Wednesday, 11 February 2015

New Acquisitions: Pigeon Whistles

"Perched in three small vitrines, which themselves sit high above the other cases of the court, small, strange bamboo faces peer down upon the museum's visitors. Appearing almost like tiny masks, these objects are described as Pigeon Whistles from China" 

During 2012 - 2013 the Pitt Rivers Museum was lucky enough to benefit from the presence and creativity of artist, composer, performer and sound designer Nathaniel Mann. Nathaniel was appointed artist-in-residence at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Contemporary Music as part of Sound and Music's 'Embedded' programme. Nathaniel was a perfect match for the PRM. Performing solo as Animateddog and as one third of Dead Rat Orchestra, his work draws strongly on folk idioms whilst using unusual objects (including 2x4, ukulele, guitar, phonofiddle and meat cleaver!) and conventional instruments to create unique and playfully experimental music. The unique and varied collections of the PRM ensured that there was no shortage of inspiration for Nathaniel to draw on. With a large collection of musical instruments on display and in the Museum stores, both unusual and conventional, Nathaniel was able to come up with great ideas for new work and performances during his residency.

Pigeon whistle on (1921.36.14) display in the Museum 
attached to a stuffed pigeon
Pigeon whistle (2014.44.5) made and 
used for 'Audible Forces' 

One group of objects that caught his attention quite early on in his residency was a collection of pigeon whistles on display in the Museum's Court. There are 78 pigeon whistles in the PRM collections, all from China and Indonesia. In China there has been a long tradition of attaching these light whistles - often made from gourd and bamboo - to the tail feathers of a flock of pigeons so that when the birds fly, the wind blowing through the whistles sets them vibrating, and this produces an open air concert for the instruments in the same flock are all different. According to the Chinese these whistles are intended to keep the flock together and to protect the pigeons from attacks of birds of prey. 

Pigeon whistles donated by Nathaniel Mann 
(2014.44.1, 2014.44.2, 2014.44.3, 2014.44.4, 2014.44.5)
Nathaniel decided that he would design his own pigeon whistles and fly a flock of pigeons wearing them. The ‘Audible Forces’ project toured the UK and proved to be a huge success. To read more about the development of the project and to see and hear video and audio of the whistles in action visit the PRM’s 'Embedded’ blog. 

After Nathaniel’s residency in 2014, he was kind enough to donate a number of Indonesian pigeon whistles, contemporary and traditional in style from his own personal collection as well as one of his home made pigeon whistles designed for the project. The whistles complement the historical whistles that already existed in the collections. It is interesting to compare and contrast the shapes and materials of old and new. The pigeon whistle designed for the purpose of the project is made from recycled materials; a 35 mm film pot, a piece of a Chris de Burgh record and lolly pop sticks! The lightness of the material meant that the pigeons were comfortable wearing them and it did not hurt them or worry them too much. Nathaniel also kindly donated a fabulous book on pigeon whistles to the Balfour library; Beijing Pigeon Whistles by Wang Shixiang is a beautifully illustrated volume with detailed descriptions of the different styles of Chinese pigeon whistles, how they are made and how they are carried by the birds.

As well as the pigeon whistles the PRM also acquired a custom-made tuned meat cleaver, which featured in Nathaniel’s residency finale ‘Rough Music’, which incorporated his Dead Rat Orchestra colleagues and a piece featuring the pigeon whistles.

Nathaniel Mann playing his meat cleaver in the Museum

Tuned meat cleaver (2014.44.7) used for 'Rough Music' performance 

Faye Belsey

Assistant Curator

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