Pigeon Whistles: An Orchestra in Flight

Lower Gallery

24 November 2017 - 4 March 2018

As Embedded Composer in Residence at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Contemporary Music in 2016, it was Nathaniel Mann's remit to respond to the collections housed in the Museum. Exploring the galleries, he was intrigued by a small display in the Museum Court: "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."  They were the only instruments he could not imagine the sound of...

Nathaniel set out on a journey to hear the sound for himself, and to share it with others. He devised a work that involved homing pigeons carrying music across the country - an enormous spatial composition which ascended and dissipated, trailing a scattered chord above rooftops, before resolving as the individual notes regather at their home lofts. He just needed a few collaborators...

'Pigeon' Peter Petravicius












                                                                                              Pigeon Pete' is a retired miner/steeplejack/factory worker from Nottingham with over fifty years of experience as a pigeon fancier. He is, to the best of our knowledge, the only man in the UK who trains his birds to return to a mobile pigeon loft - a rabbit hutch which he straps to the back of his scooter on fishing trips.

The Polka Dot Pigeon Loft












Pete trains his birds to visually recognise their mobile pigeon loft from the air. "For this purpose we decorated our pigeon loft with a distinctive black with white polka dots design."

About the Sound

The sound of pigeon whistles describes the birds' flight, their paths drawn in sound across the sky above the audience's heads. A music of infinite variation as the undulation of the wing, acceleration, wind speed, direction and flocking patterns are all manifested through sound.

Pigeon whistles create a spatial listening experience quite unlike any other phenomenon - with multiple sound sources continually moving in relation to the listener, sometimes rising up so far into the sky that the birds 'pin out' (appear as small as pin heads before vanishing from view).  A tension is created as the birds disappear both from hearing and vision with the listener left in the knowledge that the music continues beyond their perception.

To find out more: 

FILM: https://vimeo.com/90941795

SOUND: https://soundcloud.com/animateddog/pigeon-whistles-at-norwich

BBC RADIO: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08ynyk5


Display curated by Nathaniel Mann & Faye Belsey
Design by Nathaniel Mann & Adrian Vizor

Pigeon Whistles was developed under the Embedded Residency Programme. It was premiered within Oxford Contemporary Music's Audible Forces exhibition on Hove Beach as part of the Brighton International Festival in May 2013. It was subsequently presented at a further six arts festivals across the UK. In 2015 the project was awarded the George Butterworth Prize for Composition. In 2017 Sara Jane Hall produced a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the project.

With thanks to:

Pigeon Pete, Noel Lobley, Chris Morton, Joe Banner, Sara Jane Hall, Hélène La Rue and Kate White.