Interview: Nathaniel Mann

Interview: Nathaniel Mann

This performance will mark the end of your Embedded residency. Could you take us through what you’ve been up to the past 18 months?

18 months is a long time, so I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot. It’s a Sound And Music programme, and the reason it’s called “Embedded” is that it’s a longer-term residency; I wasn’t there full-time all day every day, but it’s spread out over a longer period. I had longer to reflect, grow and really respond, rather than just a month-long residency of the more standard format.

The residency is divided into three sections. In the first phase, I was engaging directly with the museum: exploring the museum as a listening space through a series of public events that I curated and looking at ways of delivering the recently digitised sound archive, which has various collections with music spanning a hundred years from across the globe. There were live performances with torch-lit trails. It also involved delving into the sound archives – one of the projects I’ve done is pulling out all of the bits that aren’t considered as part of the archive: the recording errors, the microphone tests, the sounds of anthropologists learning to use their equipment, and all of these elements that are extra to what is intentionally recorded. So there’s an unintentional parallel archive I’ve created by harvesting all of these elements. It  really talks about the act of collecting; it’s almost like reverse-anthropology, turning the lens back round on the collector. It also talks about the technology and the deterioration. Some of the wax cylinders they’ve got are so old – when they sent them off to get digitised, the British Library sent back this recording and basically you’re listening to the old that was in some of the grooves.

The second phase I was doing pigeon whistles, which was the first thing I ever saw in the Pitt Rivers Museum – about 10 years ago now – that really captured my imagination. The reason it captured my imagination is that it was the only one of the musical instruments and noisemakers that I couldn’t imagine the sound of. So these are small flutes that are strapped to the tails of pigeons while in flight, and they basically create this chord of music overhead and moving around you. It’s quite incredible. I hooked up with a pigeon fancier from Nottingham, and designed and made my own pigeon whistles. Oxford Contemporary Music pulled a killer move and invited me to contribute to this touring exhibition with seven other sound artists called “Audible Forces”. We toured the country last year, each with a work that responded in some way to Aeolian music and sculpture. My contribution to that was this pigeon whistle project, which was an incredible journey in itself.

The third thing I’m doing is a more general response to the influences and the themes I’ve been exposed to during my time at Pitt Rivers, and that’s “Rough Music” – these tuned bronze meat cleavers.

Throughout your interaction with the archive and these objects, did you ever think that there might be room for refinement in the way that the history of sound is presented in the museum context?

Yeah, definitely. That’s one of the first things I was asked to do: to think about how to present these digitised sound archives. No one had heard them before our first public presentation of the sound archives back in November 2013. The response was to explore the museum as a listening space, and there’s nothing quite like the event we created as far as I’m aware. It’s about engaging the public in listening, looking and movement all at the same time, whereas normally you’re sat watching and listening, or looking at something in the museum. It was in the darkness and we provided the participants with these torches, so their vision is very focussed as it’s guided by light. A lot of the time the listening happens on an unconscious level and really affects the way people move within a space, and how people respond to objects as they’re finding them. So I think that’s a really interesting way of presenting the archive, rather than having it online or through a pair of headphones.

We did a conference hosted by the Pitt Rivers called “Making Sound Objects”, which was the yearly conference for the British Forum of Ethnomusicology. It invited practitioners and academics to come and talk about these themes of presenting sound. It is a problematic: how do you do that? How do you engage people? From a museum’s point of view it has to be rigorous and archived, but then it really reduces the public and the people that can access these things. I wouldn’t say I’ve resolved it, but I’ve definitely explored some solutions.

Watching videos of your performances highlights the disconnection that can occur between seeing these objects – pristine in their cases, completely immobile – and hearing them on headphones without being to see the process: the point of impact of the meat cleaver for example, or the way the sound of the pigeon whistle changes as it’s flying.

I’d say that’s a good observation. It’s fair to state that what I’m doing is all practice-based exploration of things; instinct or deduction driven, I guess. The pigeon whistle is a really good case in point there, as it’s behind glass and I’m left to imagine what it sounds like. So I start to imagine it and I realise that it must be spatial. It must work like no other instrument, in that it moves around you – no other instrument does that. I later sourced some recordings that Peter Cusack made of pigeon whistles in Beijing. I could have left it there, but because I’d already started to think the possibility of what it sounded like, I realised that Peter can’t capture that movement in the stereo recording he’d made.

You basically hear the bird’s flight described in sound across the sky. Each bird has a different note, so the way they flock together – “kitting” they call it in the pigeon world – is sonified, and you hear the relationships between the bird’s wings, and how they turn into the wings and work as a group. It becomes music and it’s beautiful. So all of that additional knowledge could have only be achieved by doing it – there’s no way you can deduce all that by staring at it in a cabinet. You have to get out there, find some pigeons and make some whistles [laughs], and that’s what I did.

And so you designed the whistles yourself?

Obviously the museum wouldn’t let me use their antiques. I did manage to source some pigeon whistles from Indonesia, but what I wanted to do was to tune and, to some extent, compose with them, so it was essential for me to make my own. So that was a whole other phase of the project.

It was a bit of a mammoth project from start to finish: delving into the pigeon world, finding Pigeon Pete, who was my collaborator on the project…it was a to huge investment of time from start to finish. Just the instrument design section of it was pretty massive in itself, with lots of prototype trials and things like that.

One of the issues I’m having with it is that I’m making a film for tomorrow to present the pigeon whistles within the performance, and again it’s this issue of having I’ve created it, and now reducing it back down to a stereo recording and playing it out of some speakers. It just doesn’t feel right. I’ve been looking for ways to address that within the film and talk about it. I think that’s important too; not just to relegate it back into being an archive, but to carry on the discussion on the object within the documentation as well.

