The extraordinary John Kenny has just become the second British trombone player to be awarded the International Trombone Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award – an award reserved for those who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to the trombone profession over a long career.
So far, John has enjoyed a life that encompasses almost every corner of the arts imaginable. He is celebrated worldwide for his inspirational work as a soloist, chamber artist, composer, researcher and teacher.
John: ‘The trombone has been the most wonderful springboard into every area that I have worked in. When I was studying as a trombone player, I was studying to be a trombone player. I discovered that the artistic opportunities on offer were just not exciting enough for me. I always felt that I needed to do other things, but in actual fact, finding my frustrations with the trombone was the best thing that could have happened to me.’
John has a long relationship with the discovery and research of ancient instruments and his exploration of the trombone family reaches back as far as anyone can imagine. In 1993 John became the first person for 2000 years to sound a Carnyx – the great war horn. This was a reconstruction that ended up the flagship project for the new discipline of Music Archeology and has since led to the discovery and replication of ancient instruments from various sites across Europe. Inspired by this work, John went on to found Carynx and Co. who exists to combine music archaeology and the world of contemporary music.
The same company now acts as a parent organization to ensembles including the trombone trio Pandora’s Box, which features Emily White, Miguel Tantos and John Kenny. The trio are frequently joined by Swedish trumpet player and composer, Törbjorn Hultmark on soprano trombone. HeadSpace Ensemble are supported too. This very special quartet brings John and Törbjorn’s conventional brass playing together with two extraordinary electronic instruments; the Head=Space and Hi-Note. This pair of instruments was designed for Clarence Adoo MBE; a former trumpeter who was involved in a devastating road accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. This revolutionary technology enables Clarence to perform again, and the ensemble is brought together with sound design by Chris Wheeler.
The great drive and creativity behind this collection of ensembles are reflective of John’s passion to pursue his own ideas.
‘I always wanted to somehow make things happen, it’s always very much been part of my mentality. By the time I left the Royal Academy of Music, I already knew that I really needed and wanted to travel. I wanted to meet and respond to people who had exciting things to say. I suppose I set about trying to finding those people and finding out whether I could be a part of what they were doing. A lot of that actually meant hitchhiking into Europe; just going to see people. Listening. Watching, experiencing. That’s carried on; if you don’t search, you don’t discover.’
John is a widely recognised composer and has contributed a great deal to the trombone repertoire. John’s initial drive to compose came from working with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre in the 70s and 80s. While in rehearsals, John found great inspiration in physical shape and movement.
‘It is still the case that I am most frequently motivated to compose by extra musical ideas – by theatrical ideas, movement ideas, poetic ideas, visual impulses. Consequently, a tremendous amount of my music isn’t published as it’s not intended for the concert hall – it has to be reinvented every time it is performed.
There is a heavy improvisational element within lots of my music and the interpretation comes out of conversation and connection with the performers; yet it’s composition nonetheless.’
John’s performing, teaching, writing and creating all centre around his need to communicate. The trombone is John’s expressive tool of choice; his springboard for ideas.
‘The trombone is an intensively expressive instrument – it is an instrument with huge power, it is naturally theatrical and it has a great history with links to ancient families of instruments that I could not have imagined existed.’
The expressive tools that trombone players have to hand have been vastly expanded by the works of Berio, Stockhausen, Globokar and Xenakis – to name a few. John has a tremendous fascination with how these works have added to our expressive palette and has himself contributed to normalizing ‘extended techniques’ by employing these techniques in his music as a form of expression, but never as a technical exercise.
John is a Professor at the Guildhall School and teaches across the country at specialist institutions including the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh.
‘Like many people, certainly of my own generation – when I was a student I had not thought of teaching. I wasn’t taught to teach; in fact, possibly even the reverse. It’s possibly the case that I went out into my professional life thinking that you taught if you couldn’t do. I very rapidly found that I had to teach, of course, but I also immediately found that I liked to teach.
I feel it’s very important for me that if I teach at the highest level – at the top flying conservatoires, I have to also teach little kids who are starting – I must constantly go back to how it all begins.
I developed a method of teaching kids on the alto trombone, which Conn sponsored. In fact, my own son Patrick learned that way. I love to teach little children – one of the greatest pleasures of playing in the Spanish festival I visited just before Christmas, was to see what an enormous success our Spanish cousins are having out there in teaching little children. I was watching huge trombone ensembles of little children playing trombone on stage, from memory at a really high level. We are talking octets and even twelve-piece ensembles with little children on trombone.
As a teacher at conservatoire level, I have had a great deal of pleasure over the years teaching people. Most of those students thought I was teaching them, but in actual fact they were teaching me. You will find a lot of teachers say that – and they say it because it’s true. Our students mirror our own ideas and our own problems, forcing us to think about our own reactions, our own taste, and our own problems. In the process of discussing, demonstrating working with every single student, you discover an enormous amount about yourselves. You discover things you couldn’t discover any other way.
Teaching is very important, it’s a lot of fun and everyone is very different. At the Guildhall, I have the enormous privilege of having an interesting role in which trombone is only a part of what I do. In fact it’s the smallest part of what I do. I get to work right across our Wind, Brass and Percussion department and get to work with other people who come through the door as well. So, I suppose my role is primarily to discuss ideas, and that’s where I work best. Working with ideas. In any teaching situation where I get to the point of working with ideas as opposed to just nuts and bolts, that’s where it gets really enjoyable; it really propels. That works with little kids too, because in that sense – working with ideas – I often work with story telling. I am telling stories and I am trying to get people to react to stories; react to expressing ideas that aren’t necessarily musical but music helps express the idea.’
This year is set to be John’s busiest year yet as his ambitions and discoveries continue to develop. John plans to continue his work with the European Music Archaeology Project and is set to perform 0n a newly reconstructed instrument in Tarquin, Rome. Pandora’s Box will be visiting the International Trombone Festival and also have plans to record The Barony A Frame – Scott Lygate’s new work for the ensemble.
John will perform and lecture in Tenerife, Malta, France and Italy and is currently composing a new piece for two carnyces. There are new works on the way for the HeadSpace ensemble too, who hope to make an album in the Autumn. John also has plans to work with the TNT Theatre Group in Munich, creating music for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
‘This is another year full of composing, teaching, creating and discovering. There are new things appearing too – I’ve just had a request from one of the most exciting jazz musicians in Scotland, Chick Lyall, who wants to create a piece for piano, electronics and trombone. I’m looking forward to that very much indeed.’
These are just a few of John’s achievements; to be awarded the ITA’s Lifetime Achievement Award is particularly fantastic as this is just John’s story so far.
‘People can do things that I can’t imagine, because I am not those people. We have a wonderful panoply of possibilities as trombone players – it’s never been a better time to be a trombone player. When I think about it, that’s my final reaction – my goodness, some people have given me an award for simply enjoying myself for the last 35 years. It’s not a job, it’s my life and I certainly don’t feel that I have had a lifetime yet – I have only just started.’
John has shaped a life that is undefined and unbound and continues to inspire his colleagues and countless musicians across the world. The British Trombone Society are delighted to have had the opportunity to talk to John and very much look forward to sharing more about his work in the future. Congratulations again, John!
Article first published in the The Trombonist, Spring 2017.