Live: Nathaniel Mann + Dead Rat Orchestra - Rough Music @ Ovada Warehouse, 29/03/2014

Live: Nathaniel Mann + Dead Rat Orchestra - Rough Music @ Ovada Warehouse, 29/03/2014

“Play the long notes as if you’ve forgotten the melody.”

Indeed, they hang like a boat pushed out from dock and left to drift, or like an open mouth waiting for words to come. Daniel Merrill is playing an alternate version of “Scarborough Fair” on solo violin, to which the above was attached as a handwritten annotation. Its gestures are more sombre than in the original – with glissando droops that sound like dying plant-life – although at several points it sways like the hem of an elegant dress rippling and brushing the ankles; glints of beauty forming hairline slits in the shadows. The audience is then asked to participate in a traditional Romanian game song, and the concept is simple: the crowd sings a solitary continuous note, while Merrill uses violently dissonant improvisation to try and knock them off key. The vocal drone swells up in the warehouse like water in a swimming pool – a beautiful, warm broth of octaval unison – as Merrill hacks at his violin with brays of ugly anti-notes, striking like an elbow in the ribs of the chorus. It intensifies as Merrill starts to physically skew with each atonal jab, manifesting crooked harmony in crooked body. No doubt the bright, powdery echo of the warehouse plays a part, but everything seems to interlock beautifully: Merrill into violin, violin in space, space into audience.

Daniela Cascella then offers a spoken gateway into Nathaniel Mann’s residency with a sensory, contemplative reading on the museum experience: the hushed dialogues between objects and people under dim lights. Her vocal delivery is soft and yet present and sudden, and I sense parallels in my own manner of ingestion sound; the momentary pangs of electricity as circuits are formed between previously disparate objects, weaving deep, Century-old threads into the synaptic blanket of the mind in the present tense: whirring, connecting.

She disappears beneath the pop of analogue process as the setup of Robin Alderton starts to waken: organic interference crawling like lice over recorded conversation, with scuttling plosives punching holes in the sentences the trundle onward obliviously. I hear the shrill hiss of cicadas, the rotary grind of rewound tape; it’s a commotion, almost like an office space in which separate processes congregate into a hub of happening: rusted coat zips curling around syllables, cotton static and dying train horns.

Nathaniel Mann appears for the first time this evening, spinning a pigeon whistle above his head – a wooden ball on a piece of string that emits a hollow, blustery drone as it spins, announcing every inconsistency in speed with a fleeting wobble in pitch – before singing into a drum skin that shivers and distorts, turning his earthy tones into a hostile hornet buzz and back again. Just how the museum gathers objects of conflicting time and geography into simultaneous being, the Dead Rat Orchestra lay their elements upon eachother like sheets of tracing paper, creating a new crooked shape from the histories in culmination – Alderton’s interference pours like sand between the Merrill’s thumbed dual violins and Mann’s voice that sprouts between the two, forming a landscape that feels whole in all its kink and contrast.

 Nathaniel Mann

There is a momentum to Mann’s curiosity that paints this residency finale as a mere progress report rather than a triumphant farewell, and the assertion within his execution speaks of a faith in his methods – the ceaseless unfolding of redefinition and exploration, recalibrating direction with each obstacle and minor victory – rather than a parting declaration of his own success. A short film documents his collaborative work with Pigeon Pete, from the initial construction of the pigeon whistles from empty film canisters to the test flights in public parks, and demonstrates how Mann grants the same infectious fervour to the discussion of complications as he does to those successful, conquering translations of innovation. One particularly memorable scene is simply a recorded telephone conversation, in which Mann expresses his dilemma of how to carry over the spatiality of pigeon whistles in action – the sense of music encircling above the listener’s head – in the context of the residency finale. Pete’s blunt analogy of the problem is fantastic: “You have bands that are great on record and shit playing live; well, our pigeons are fantastic live but shit on record”.

Dead Rat Orchestra come clattering in again from above (shrill woodwind, smashed pots and pans), feeling out the darkness in some sort of raucous echolocation, voices staggering between a chorus of mutual intent and an argumentative rabble, hollering over colliding metal and slaps against wood. They pick up a cleaver each, and their rhythmic tones start to bounce around my head like some sort of ovular massage – pealing and cascading like bells, slipping out of unity only to find new rhythmic shape in the process. The presence of voice feels essential as cracked-earth folk song rises confidently out of the situation like the habitual inevitability of a long-standing tradition, reeling out and tightening like the belts between the cyclical percussive shafts that chink and ring eternally onward.

What really draws me to Rough Music is that it captures the fluid unfolding of the museum experience and not just the stasis of the history within it; the personal narrative that emerges from the path taken between aisles and rooms, with new sentences that form as words are skipped and replaced. Imaginary meetings and non-existent technology occur as polarising cultures and practices share in the very same breaths. The evening ends with hundreds of steel coins dropped onto the warehouse floor, each sized so that their chimes interlock into a shimmering microtonal matrix – after an exhaustive 18 months of connotation and question, Mann’s residency is rinsed in the gleaming transparency of a sound that simply is.