We continue our Guest Blog feature from The Dead Rat Orchestra who are currently undertaking The Cut, a canals and waterways tour, during which they will travel 273 miles of the inland waterways from London to Bristol (including Reading and Oxford and various other locations), crafting music from extensive research into these industrial and leisure arteries.
In this special FRUK feature each blog post will be written by a different member of the band, giving insight into the different characters and interests that drive the ensemble, and the challenges encountered by taking a tour on a less beaten track.
The Cut – DRO member Robin Alderton
Before this project it’s safe to say that none of us had any real experience on boats. So the build up to our journey has seen us start from scratch, with days spent gradually moving our boat ‘Gemini II’ up from west London where we picked her up, round to east London and then Kings Cross for our start point at the London Canal Museum. There have been a few scrapes along the way, and a lot of locks to figure out, but the stand out feature has been the willingness of others on the waterways to offer advise or a gentle nudge, easy conversation whilst tasks are shared at locks, it engenders a real sense of community. It’s easy to see why so many people choose to make their homes along these routes, economics and affordability aside.
Coming from this limited time actually on the boat, all of it spent on the canals at a rather gentle pace, my most memorable driving experience came on Wednesday (day 3), coming out of Brentford Lock and turning right onto the tidal Thames. Suddenly the whole landscape seemed to open up in front of us – glorious sunshine on our backs and tree-lined banks either side, a scruffy looking Heron casually watching us pass. I opened up the engine and ploughed on into the water. Dan and Nathan went and sat at the front of the boat at that moment, leaving me to grin quietly to myself. That smile didn’t leave my face for a good two hours as I took her out past Kingston-upon-Thames and Hampton Court Palace, passing pleasure barges, occasional rowers, houseboats and wrecks. It felt great to have taken this on and finally be here, under our own steam heading out of London and seeing things from a totally different perspective, familiar points recast, the lines of sight all changed. There’s a freedom here.
One of the tenants of this band has always been ‘freedom to play’; rarely have two shows or renditions of songs been the same and the idea of this tour has been to build this deliberately into how we approach the shows and the pieces. Our idea was that we would start the tour with a (relatively) straight set of songs and pieces developed from traditional folk song and archival research and gradually put these through the ‘dead rat filter’, allowing the relationships between elements start to breathe and adapting the shapes and dynamics of pieces to reflect our experiences out here.
The best example of this would be ‘Birmingham Lads’ – a 19th Century company song we came upon at Cecil Sharp House, which we elected to sing a capella, having been informed by a recent Shape Note singing workshop held by Cath & Phil Tyler (melding influences is something else that informs the way we work). The practicalities of working the boat ourselves and the tight timetable we’re running to in getting from destination to destination means that there isn’t necessarily enough time to stop and get all our instruments out. So we’ve ended up singing more, and this song is so far the prime beneficiary of this. Standing for hours on end steering the boat we’ve become drawn into singing to the motor, it’s deep thrum set in pitch by the speed of our motion. So our rendition of Birmingham Lads has become drawn out too, set against this drone, the three of our voices making ragged chords together against that ragged engine.
Our stop in Marlow saw us in All Saints Church, home of a beautiful pipe organ and incredible reverb. Straight away we set to recreating that drone and rhythm on the bass notes of the organ, intending to sing to it… But something wasn’t right there, the unpredictability and rough edges were gone, and so we abandoned the organ and sang to the space – alone again. And it was better that way, tighter than before but so different for us to sing, informed and imbued with the sense and memory of that motor sound, our voices holding that sense of motion and journey. This is only the first week, but that’s a prime example of how this journey is starting to seep into the pieces we’re playing. I’m looking forward to how the rest of our experiences will help grow this work. In that sense, it’s a true adventure.
09 – CROFTON Crofton Beam Engines
10 – PEWSEY The Crown Inn FREE
11 – DEVIZES Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, Devizes Wharf FREE
13 – BRADFORD ON AVON Holy Trinity Church
14 – AVONCLIFF The Crossed Guns (Bath Folk Festival)
15 – BATH Museum of Bath at Work (Bath Folk Festival)
16 – BRISTOL Arnolfini, Bristol / £5/ www.arnolfini.org.uk