Reincarnation of From Scratch
Published in Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2018
A few years ago, I shared a corner studio with curator Andrew Clifford at Elam School of Fine Arts. We were studying at the time and Clifford was researching From Scratch, a group from Auckland famed for their adventurous mixing of experimental music and visual arts. They performed rhythmically complex compositions on distinctive handcrafted instruments and released multiple vinyl records on post-punk labels – a New Zealand example of the avant-garde and Fluxus movements of the late 20th century. From 1974 to 2001, From Scratch performed extensively in New Zealand and abroad with occasional changes in their line-up, but at the core of the group was Phil Dadson, an artist whose journey began at Elam in the mid-1960s and then in London, where he broke his course to explore sound and image.
At Morley College in 1968, Phil Dadson chanced on an experimental music class facilitated by the maverick composer Cornelius Cardew. The class was a mix of musicians and visual artists, trained and untrained, who met for weekly improvisations, actions and events. From these sessions, and with Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton, Cardew formed the Scratch Orchestra. Using a wide assortment of sound sources, this anarchic collective improvised music based on written instructions or graphic scores. In archival footage of performances, people can be seen splayed across the wooden floors of a hall – furiously swiping at hanging metal bars, rolling marbles to produce tiny rumbles, blowing bubbles, eating and even shaving a thickly foamed face. They played in town and village halls, universities, youth clubs and parks. It was a coming together of people with varying musical abilities, which broke down borders between musician and non-musician. In dismantling the usual hierarchies of skill involved in the production of music, Cardew, who would later co-found the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain, wanted the Scratch Orchestra to emulate a classless society.
Dadson returned to New Zealand in 1969. Inspired by their egalitarian approach to music-making, he initiated an antipodean wing of the Scratch Orchestra. Like the parent group in London, it believed in inclusion and free improvisation, which meant that any willing participant could join in. Sometimes numbering 50 people at once, the New Zealand Scratch Orchestra was a Fluxus-oriented free-for-all of improvised sound, action and edification.
Despite the sonic helter-skelter and the unrestrained happenings of the orchestra, Dadson retained an interest in rhythm. The potential of rhythm, especially natural rhythms, became a subject of unending research for him. In 1972, Dadson devised a manifesto of sorts titled VOM – “variable occasion music” – which was partly in reaction to the jumble of the large ensemble. VOM was a compilation of ideas for compositions based on mathematical formulas to create polyrhythmic interplay and sharing of parts. During the following few years, Dadson composed many tightly structured rhythmic works, which meant an eventual dissolution of the Scratch Orchestra and the formation of a quartet capable of executing VOM. Formed with select members from the larger ensemble in 1974, the group was called From Scratch.
From their first year, the group collected and explored various found and handcrafted objects for their sonic potential. They devised racks for the objects and created percussion stations for each performer. Lamp-shades were amalgamated with tin cans, and these hung casually alongside conventional instruments like wooden log drums and cymbals. Each item was carefully selected for its particular sound and design, but the overall effect of the early percussion stations was that of clanking disarray. Over time, invented instruments and their installation would become one of the defining features of From Scratch, especially the plumbers’ pipe instrument which is whacked with what looks like a jandal, producing a gloriously satisfying thump. The instruments were finely and micro-tonally tuned, and the percussion stations evolved from junkyard aesthetic to more swish designs.
After a 16-year break, From Scratch will be performing with new collaborators in March as part of the Auckland Arts Festival 2018, alongside an ambitious exhibition of their archive and artworks curated by Andrew Clifford at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Since the first From Scratch performance in 1974 at Victoria University, as part of Jack Body’s Sonic Circus festival, 546 moon cycles have passed. The figure is special because it is twice the number of moon cycles – twice 273 to be exact – since From Scratch’s 21st-anniversary concerts. This year’s comeback seems hardly a coincidence – it is as if cosmically aligned, destined by the lunar calendar.
Membership of From Scratch has also fluctuated with the passing moons. First a quartet, it comprised Phil Dadson, Geoff Chapple, Bruce Barber and Barry Barque, with contributions from many others along the way. In 1976, the group’s arrangement was Dadson, Chapple, Wayne Laird and Don McGlashan. Chapple dropped out in the mid-1980s and, after an intensive touring period, McGlashan and Laird also departed. Walter Muller and Neville Hall joined later, then James McCarthy. From 1997 onwards, From Scratch coalesced for five years as Dadson, Adrian Croucher, Shane Currey and Darryn Harkness. This line-up remains unchanged for this year’s comeback, but will be joined by new members Rebecca Celebuski, Chris O’Connor and Rachel Thomas to form a core group of seven performers.
The March performances will include an Auckland debut for Global Hockets, an iconic piece first presented at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington in 1998. The composition forms the basic fabric to which other older pieces, such as Drumwheel, will be folded in – as well as new commissions from four new collaborators. The performance will take the listener on a journey of the group’s unique sonorities and polyrhythmic style. It is based on the concept of hocketing, a system of collaborative music that requires sharing a musical part evenly between the performers. Hocketing is a medieval European form of music, like the motet or madrigal, but as a musical device it is not unique to the West – the idea can also be found in traditional music from other parts of the world. From the French hoquet, which translates as ‘hiccup’ or ‘hitch’, the musical term hocket refers to the spasmodic effect produced by dividing a melody between multiple performers. Notes sung in one part coincide with a rest in others, before performers quickly alternate to sustain a single line of melody or sound. In one section of Global Hockets, an extraordinarily rapid exchange occurs between the four performers: a swarm of ha! and he! sounds are swapped between them at complex rhythmic intervals. Gradually, a polyrhythmic texture is built up by adding the sound of bells, claps, chirps, dweeps, tishs and chrrrs.
