City Gallery City Gallery Wellington


From Scratch: 555 Moons

On now until Sun 10 March

General entry


From Scratch is New Zealand’s best-known art/music ensemble. Formed in 1974, by Philip Dadson, it draws on aspects of experimental, minimal, and non-Western musics, and on Fluxus, minimal art, and post-object art. From Scratch is famed for its novel invented instruments, its utopian egalitarian politics, and its engagement with the sounds and rhythms of the Pacific. In the 1980s and 1990s, From Scratch toured internationally, taking its music to the world. But, after 2002, it went into hiatus, with Dadson focusing on solo projects.

When Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery organised their From Scratch survey show, 546 Moons, early in 2018, it spurred the group to re-form, not only to restage existing works but to develop new ones. These new works included collaborations with Chris O’Connor, Nell Thomas and Daniel Beban from Orchestra of Spheres, Pitch Black, and the New Pacific Music Ensemble. The show was named after the number of lunar cycles between the group’s formation and the show’s opening.

This show, 555 Moons, expands on Te Uru’s. It includes films of the group’s performances, instruments and sonic sculptures, documents, drawings, and photos. There’s also a programme of live performances.

Andrew Clifford, Director, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, with Robert Leonard, Chief Curator, City Gallery Wellington

The From Scratch story begins in the late 1960s, when Philip Dadson participated in the foundation group for Cornelius Cardew’s experimental Scratch Orchestra in London. Cardew’s ‘people's liberation’ music brought together trained and untrained musicians and artists to improvise on traditional and non-traditional instruments. Influenced by fluxus, it was wildly diverse and democratic—anyone could join in. Returning to Auckland, Dadson formed the New Zealand Scratch Orchestra in 1970, which ran until 1972. In 1974, concerned that its large-scale improv performances had ‘degenerated into therapeutic free-for-alls’, Dadson formed a smaller, breakaway group, to pursue a more structured, disciplined approach, with the emphasis shifting from improv to composition, with a specific focus on rhythm. The new group, From Scratch, debuted at that year's Sonic Circus in Wellington.

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, From Scratch developed works characterised by complex rhythms and harmonically rich drones, performed using its own invented percussion instruments. By 1978, the group had begun to use the racks of horizontally mounted, end-struck, plastic plumbing pipes—partly inspired by Solomon Islands bamboo-tube instruments—that would become its trademark. At the end of the 1970s, From Scratch began to perform internationally, and its fame would grow through the 1980s and 1990s.

From Scratch had a clear ethos—a back-to-basics collectivism veined with a left-wing utopianism that entwined the global and the local. Performers worked together to present complex compositions that eschewed individualism—the solo. Instrument stations were organised in non-hierarchal geometric logo-like arrangements with the audience invariably encircling the performers. Concerts became demonstrations of what could be achieved by working together, everyone playing their part. Politics was never far from the surface. Gung Ho 1,2,3D (1980) paid homage to Rewi Alley, a New Zealander who pioneered industrial cooperatives in communist China, while Pacific 3,2,1,Zero: Part 1 (1982) protested French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

While they released records, From Scratch were best experienced live, where the sound and visual elements (the instruments and the movements of performers) created a symbiotic experience. This is captured in two short films by Gregor Nicholas: Drum/Sing (1984) and Pacific 3,2,1,Zero: Part 1 (1993). These films catch the group in its heyday, its professional and creative peak.

But From Scratch music continued to evolve. If the 1980s was classic From Scratch, the 1990s brought renewal and diversification, incorporating a host of new players and an expanded range of sounds. Eye/Drum and flexi-tube stations replaced the familiar PVC-pipe racks. New instruments were developed, including long-stringed polystyrene zitherums, piano horns, bell poles, tone trees, and tuned-tongue bells. The group also engaged novel performance elements. Carhorn Hocket (1995) was performed using cars, with performers honking horns and slamming doors. Global Hockets (1998)—a collaboration with German new-media group Supreme Particles—featured triggered sound samples and data projections. The comparatively low-tech Pacific Plate (2000) humourously incorporated foley trays, whistling kettles, spinning plates, a water-cooler drum kit, and a 16mm film projected onto a Venetian blind, introducing a looser improv feel reminiscent of their Scratch Orchestra origins.

In 2002, From Scratch went into hiatus and Dadson increased his focus on solo projects. When From Scratch archivist and Te Uru Director Andrew Clifford presented a From Scratch survey exhibition earlier this year, it spurred the group to re-form, not only to restage existing works but to develop new ones, including collaborations with dancer Carol Brown, Orchestra of Spheres, Pitch Black, and the New Pacific Music Ensemble. The exhibition was originally named 546 Moons, referring to the number of lunar cycles between the group’s formation and the show’s opening.

546 Moons was developed by Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in partnership with the Auckland Arts Festival with support from Creative New Zealand, the Chartwell Trust, the University of Auckland’s Fine Arts Library, and Trish and John Gribben through the Te Uru Pou Tangata Foundation.