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Phil Dadson

I was working on a film documenting the Maori Land March,  a protest demanding the return of traditional lands. The march involved a month-long trek down the North Island, from Te Hapua in the Far North to Parliament in Wellington where the protest was delivered. Every night the group was invited onto a different marae with the full sequence of traditional protocol:  the Karanga and welcome, speeches, songs, feasting, and communal discussion and sleeping in the carved house of the ancestors – everyone together on mattresses on the floor. I awoke one morning, around  4.30 am to the sound of an old man in the darkness, reciting a karakia, a sacred Ringatu chant,  accompanied by an orchestra of around one hundred people snoring – a vocal solo over a  dense tide of harmonic breathing – as if ancestor spirits were communing on the breath of the living.


Like many boys of my generation, I made crystal sets. 

I grew up in the era of Radio,  the days when families tuned in to listen to weekly episodes of the funnies, like the Goonshow. But  I knew there must be more to Radio than this and so I constructed a crystal set, and discovered the private secret world of headphones under the bed clothes late at night.  The midnight hours of Randy Stone and the Night Beat! 

Later I developed a fascination for short-wave listening and spent bedtime hours till I fell asleep, dialling through the frequencies of an old valve radio, eavesdropping on the airwaves of the world, in search of alien voices and foreign music. 

There was one station I always received loud and clear, The Voice of the Andes. . Nothing seemed more remote and rarified to me than the Andes Mountains, and the idea of these mountains having a voice caught my imagination.  Voice of the Andes was an American gospel station,  and the idea of God transmitting from the Andes made short wave radio an awesome medium.


I love the sound of bagpipes outdoors. There was a park I once lived by, where I occasionally looked onto a public ritual stranger than most. You usually hear bagpipes in unison, all playing the same predictable tunes and drones, but here each piper was on his own,  slowly turning in circles or wandering slowly to and fro,  playing long tones and fragments of melodies, and from a distance the whole lot merged into one randomly melodious pentatonic harmony. As I watched, things got more interesting.  One player stopped and began obsessively adjusting the drone-pipes of another while the other continued playing.  Gradually all the single pipers converged in pairs, one playing and the other fiddling with the drone pipes. What was probably a simple tuning exercise looked and sounded more like an esoteric bonding rite.


Arriving in Port Moresby at around 3am as part of a delegation of performers attending the South Pacific Arts Festival, we were greeted by a tribal welcome of Kundu drumming on the tarmac. 

Kundus have this powerful sound that goes right for your solar plexus. 15 or so drummers were beating a regular unison pulse that resonated in the humid night air, eerily penetrating the thrum of the aeroplane engines. 

Somewhat awestruck by the unexpected welcome, our group was ushered off the plane into the Customs hall where large low-slung rotary fan blades whipped the warm air, making sounds like the idling props of helicopters. 

In this remote environment of speed and travel, I was struck by the fact of both instruments moving the air in powerfully rhythmic ways, the Kundus by hands and the fans electrically –  sound-signs of 2 cultures talking past each other.


Napier where I was born, is an epicentre for earthquakes. 

In 1931 the town was destroyed by a wave of quakes that lasted for days. In my family,  the threat of an earthquake was a natural feature of our lives. I  remember in primary school the regular practise routines of getting under desks and running to shelter in doorways.  My mother was so sensitive to an earthquake she could hear it coming long before you felt the ground quiver.  If I was around at the time she would say,  “Shhhh! Listen! Can you hear it?  There’s an earthquake coming”. Everything in nature would go mysteriously still and quiet,  and then you would feel it.  Everything would shake and roll, and occasionally all hell would break loose. I often imagined I could hear an earthquake coming,  but now I think it was the absence of external sound and the internal sound of my own heart pounding.


Equipped with a set of Sennheiser headphones, a shotgun microphone, and a Nagra reel to reel, I’m recording sound for Test Pictures, an alternative feature about a couple who drop out and go rural. We’re on location at Little Huia and Whatipu, dramatic bush and beach environments on Auckland’s West Coast. At the peak heat of the summer day, the cicada sound is a thick fog of high frequency. Taking a solitary excursion into the bush – eyes closed – I enter an intense sound world, my microphone slowly scanning a microscopic zone of percussive layers and intricately phased pulsings. A pair of cicada, isolated out from the background texture, click and chirp a love duet in slowly phasing rhythm and pitch – like a looped eclipse of the moon.