Conceptually, hocketing is not so far removed from the egalitarian principles of the original Scratch Orchestras in London and Auckland, in that hocketing is about a non-hierarchical union. One line of sound is divided evenly so it requires working together in equal measure. The cooperative weaving together of sound is markedly different to soloistic music, which features a lead performer and subordinate set of accompanists. In some ways, hocketing is an effort to reconcile difference through music, to come together in the recognition of the sameness between one another.
The performance of Global Hockets in 1998 was also notable for the input of Supreme Particles, a multimedia group from Frankfurt, Germany. Sounds from the invented instruments triggered sympathetic visual effects, created by Supreme Particles with computer graphics and programming. A celestial video sequence of abstract patterns was projected behind the performers, in which shards of light traversed a purple space, rotating and shifting in direct response to the live performance. Lights brightened and dimmed, twitched and flickered according to the pulsing of the music. The collaboration between the two groups emphasised a hocket-like dialogue between sound and image, analogue and digital, acoustic and electronic. A similar dialogue could be expected from the new collaborators arranged for this year’s performances: the percussionist Chris O’Connor, multimedia collective Pitch Black, Orchestra of Spheres members Dan Beban and Nell Thomas, Vitamin S musician Drew McMillan and New Pacific Music Ensemble are all slated to appear.
I recently visited a From Scratch rehearsal, where Adrian Croucher, one of the performers in the 1998 ensemble, shared with me his old notes: to an outsider, they were undecipherable. From Scratch have developed a unique way of communicating to deal with new rhythmic templates for compositions, which include moments of free-falling improvisation among precisely and tightly structured rhythmic parts. Though following Dadson’s original composition, written in a shorthand familiar to the group, the performers will also draw on their personal notes and written instructions to put the piece back together. According to Croucher, the final important ingredient cannot be transcribed on to a page: physical memory. The instruments are installed in such a way that they require the performer to move systematically through space. The principle of hocketing is extended to include physical and spatial dimensions. The performers rotate between percussion stations, which are installed in diagrammatic ways. Thus the position of the instruments on stage functions as a macro-score and the repeated physical movements necessary to achieve a pattern of sound are also scored in the body of each performer. Croucher’s muscle memory helps him to recall long periods of circular motions, swift and attacking jolts, or restful tapping of objects here and there. The final score for any From Scratch piece is deep, embodied knowledge.
It’s not unusual for bands to disband, change, make a comeback and disappear again. A version of the Rolling Stones is still performing, and the Beach Boys too, and Pink Floyd banded and disbanded at least twice – in 2005 then in 2012–14 – after their first 30 years from 1965 to 1995. The Drifters are possibly the most extreme example, with 36 past members for an active band of four. This kind of shifting is rare in the art world, however, and makes From Scratch’s return especially notable. In fact, curator Andrew Clifford had initially researched From Scratch under the premise that the group had dissolved in 2001.
From Scratch posters and album covers. Images courtesy Phil Dadson and the Fine Arts Library, The University of Auckland.
“I was partly interested,” Clifford says, “to see if their compositions could somehow be recreated or re-performed with new artists, or reinterpreted in new ways that would liberate the works from the specificity of their original incarnation and allow them to continue.” He compiled a rich archive of recordings, photographs and other documentation. When the idea of reviving From Scratch then arose, Clifford was able to draw on this vast research and archives for the exhibition at Te Uru.
From Scratch: 546 Moons will present a survey of art, instruments, photographs and posters across some 30 years. One gallery will show From Scratch’s artworks from their former years of activity. Upstairs will be a sonic play-space of invented instruments. Visitors will be able to interact with sonic objects like the “tone thrones” – furniture converted into surprisingly sonorous instruments, like a chair with tuned prongs and pipes jostling outward for sonic interactivity. People will be able to explore the instruments’ unexpected timbral and textural complexities, the different sounds that come from wood, metal, stone, water, pipe, skin, celluloid and membrane. A third gallery will collect archival material, display ephemera and play historical audio-visual recordings. And a previously unpublished issue of Splash – an art magazine which ceased after four issues and which was due to cover From Scratch in their fifth in 1986 – will be revived in a one-off print-run by Small Bore Books.
In 2016, a From Scratch compilation called Five Rhythm Works was released on CD and LP by Japanese label EM Records. “It’s important,” Clifford notes, “because it has a lot to do with kick-starting the From Scratch revival after their long hiatus, although I’m sure the poking and prodding that I’d been doing in the preceding years also helped plant some seeds.”
To someone who studied music in the late 2000s, the avant-garde group had always seemed like a myth and source of regret – I’d missed the opportunity to experience the From Scratch adventures in experimental music and visual arts. Now however the unanticipated revival comes as a welcome surprise – and the exhibition and performances in March unmissable.