Last Summer throughout the UK, it was quite possible that if you wandered into an outdoor arts festival, you had a good chance of seeing a flock of pigeons flying overheard, producing a beautiful soundscape of tones.
Introducing Nathaniel Mann, a London-based composer, sonic artist, instrument designer, ethnomusicological thinker and the man who strapped whistles to pigeons. Here he is — he’s a jolly character.
I met Nathan in London a few years ago. He’s one of those guys who’s just always into some crazy new project, whether traveling the UK on canal boats performing traditional music or writing traditional Basque labor songs for a grant application. When we toured with him and his band the Dead Rat Orchestra, they would find a log or piece of wood before each show and play a song where they hacked it to pieces in rhythm with custom made hatchets and cleavers. When we parted ways, he was off to craft Aeolian harps in the Alps.
Anyway, back to the pigeons…
In 2013, Nathan took up an extended residency at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford and began his research in the area of Chinese Pigeon Whistles, a subject that had fascinated him since his first visit (I mean, how could it not?).
The whistles at the museum were enclosed behind a glass casing, forcing him to try to imagine how they could possibly work: What would they sound like strapped to pigeons flying overhead? And how could that sound possibly be “captured” (both metaphorically and literally) by recording? Should it be? The very nature of a bird’s flight is unpredictable, reactionary and well, improvisational.
So Nathan set out to make it happen.
He got in touch with Peter Petravicious (also known as “Pigeon Pete”), a retired miner/factory worker from Nottingham with 50 years of experience breeding and training domesticated loft pigeons. He may be the sole person in the UK who trains pigeons to return on command to a mobile loft.
Nathan’s project intrigued Pete enough for him to jump on board immediately and begin breeding a new kit of birds well-suited to “wearing” custom-designed and tuned whistles during flight.
Wait, how is this going to work?
Let’s start with the pigeons. It’s important to note that Nathan’s kit of Birmingham Roller pigeons (yes, the collective noun for pigeons is a kit) was bred specifically for this project, and trained since birth to both return on command and fly whilst carrying weighted objects.
So unfortunately, you probably can’t just catch some local pigeons and tie whistles to their feathers.
Historically, pigeons have been used to carry messages, packages and even small cameras, so affixing objects to the birds’ bodies is not a big problem. The pigeons’ two central tail feathers are tied together lightly about 2cm from their rear, and a small keyring is slotted through to hold the whistle in place during flight.
Making the Whistles
Now, hatching, breeding and training young birds takes some time, so Nathan went full-throttle into a period of research and development to perfect his hand-made pigeon whistle prototypes. After experimenting with several different shapes, materials, weights and designs, what ended up working the best were these 35mm film canisters, affixed with popsicle sticks and a sliver of vinyl from a record. He tuned them to pitches in a range just shy of one octave.
The whistles are affixed to the rear of the birds, placing them directly in contact with the jetstream produced in flight. Basically, they work something like a flute; air is pushed through a larger hole at the front and forced into a smaller hole in the back. These tiny tunnels vary slightly in width (aperture) shaping the airflow as it leaves the film cannister, thus making different notes as the birds fly around.
Then, depending on the birds’ natural in-flight acrobatics, wind can pass over the whistle entirely, muting the sound. So the entire kit of pigeons together is able to produce a consistently changing sonic landscape in the air, with different notes coming in and out.
The flock in flight
Nathan and Pigeon Pete took their flock around the UK, setting up in open park areas around the country and dazzling audiences with this flying spectacle of sound. They presented their work in lectures at festivals.
As Nathan describes it, “Pigeon Whistles’ music describes the birds’ flight, their paths are drawn in sound across the sky above the audience’s heads. A music of infinite variation as the undulation of the wing, acceleration, windspeed & direction and kiting patterns are all manifested through sound.”
The collaboration of these two innovators has created a spatial listening experience that requires no speakers and transcends any musical performance experience.
Check out this short documentary on the Pigeon Whistles project and the collaboration between Nathaniel Mann and Pigeon Pete here: