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Dead Rat Orchestra - London, 22/10/2012

  by Tom Fogarty

published: 7 / 10 / 2012

Dead Rat Orchestra - London, 22/10/2012


Tom Fogarty on an unusual first date attends an evening of musical and recording technique experimentalism at the BE Open Sound Portal which, as part of the tenth anniversary of the London Design Festival, was based for a week in Trafalgar Square in London

From the 19th to the 23rd September 2012 Trafalgar Square played host to BE OPEN Sound Portal as part of the tenth anniversary of the London Design Festival. This sound installation's main focus was on "the design that you can't see - that of acoustics and sound - rather than visual spectacle, and featured musicians such as Jana Winderen, Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) and Ivan Pavlov. I attended the event on the Thursday evening, where Nathaniel Robin Mann had been commissioned to exhibit, not really knowing what to expect… Nathaniel Robin Mann is an artist, performer and composer, specialising in ambisonic recording techniques. Currently artist in residence at The Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Contemporary Music and winner of the Grand Prix Award at the 11th Cairo Arts Biennial in 2008, Mann can be found playing with the avant-folk group Dead Rat Orchestra in addition to his solo work. He has also coordinated projects for many leading international artists such as Adam Lowe, Anish Kapoor, Dionisio Gonzalez and Marc Quinn. Firstly, a confession - I wasn't there as a budding music journalist, eager to report on this exciting musical experiment; I was there on a date. Furthermore, I had no idea about the true nature of what I was about to experience. I had merely scoured through 'Time Out' looking for bands in central London that night. In short, I was expecting live music - for free! As we approached "the venue" on a cold wet September evening my hopes of rocking out were quickly dashed. The place was tiny and appeared to be coated in shiny black rubber. Worryingly, it was also unnervingly silent. If we pressed our ears against they odd rubber-lined walls we could just about make out a tiny vibration from within. Unperturbed, we patiently waited in line in the lengthy queue - the length of which was no indicator to the popularity of this installation. It was after all only probably capable of holding twelve or so people at full capacity - and they were only allowing visitors in two at a time. There was absolutely no possibility that this place would hold a toilet - or more importantly - a bar! But if nothing else, we would at least have refuge from the cold night outside. Little did we know that our refuge from the cold dark night would itself prove to be a cold dark shed, albeit wallpapered in rubber. After what seemed like an age of queuing, we finally made it to the front and were shown inside by a doorman with a knowing smile. "Is this going to be good?" I asked somewhat glibly. "Depends what you call good…," came the reply as he showed us inside, his face barely concealing the enjoyment at the disappointment we were about to witness… We were greeted by a scene reminiscent of 60s acid party, mixed in with a hint of all-out opium den and healthy dose of Shoreditch arthouse pretentiousness. The walls were lined with cross-legged hippy types, nodding their heads, desperate to show the world that they knew exactly what this was all about. Some were even laid out on the floor, truly soaking up the ambience and could obviously understand and appreciate it all! For our part, we were completely baffled. And we were not alone. There was at least one elderly man who sat with his shopping trolley and had probably only come inside to escape the rain - but was dearly regretting that decision now. As for the music - at best it could be described as a cacophony of noise - a deluge of conflicting audio snippets overlaid on top of one another; traffic, shouting, aeroplanes, arguments, pub singsongs. At worst, it could be described as noise pollution. We sat down and ended up people-watching rather than soaking up in the vibe of the installation. We ended up with fits of giggles, which became increasing more hard to keep under control - probably much akin to how the doorman must have felt walking us in. The stifled giggles did not go down well with some of the more intellectual members of the audience - clearly discerning musical critics. This was after all a highbrow event - this was important. And they understood it. This led me to think about the meaning of this music installation; if my natural response is to laugh at what I am experiencing - surely that is just as valid as someone who experiences an entirely more cerebral involvement? Gripes aside, the experience was certainly interesting and highly memorable, even if for the wrong reasons. The installation was intimate and I believe a worthwhile endeavour. And the date, incidentally, went really, really well.

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