Nick Bollinger reviews a rhythmic reissue from percussive pioneers From Scratch.
In accounts of New Zealand music, the year 1979 tends to be remembered for its explosion of punk rock bands, as chronicled in the classic Kiwi punk album AK79. But that was by no means the only sound resonating that year. And you didn’t have to venture far from the venues where the punk bands were venting their spleens, to find something just as visceral, yet with an entirely different effect on the nervous system.
From Scratch was formed in the early 70s by Auckland artist Phil Dadson, and were at least as radical as punk rock ever was – both sonically and philosophically.
Dadson had begun to develop the idea while London in the 1960s, where he’d engaged in experimental music classes with the avant-garde and highly political English composer Cornelius Cardew. Cardew founded an ensemble he called the Scratch Orchestra, which set out to create a music in line with his egalitarian beliefs, using graphic scores rather than traditional notation, handmade instruments, and an element of improvisation. As the name From Scratch suggests, Dadson’s New Zealand-based group could be seen (and heard!) as an outgrowth of Cardew’s. But Dadson also had his own ideas, and a strong awareness of his South Pacific environment. And the dominant instruments are pitched pipes made out of lengths of PVC, which produce that wonderful sprung sound when struck with the common jandal. Dadson had first encountered a version of this instrument a few years earlier, in a group from the Solomon Islands who had visited New Zealand for the South Pacific Festival of the Arts. Developing his variation, Dadson created the basis of something that could be both musical and sculptural, and – for the musicians involved – almost balletic.
The title ‘Gung Ho!, 1,2,3D’ hints at the co-operative nature of the enterprise - the phrase ‘Gung Ho!’ being Chinese for ‘work together’, and a popular slogan of the Chinese Industrial Co-Operative movement. Beautifully recorded, it was initially excerpted on a 1983 EP, then a few years later as part of a full-length album on Flying Nun. But it has long been out of print, so it is a welcome thing that the ‘border-crossing’ Japanese label EM Records has included it in a beautiful reissue of some of From Scratch’s most significant recordings. Titled Five Rhythm Works, the album is effectively just that: five pieces by Dadson’s group, most of which have been long out of print and, in one case, never before released on disc.
Listening again to the music From Scratch were making in the 70s, I make connections now with music I’ve heard since. The repetition and superimposing of patterns reminds me of various kinds of electronica. And yet the acoustic, physical nature of the music seems to reach back to traditions before the advent of electronics, or even recording. Either way, these hypnotic pieces stand on their own, far less time-bound than the punk of the same period. And with assiduous remastering and excellent detailed liner notes by Andrew Clifford – in both English and Japanese! – From Scratch’s Five Rhythm Works stands as a model reissue, and an important one.
Songs played: 5,6,7 & 6,7,8 from Gung Ho 1,2,3D; Passage; Drumwheel Part 2.
Five Rhythm Works is available on EM Records, Japan.