Now in their twelfth year of operation, this summer sees the Dead Rat Orchestra working up to a fever pitch of activity. Their Saturday headline slot at the Sin Eater festival a couple of weeks ago was a triumph, climaxing in a riotous burning a 30-foot high wooden hare.
Next month they’ll be taking to the waterways of western England for The Cut, to explore the musical culture of the region’s canals, hooking up with local musicians and creating a new set of pieces along the way.
Between these two activities, they’ve somehow managed to squeeze creation of a whole new work, Rough Music, based around tuned bronze meat cleavers. Its latest performance was at The Foundling Museum as part of a programme of events celebrating Hogarth’s The Rakes Progress.
Originally premiered at Oxford Contemporary Music back in March, Rough Music explores an eighteenth and nineteenth century tradition in the villages of Suffolk, whereby groups of vigilantes would ‘assault people with sound’.
They’d surround the homes of people judged to have committed some form of offence ‘give them the rough music’, making a right old racket, banging tools and all manner of equipment, as a form of aural rough justice, as well as publicising their crimes in songs.
Many of Hogarth’s paintings feature some kind of similar clamour – check out The Enraged Musician or The March of The Guards to Finchley for some examples. So pairing the Rats and the Rake seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Interestingly, before hearing about all this, Dead Rat Nathan had already been using a cleaver in his performances, to accompany his version of a Spanish work song. So integrating the cleavers more into the Dead Rat Orchestra’s semi-improvised hubbub should have been painless
There was only one problem. It turns out that modern-day meat cleavers just aren’t that musical. Instead of ringing clearly, they clunk, dully. No music, rough or otherwise. Time to give up, you might think.
But not this band. Instead, they sought the help of a Cornish sword-maker – one of the last in the country, apparently – and commissioned him to forge a set of new cleavers. The resulting blade won’t help you joint a chicken but, in combination with an ingeniously rigged handle that allows the blade to resonate, produces a clear, sweet tone.
For Rough Music, band uses the cleavers in several ways. At Oxford, an intricate percussion piece saw the three Dead Rats cooking up a finely grained flow of sound with cleaver, woodblock and stone. Following this was a shimmering gamelan-like piece, produced from gently bowing the blades of the cleavers, the sounds hanging in the air like golden clouds.
For the show at The Foundling Museum, the band added a third element to their crazy web of early modern malfeasance, drawing on another old tradition, one of songs celebrating thieves. These songs often deploy Thieves Cant – the criminal argot of the time – to give them a roguish frisson.
If the narrative logic uniting these three threads was occasionally unclear, musically it worked like a dream. Entering the upper room of the Foundling Museum from three different doors, hammering on drums, buckets and boxes, the three Dead Rats gave us a noisy glimpse of the old village roughness.
A sackful of Thieves Cant tunes, given elegant and minimal musical backing by harmonium, violin and percussion, transported us to the swirl and grime of old London, a place besotted with the brutal glamour of the cutpurse skipping one step ahead of the hangman’s noose.
Finally, it was cleaver time again, as the trio revisited the work they’d premiered in Oxford. The pure clangs of the struck cleavers slowly gave way to softer-edged translucent tones as the Rats bowed beauty from harshness, like a golden sunset covering the filthy streets in a blanket of glory.
The two Dead Rat Orchestra photos are copyright of popestatesPhotography.com