City Gallery City Gallery

From Scratch: 555 Moons: Documents

From Scratch Timeline, from the exhibition’s Timeline room.


1970–3 New Zealand Scratch Orchestra
In 1968 and 1969, Elam art-school student Philip Dadson is in London, attending a Morley College experimental-music class run on Friday evenings by composer Cornelius Cardew. It becomes the foundation group for Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, a Fluxus-influenced assembly of artists, musicians, and non-musicians (untrained innocents) who use conventional and homemade instruments and found objects to generate their revolutionary music. Anyone can participate.

Returning home in 1969, Dadson establishes Scratch Orchestra (NZ) in 1970 as an ‘antipodean twig’ of the London root group. As founder member Tony Green recalls, for one performance, ‘David Brown ate an apple, poured water from a jug, struck matches and extinguished them in a glass of water, played with a musical box and a mechanical bird in a cage, and blew bubbles.’

Contact is maintained with the London group and a concert From Auckland to Angelsey, North Wales, by Air (1970)—featuring Dadson’s composition for two Scratch Orchestras—is staged simultaneously in the University of Auckland’s Library Theatre and at Scratch Orchestra’s summer camp in Anglesey.


1974– Variable Occasion Music (VOM)
In 1974, concerned that New Zealand Scratch Orchestra’s large-scale improv performances had degenerated into therapeutic free-for-alls, Dadson forms a smaller, breakaway group to pursue a more disciplined approach. Its emphasis shifts from semi-planned improv to process-related compositions with rhythm as the focus. Dadson proposes his VOM series (1972–4) as a manifesto and way forward for the new ensemble, From Scratch.

VOM proposes ‘a flexible framework for rhythm, procedure, and instrumentation, the variables for which are suggested by influences from the context or occasion in which the music is to be played’. Players sit or stand in a circle, facing inwards. A rhythmic framework is carried by the group collectively, with players, at times, taking the initiative to solo. The VOM series is marked by technical upskilling—more polished performances.

In their first public appearance, at Victoria University of Wellington, for Sonic Circus in 1974, From Scratch perform VOM 5 (Loop Music), VOM 6, and VOM 7 (Waxing and Waning Influences). Performers, around this time, include artists Dadson, Bruce Barber, and Gray Nicol, journalist Geoff Chapple, and anthropologist Barry Baquie.


1978 Triad 1
Triad 1—the first of a series of Dadson Triad works—features Dadson at a piano, playing long, resonant chords, which gradually accelerate, while another player produces a drone, by pulling a series of rosined nylon lines to activate the strings of another piano. Triad 1 is first performed at the 1978 Mildura Sculpture Triennial, with Gray Nicol performing the drone. When it is performed at Auckland’s Maidment Theatre, Geoff Chapple does the drone. Triad 1 is primarily known as a black-and-white video, whose haunting effect is emphasised by the stark lighting and grainy footage, causing Dadson, dressed in white, and Gray Nicol’s white-gloved hands to float in the darkness, encompassed by a ritualistic white circle drawn on the ground.


1976–9 Rhythm Works
From Scratch focuses on polyrhythm and geometry. Its percussion stations, including banks of plastic plumbing pipes of different lengths, will become its signature. They double as sculptural installations. Hocketing—when a single rhythmic or melodic line is dispersed between two or more players—also emerges as a trademark From Scratch procedure. Odd- and even-numbered rhythmic patterns overlap and evolve. Drumwheel—From Scratch’s first full-scale polyrhythmic work—has a spiralling structure based on Fibonacci numbers. From Scratch releases its first LP, From Scratch Perform Rhythm Works, in 1979. It features two pieces: Out-In (1976-7) and Drumwheel (1977–8). The lineup settles into Dadson, Chapple, Don McGlashan, and Wayne Laird.


1980 Gung Ho 1,2,3D
Gung Ho 1,2,3D pays tribute to New Zealander Rewi Alley, a key figure in the establishment of industrial cooperatives in communist China and the subject of a 1980 book by Chapple. Alley’s project resonates with From Scratch’s egalitarianism.

The work’s title combines Alley’s slogan ‘Gung Ho’ (work together) with references to its physical and musical structure, combining three percussion stations (pitched high, medium, and low) with a drone role.

At the beginning of the performance, a geometry is chalked out on the floor to determine the placement of instruments. It is based on an equilateral triangle in a circle, the Gung Ho movement’s logo—a symbol of strength and unity. Between modules, musicians change stations and roles, before taking up the rhythm again.

Gung Ho 1,2,3D debuts at the South Pacific Festival for the Arts in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in 1980. The Three Pieces from Gung Ho 1,2,3D EP is released in 1983.


1982 Pacific 3,2,1,Zero (Part 1)
Pacific 3,2,1,Zero (Part 1) is composed for the Twelfth Paris Biennale in 1982, where it is performed by Dadson, Chapple, Laird, and McGlashan. It protests nuclear testing in Oceania, particularly Eastern Polynesia, in which France is a key culprit.

Within sustained drones, islands of tightly structured rhythm emerge. In a vocal section, the names of contaminated island test sites are shouted out against the roll of drummed biscuit tins as both a lament and a warning. The ground plan is the nuclear- disarmament symbol—the peace sign.

The work is filmed by Gregor Nicholas in 1993, performed by Dadson, Laird, and James McCarthy. The film wins first prize in its category at the 1994 Cannes/Midem Visual Music Awards and best-editing prize in the 1994 New Zealand Film and TV Awards.