Photo by Nathaniel Mann

Photo by Nathaniel Mann


You seem to utilise a very exploratory approach to your music; has that always been a part of your work?

So I perform with The Dead Rat Orchestra, and we’ve been playing together for 12 years. We were all working at Colchester Arts Centre – behind the bar and as technicians and stuff – and they had an amazing programme at the time. Arts Council funding just isn’t what it was, but at the time it had this incredible programme. The Contemporary Music Network tours that were going on about 12 years ago were incredible: they had Japanese noise musicians, and a touring concert called “Turntable Hell”, which was just experimental turntablists from Japan, The States…all over.

So we were inspired by all of this, and we got together through this common interest. Our first thing was to reject everything: reject melody, reject rhythm, reject harmony and just do noise-based glitch stuff, and we spent a long of time in that world. Our first performance was six hours long and restricted to one note; we were interested in La Monte Young’s work, duration pieces and endurance…exploring limitations. Our third concert was 12 hours. So exploring limits has always been a point of interest, but working within Dead Rat really opened us up. Once we embraced rhythm and song, we were basically freed up to explore everything because we’d closed ourselves off.

For example, one of the things that will finish the concert tomorrow night is a thousand hexagonal pieces of mirror-polished cut steel, each one a slightly different size. So you get a microtonal scale of over one hundred steps, and all we do is throw them on the floor. It should sound great tomorrow night – I haven’t tried it yet, but they have a concrete floor in there and it’s a nice reverberant space – and you basically get a shimmering cascade of notes, which resonate and chime out. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. Exploring these things within Dead Rat has lead me into this object-led composition: saying “I want to produce this music but I don’t have the tools to do it, so I better make them.”

That takes me onto the meat cleavers. I understand that you came to use cleavers as instruments through your granddad – is that right?

Yeah, my granddad’s cleavers. I never knew my granddad, but all his tools were in the garden shed. One day I pulled it off the shelf, and I heard that it had a nice ring. I was exploring work song at the time, and developed a piece where I used this percussive ring that it had to play out a rhythm on this chopping block.

I met this bronze swordsmith, and we were just joking about musical swords. I thought, “Hold on – I’ve already got a musical meat cleaver”. So we set off on this exploration on whether this could work, and a big part of it has been the instrument design. In my research I’ve been looking into other instruments, and I’ve been down at the Horniman Museum in South London and talking to the curator Margaret Burley, trying to find other instruments that are similar to this. There are obviously related instruments, but in some ways I’ve designed something new.

It’s just by chance that my meat cleaver makes a noise at all. I’ve been into butchers and said, “can you just ping your meat cleaver for me?” Most of them don’t ring because of the way the handle is designed, so it’s just by chance that my grandad’s does. I can show you actually, as I’ve currently got them all laid out here on the floor in front of me.

Awesome – please do!

This is my granddad’s meat cleaver:

* An abrupt, high pitched metallic ring *

So it’s a very high ping. And this is one of the new bronze ones.

* A lower metallic ring with a much longer sustain *

So I’ve designed this suspension system within the handle using elastic. I’m interested in work song because it’s not made for performance, but taking that into the performance setting with the gestures of chopping makes for a really dynamic performance. It was important to design these things so we could be rough with them, so that we could use the same gestures and really explore them as instruments – not like delicate hand bells – and so they become something of their own.

I suppose a lot of work song is associated with quite muscular, physical processes.

Yeah. It’s about action and movement. When people are interested in Sea Shanties, or the prison songs of the southern states of America, in part it’s that grit and rawness of the sound and movement as they’re associated with these gestures. The nice thing about this project is that it’s the coming together of many threads. My initial idea with the tuned meat cleavers was that I’d explore some kind of music between Indonesian Gamelan, the peals of church bells – both of which are community music in some senses – and also work song. As I said, what I’m doing is exploring through doing it, so if I meet these three things in the middle, that’s what I was trying to do.

As you may have read, through my research I found that actually that this project is 300 years out of date, and that Bonnell Thornton did it in 1749! It was actually a joy to find that; I nearly fell off my chair. The joy of Google Books. It’s an incredible resource. I got deep into these old books that have been scanned in, and then suddenly I found a reference to tuned meat cleavers cast in bell metal, and I just couldn’t believe it.

So is your granddad’s cleaver the one I’ve seen you using in video performances of “Canto De Hilar”?

Yeah, that’s my granddad’s one. But I haven’t just made one – I’ve got 10 of them in front of me right now, and each one is tuned differently.

I imagine they’ll sound great in the venue tomorrow. Have you had a chance to check out the warehouse space and consider how it may incorporate itself into the performance?

I performed there last year, and I’ve done an on-site visit. It’s an old industrial space; an old tanning shed I think, so they used to dry old animal hides in there. The big cattle market was in that part of Oxford. We’re going to be using the space in the performance, so there will be times where we’re moving around the audience. I think it will be site-specific; we’re in there from 10 o’clock tomorrow morning to do final rehearsals and develop those aspects.

So will be using the cleavers alongside the woodblocks tomorrow too?

Yeah. It’ll be an ensemble performance alongside two others from Dead Rat Orchestra, and we’ll each have the chopping blocks and a meat cleaver with different notes. It’s basically these interlocking peals and cyclical rhythms. It’s sounding really really great, and the great thing about it is the sense of performance that the instrument brings to it. You can get really rough with it – there are these points where it’s this beautiful, majestic ringing, and there are some other bits where we descend into this raucous noise and banging and scraping. It’s pretty nice.


“Rough Music” will be performed on 29th March 2014 at OVADA Warehouse, as part of this Oxford’s Audiograft Festival. More information on Audiograft here –

Nathaniel Mann’s website –

Sound And Music website –