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Phil Dadson ONZM

7th June 2005,

Phil Dadson, Intermedia Artist extraordinaire, has been made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for his Services to Art in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Stephen Gibbs talked to him about his extraordinary contributions to extending New Zealander’s perceptions of Art and Music over the last 30 years.

Pull-out quotes....

“I well remember being in a mouth-organ band in Primary School. That early experience of ensemble playing and foot tapping secretly inside your shoe was quite formative.”


“In a sense, our music dealt with concepts of expression that are inherently human. I have always been fascinated by parallels between musical phenomenon and the social realm.”

Phil, from scratch

Watching him perform is like watching a master martial artist - all grace, precision, strength and concentration.

Every movement is controlled and fluid. The rhythm which permeates each moment is engaging - energetic and vital. The attention to detail: the set, instruments, lighting - reflects the meticulous vision of a true craftsman. And the deceptive ease with which he moves through a performance constructed as audible architecture is the mark of a true artist.

Renowned for his creative collaborations in the percussion ensemble From Scratch, Phil Dadson has almost single-handedly carved out a niche for himself in the New Zealand Arts scene. Exhibition and performance projects in recent years have included Vocal Acrobats - an aural alchemy in paraphonic (overtone or harmonic) vocal music, Conundrum

Quartet - an audio-video sculptural installation, Polar Projects - a series of video/sound, photo and graphic works based on his experiences as an artist in Antarctica, Maya - a ‘Counter-Millennial’ fanfare with the Auckland Philharmonia, and Conference of the Drums - a large, seven-pole interactive sound sculpture set on a private farm. His work is a hybridisation - a cross-genre combination of areas normally defined by the terms ‘music’, ‘dance’, ‘film’ and’ video’, ‘sculpture’ and ‘graphics’. Phil’s creative output occupies an entirely different dimension - a realm of Art he calls ‘Intermedia’.

“Intermedia describes a synergistic, transmedia mode of working, a way to combine media in new ways, particularly time-based media such as sound arts and moving images. Intermedia exploits notions of counterpoint, complementarity and the dialectic and is not to be confused with multi-media or mixed-media.”

Phil Dadson has been working as an intermedia artist for well over 30 years. In 2003 he was awarded an Arts Laureate from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. In making the award the Foundation noted that Phil had seldom been given the credit his artistry deserved as his work had often fallen between the boundaries of single artistic disciplines. Even now, outside of physical performance events, it is difficult to fully appreciate his work. As a performer Phil has most recently been evolving his solo voice. As a composer he is on the Board of The Centre for NZ Music Trust (SOUNZ). As an intermedia artist, galleries and museums in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin have recently exhibited a number of his works involving installation of video, audio and sculptural elements.

“Sound content in visual art shows is a relatively recent phenomenon and exhibiting such work is not without its problems,” Phil points out. “Sound travels, and when a number of works involving sound are exhibited alongside one another there can be difficulties in assigning each its appropriate acoustic space. How to arrange or combine exhibits so that they complement each other can be problematic.” Art Museums are traditionally object-based and are rarely acoustically designed. Perhaps we need some dedicated intermedia galleries where such works can be adequately displayed and appreciated?

Phil was born and schooled in Napier, Hawke’s Bay. He recalls his childhood fondly. "I well remember being in a

mouth-organ band in Primary School. That early experience of ensemble playing and foot tapping secretly inside your shoe was quite formative. Performance was always a part of my life. I used to put on puppet shows for all the neighbourhood kids, and my father was very involved in the Napier Frivolity Minstrels. He was quite a raconteur and joke-teller. As I grew older I played with the Hawke’s Bay Swing Club and began to really enjoy the vitality of jazz and improvisation.”

Art played a large part too, and following high school, a stint at a timber yard and the Customs Department in Napier, Phil started on a fine Arts degree at Elam in Auckland. “I broke off half way through. My father died in a car crash just as I was really getting to know him, and I couldn’t settle back into it. I went overseas and ended up in London.”

In the mid-1960’s London was a place where all sorts of new directions in Art and Music were being explored. Phil enrolled in an experimental music course being run by Cornelius Cardew. The course evolved by 1969 into the now famous London Scratch Orchestra - defined then as an assembly of enthusiasts who gathered for purposes of music making, edification and pleasure. “To quote a Confucian definition of music favoured by Cardew then, we were exploring ‘the heart’s response to the external world. Scratch Orchestra was an experimental performance-orientated music group dedicated to expanding the definition of music to include whatever means were appropriate".

Barriers between visual and sonic elements in Art were dissolved, and here Phil was able to bring together his equal interests in art, music and improvisation.

When Phil returned to New Zealand he decided to develop asimilar idea here and instigated a NZ Scratch Orchestra in Auckland in the early 1970s, where for some events, up to fifty or more people would gather for large, open-ended improvisations. For more focused and process-orientated compositions however, Phil realised that he would need to work with a smaller, more tightly knit group. It was from these beginnings that the first From Scratch group formed. Since then the innovative performing group has been through several incarnations involving many musicians who have had a major influence on other areas of New Zealand music, film and culture: for example, Don McGlashan of The Front Lawn and the Muttonbirds (and also a NZ Arts Foundation Laureate), acclaimed author and journalist Geoff Chapple, Wayne Laird of Atoll Records fame and composers Peter Scholes and Neville Hall.

