blow it out of your mouth without stopping or gasping for air.
In Sardinia, in an attempt to master the technique playing a different instrument with Bronze Age roots, pupils were encouraged to practice circular breathing by produce a continuous stream of bubbles in a glass of water by blowing through a straw (you can try this at home!).Putting these theories to the test it also became clear that the end-blown horn was suited to playing a continuous background note (similar to the done on a bagpipe) and the side-blown played the main tune with an almost three octave range. This culminated in a Bronze Age gig and a special one-off permission to sound the actual Drumbest horns.
Much of this recent experimental work was conducted on replica instruments by Simon O’Dwyer. Simon can be seen here playing replicas of the Drumbest horns with a member of the Ulster Youth orchestra at an event in the Ulster Museum a few years ago called ‘A Taste of Prehistory’. Note also the golden colour of the horns. This is how bronze looks before the aging process creates a brown/green tinge known as a patina.
On a final note – I was giving a talk on these instruments a few years ago when I was approached by a gentlemen who expressed an interest in the poor Robert Ball story. He inform me that playing the saxophone could have similar results given the amount of pressure needed to sound it. How did he know? He was a leading Northern Ireland neurologist. Thinking of taking up the saxophone during lockdown – don’t try this at home!