1984 Drum/Sing
From Scratch collaborates with filmmaker Gregor Nicholas on the performance film Drum/Sing. The film opens with Dadson, McGlashan, and Laird’s meditative preparations, followed by the chalking of a triadic instrument ground plan (a zigzag on a matrix of circles). The tessellating form is reiterated through the shapes of the set, the movements of the performers, and the spinning of drone instruments. Drum/Sing’s distinctive cyclical parts—clapped, played, and voiced—are interlocked. The film wins first prize in the performance-as-art category at the New York Film Festival.


1986 Pacific 3,2,1,Zero (Part 2)
For Pacific 3,2,1,Zero (Part 2), From Scratch expands into an ensemble of six men and six women. All large percussion instruments are abandoned, and only portable instruments, including trombones and saxophones, are used. Melodies and rhythms are shared and exchanged. The piece reinvents the objectives of equality and collectivity while remaining dynamic. While Part 1 is a lament, Part 2 represents hope and solidarity amongst Pacific nations. It premieres, with Part 1, at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, in 1986, and is presented at the Biennale of Sydney later that year. The Pacific 3,2,1,Zero (Parts 1 and 2) CD is released in 2001.


1990 Songs for Heroes
Following the departure of Laird and McGlashan, Neville Hall, James McCarthy, and Walter Muller join the group. Songs for Unsung Heroes is performed at the inaugural Sound/Watch at Artspace, Auckland, in 1989. It pays tribute to unsung heroes of past and present who have raised our spiritual consciousness and is dedicated to Dadson’s teacher, Abdullah Dougan. Large bass-drum and slap-tube stations are introduced and images and texts are projected onto bass-drum skins, giant circular membranes, and a background screen as part of the performance. 

Songs for Heroes (1990) develops out of this piece. It features a range of new bowed and struck instruments (including the zitherum and ‘tone trees’ decked with suspended percussion) and overtone singing (a technique of vocal harmonics). A journey of sorts, the piece is organised in eight contrasting sections. It is performed, on occasion, with 6s and 7s and Fax to Paris, two new Dadson compositions. The Songs for Heroes CD is released in 1991.


1990 Footstep Hocket
Footstep Hocket (1990) is made for a thirty-six–monitor video wall. Filmed against brightly coloured backgrounds, feet—bare and wearing socks, brogues, boots, and flippers—step in polyrhythmic patterns. The work is presented at the first Interdigitate, at Auckland’s Aotea Centre, in 1991.


1992 Eye/Drum
Shane Currey joins Dadson and McCarthy. From Scratch set up new eye/drum stations within an eye-shaped ground plan. Zitherums, tuned-tongue bells, and tuned-tongue bamboo instruments are paired with a soprano saxophone, gongs, hub caps, and cymbals. Song stones, membrane drones, and gold pans with marbles (offering a continuous metallic ring) contribute further layers.


1995 273 Moons
Staged at Auckland’s Maidment Theatre, 273 Moons is an evening of performances celebrating twenty-one years of From Scratch. (There have been 273 moons since the group’s inception.) The pieces range from early VOM works to a new work composed for a saxophone ensemble and singer-percussionists. The evening also includes Carhorn Hocket, for eight cars, where doors are slammed, horns honked, and engines revved.


1998 Global Hockets
Adrian Croucher and Darryn Harkness join Dadson and Shane Currey in a new line up. In 1997, From Scratch present Homage to the God of Hockets at Auckland’s WOMAD Festival, and in Indonesia. The group then develops Global Hockets in collaboration with German multimedia group, Supreme Particles. The hocket principle is extended across sounds and images, acoustic and electronic, analogue and digital. Sound samples (animal, bird, and insect calls) join electronic blips and buzzes. Speakers mounted on robotised toy cars wheel around the space, controlled from the wings. Triggered by sounds, large projections of computer-generated and X-ray imagery dwarf the performers, while lines of tube televisions play abstract shapes.

Global Hockets premieres at Wellington’s New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 1998 and is an opening event at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, the same year. The Global Hockets CD is released in 1999 and the video in 2000.


2000 Pacific Plate
With Pacific Plate, Croucher, Currey, and Dadson return From Scratch to its improv roots. The piece is a tribute to the forces that have shaped the face of the planet over millennia. The flyer explains: ‘Plates have moved, continents reshaped, islands formed, but nothing in the last 5,000 years equals the force of dramatic physical disruption involved in the formation of Lake Taupo and its thermal chaos of hiss, plop, and spurt. From Scratch pays homage to these awesome forces, creative and destructive.’

The percussion stations and tone trees still take centre stage, but hand-held drums and piano horns also carry key aspects of rhythm and melody. Plastic water-cooler bottles become a drum kit. Performers step in and out of Foley trays, containing stones, gravel, and broken plates. A film is projected onto a Venetian blind. The piece ends with a clamorous finale of spinning dinner plates and whistling kettles.

After debuting at Taupo Festival in 2000, Pacific Plate is performed in Wellington. In 2001, it is presented in Auckland and in Salzburg, Austria. In 2002, it is recorded by Radio New Zealand. After this, the group goes into hiatus.


2018 546 Moons
Dadson reactivates From Scratch for the 2018 Te Uru show, 546 Moons. Past members Croucher, Currey, Dadson, and Harkness are joined by new members Rebecca Celebuski, Chris O’Connor, and Rachel Thomas. As well as presenting earlier works, there are new compositions. From Scratch commissions collaborators—Daniel Beban and Nell Thomas, Pitch Black, the New Pacific Music Ensemble, and Chris O’Connor—to develop works for the new line-up. Dancer Carol Brown joins the group for performances of Drumwheel. From Scratch and its archives are now an active, evolving entity, where past, present, and future cycle together. Long may this rhythmic loop continue!