Calgary

Ricola? French horn player delights hikers in Alberta's Rockies with Swiss sounds

A former french horn player from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra draws crowds whenever he pulls out his four-metre long alphorn, transforming his surroundings into a slice of Swiss musical bliss.

Former Calgary Philharmonic musician says outside is the best place to practice his alphorn

Calgary resident Daryl Caswell practices his alphorn in a parking lot in Calgary. Caswell plays the french horn with the Red Deer Symphony and is also an engineering professor at the University of Calgary. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

If you find yourself strolling out for a morning hike in Alberta's Rockies and discover the sounds of Switzerland cascading around the mountain ranges there could be a perfectly good explanation.

You may have stumbled across Calgarian Daryl Caswell practicing his alphorn — an ancient four-metre long horn that evokes fond memories of Ricola cough candy commercials for some.

The instrument is the genuine real deal too, not some prop.

"Years ago, my wife and I were in Switzerland and I saw one of these in a department store — this huge thing — and I thought, 'I've got to do this,'" Caswell said.

"Nobody was doing this in the Rocky Mountains."

A former french horn player with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the musician became the first french horn with Red Deer Symphony when he went into engineering.

"But in the summer, I switch over completely into alphorn and I just play for fun," Caswell told The Calgary Eyeopener Wednesday.

According to legend, the cone-shaped wood instrument was created around 4,000 years ago as a way for one mountain village to communicate with another, albeit one-way. It was used to signal the daily activities of shepherds and cowherds, to calm cows at milking time and occasionally call the men of the valley together for war.

It's played with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, which resembles the same one as the one on a trumpet, trombone and — conveniently for Caswell — the french horn.

Calgary's Daryl Caswell often practices his alphorn in the parking lot of a church near his home, but will sometimes head to the mountains west of the city for a more authentic feel. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

"What that does is create a whole bunch of frequencies. I start to be able to focus those mini-frequencies into a few that are going to be useful in the instrument," said Caswell.

The catch, for any aspiring alphorn player, is that it's a bit tricky to find a practice venue with the correct acoustics.

"I practice at home. But ... all the vibrations and reflections of sound are completely different outside," Caswell said.

"So I'll start thinking I'm hot stuff in the house, and then I come outside and all the sound will just disappear when you play it. So I have to get used to that, and I'll come outside and do it."

He usually heads to a nearby church parking lot to get the right sound.

"The neighbours are quite good about it. They don't send me back inside."

While practicing an alphorn outside his home might prevent its distinctive sound from being swallowed up by low ceilings inside, even Caswell has to admit it's missing one important ingredient: mountains.

That's why he sometimes packs the instrument up and heads for the Rockies — even if that can get kind of awkward from time to time.

"I'll go somewhere like Lake Louise and you're kind of nervous about doing it, because people are out hiking — they're out in nature, you don't want to bother them," he said.

"[But after the] first note I play, they instantly sit down.... It's amazing."


With files from Danielle Nerman and the Calgary Eyeopener

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca

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