For many Kiwis, From Scratch is most memorable for their racks of PVC pipe being played with rubber 'jandals'.

The sonic sources were actually far broader and included metal bells, pipes and gongs, cymbals, rototom drums, chime rattle-jackets, spun drones,tuned-tongue bamboos and vocalisations. “I’ve always been attracted by low-tech sound sources,” Phil explains. “In the process of devising and editing sounds for the video installations, I invariably develop sound content with whatever’s available and appropriate, such as the invented instruments. I enjoy exploring the potential for giving different voicings to a sound, but in essence I like to retain a physical connection to the original sound source.

“The instruments of From Scratch have a unique sculptural character with each ‘station’ involving a complementary

range of sonic materials and timbres - metal, wood, skin, PVC, stone etc... “Particular instruments may have parallels with instruments of other cultures, but they were given an industrial twist - PVC instead of bamboo, and so on. Parallels could also be drawn between the rhythmic language we were evolving with the music of some traditional cultures, although this was not a conscious thing at the time. The layering of rhythmic cells into polyphonic and polyrhythmic textures for example, occurs in many Asian, African and Pacific cultures producing a rhythmic style known as hocketing in the West.

“In a sense, our music dealt with concepts of expression that are inherently human. I have always been fascinated by parallels between musical phenomenon and the social realm.”

There is certainly an egalitarian character to From Scratch where the equality and the inter-dependence between players observed in a performance is awe inspiring. It represents the epitome of musical experience: the performance whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The music tends towards minimalism - a meditative experience of complex layering in which small changes are constantly making themselves heard, rising and weaving through the aural texture like currents in a stream.

“I was introduced to minimalism through New York writer and art critic Lucy Lippard. Listening to works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass was amazing - quite daunting! I wrote to Steve Reich and sent him some of our work and his response was very generous. He sent me his comments and a whole pile of records! To be honest it was a little intimidating. I thought ‘If I listen to this I’m not going to be able to do anything!’ I had to just put them aside for a couple of years before I could take it in.”

Despite the driving rhythms and high energy output of From Scratch, there is also something austere and focused about the performances. It comes as no surprise then that Phil has for years had a strong interest in comparative religions, in particular Sufi philosophy. A fascinating example of the layered complexity of Phil’s artistry came in 2003 with Vocal Acrobats, his AK(03) Auckland Festival collaboration with Koichi Makigami from Japan and Mark van Tongeren from the Netherlands. The three artists from three corners of the world have each developed their skills in paraphonics - the ability to produce vocal overtones. Each singer can produce multiple tones simultaneously - a fundamental bass tone with one or more fluting harmonic tones above.

"I first learned about the technique from Richard von Sturmer, who learned it from a musician who had worked with film and theatre director Peter Brooks on the film about Gurdjieff called In Search of the Miraculous. I experimented and found a way to produce these vocal overtones specifically for Songs for Unsung Heroes, a piece I devised for From Scratch. Outside of that particular context however, there seemed to be a sense of taboo for me about performing it publicly. Something almost sacred, what Jack Body calls ‘the secret sound’.

“Later, after the film Genghis Blues brought the Tuvan style of throat singing to the general public, I felt a lot more comfortable with performing and developing a personal style. The secular attitude that the Tuvans brought to their music seemed to legitimise an entertainment-linked and intercultural approach.”

A poem from Koichi Makigami puts it beautifully:

to sing a song that is from no country

and at times to lead the voice to the very brink of danger

to play a music that is not too easily reassuring....

to bring forth a song that is full of the joy of living

as an existence which brings surprise....

and from the small vocal-box let a vast paradise be born.

While Phil really enjoys improvisational elements in performance he doesn’t shy away from formal scoring, the ‘marks on paper’ side of music.

“The From Scratch compositions tend to be tightly structured and based around numbers and cyclic rhythmic / melodic patterns. All details were carefully defined, some in a shorthand easily understood by the group.”

Applying a more conventional mode of notation, Phil also wrote Maya - a millennium fanfare for the Auckland Philharmonia. “Actually, it was a ‘Counter-Millennial’ fanfare,” Phil admits with a grin, “as a reaction against this blinkered Western view of world history. There are so many different calendars still in operation around the world - it seemed to me that the Gregorian calendar is a fairly arbitrary imposition on other cultures!”

Rather than being anarchistic however, Phil’s musical work displays a wonderful playfulness. Self designed and created instruments such as the Long String Zitherum, NunDrum and GloopDrum have a Dr Seuss quality to them. Equally, in his video imagery, Phil likes to play with perception often using a WUD (World Upside Down) approach. In his Polar Projects series particularly, this lends a surreal, ambiguous, and almost spiritual quality to the images. The viewer is confronted with images which they can experience and feel but cannot immediately understand. In the same way, his use of sound elements challenge our preconceptions of music and musical instruments. His works and installations are full of visual and aural puns, word games and associations that provoke audiences to see and hear things anew - an approach which some would say, is a definition of Art.

As one reviewer has put it: ‘It has been said that Phil Dadson is as much an explorer as an artist. Or perhaps he reminds us that an artist is - in part - an adventurer eagerly searching out new space and using whatever available tools to translate each discovery.....By removing the clutter of everyday life, Dadson reminds us of the energy that connects us all.’

More information about Phil and his projects can be found on his own website

Other information, recordings and videos can be found through SOUNZ: The Centre for New Zealand Music -


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