A series of bays run south from Mimiha, isolated and removed from the crowds – Ngahau and Mimiwhangata – once strongholds of Northern tribes with fortified promontories jutting into the sea.  It’s quiet there aside from the regular rhythms of the sea, the peeps and squawks of nesting seabirds and the continuous high pitched twitter of skylarks hovering over the dunes at the back of the beach.  There’s a pa on Ngahau with deep trenches that lead to a remote and idyllic bay, where the stones are veined with colour and crystalline quartz.  These stones have felt the breach of raiding canoes on the beach, and warble underfoot with the same floating harmonics as the skylarks of Mimiwhangata. Unsuspected sentinels of intruders on the silence.


A friend of mine Ron Allen is the Lighthouse keeper at Cape Brett.  One moody afternoon I take a long walk along the peninsula.  Returning near dusk, I hear a loud chorus of frogs in a swamp a little way off the track. I approach quietly, attending to their croaky conversation. But as I draw close, all goes silent.  I stand still and wait. One old croaker sounds the all-clear, and slowly the whole pond returns to life with frog talk.  I move, and again all goes silent.  So I take the initiative and do the first croak myself, and gradually, one after another, all the frogs reply until the pond is back in full chorus.  For a timeless spell I join their ritual of call and response.  It was night when I hopped back along a dark and silent track.


In my mind’s ear I like to mix the sounds of stones.  On the southern beach of Mahurangi, the sea carves the soft sandy rock into shelves, whose patterned intricacy is revealed on the low tide.  This is a good beach for natural taonga, stones modelled by the attrition of wind and water, many with holes that produce a whispy edgetone when you blow gently across them.  The local Maori say on a windy night you can hear the voices of the ancestors – those high whistle tones of the stones – sighing and crying for the land.  When tapped, the same stones have a muted sound more like a whisper than a song. 

I find a stone here, naturally hollowed like a small cup, whose resonance mirrors the hollow acoustic of the sea washing up against the soft Papa cliffs.


On a dirt path, high on the cliffs of Punakaiki, two crickets sing.  Against an accompaniment of the sea surging at the base of the cliffs they weave a hocket, one each side of the track.  I lie in the middle spellbound, absorbed in their miniature world.

Phil Dadson is a sound and intermedia artist with an interdisciplinary practice including solo performances and exhibitions, building experimental instruments and sonic objects, video/sound installation; music composition, graphic scores and improvisations on invented instruments. He is the founder of the sound-performance group, From Scratch, (1974 – 2020), known widely for it’s rhythmic and distinctive performances on original instruments. In 2001 he was made an Arts Foundation Laureate and in 2005 an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Born in Napier, Aotearoa 1946, he later studied at Elam School of Fine Arts, and played piano in University Jazz Workshop. Before completing the course he travelled to London and from 1968 -9 was a member of the foundation group for a scratch orchestra, London with Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and others. Returning to Aotearoa mid-1969 he continued study at Elam, graduating Dip FA Hons in sculpture and performance, 1971. In 1970 he founded scratch orchestra (NZ) and later in 1974, From Scratch. Until 1976 he worked as a moving image maker (SeeHear films), co-founded Alternative Cinema (Auckland) and was a lecturer in

Intermedia at Elam from 1977 – 2001. A co-author of the ‘From Scratch Rhythm Workbook’ he has also collaborated on two international award-winning performance films of From Scratch with director Gregor Nicholas, has released numerous LPs and CDs of FS over its some four-decade history, and is a co-author with Bart Hopkin of ‘Plosive Aerophones’ a book on the design and construction of slaptube instruments.

From Scratch (1974 – 2020) developed an international reputation for an innovative sound/performance style that included sculptural, ritual and theatrical elements. Large custom-built instruments of extruded plastics, industrial and natural materials were used to create a variety of strictly non-electronic sounds and energetic rhythms. In 1998, ‘Global Hockets’, a collaborative project with Frankfurt-based group Supreme Particles was toured in Europe. Following the group work Pacific Plate in 2000, Dadson continued with a more solo-based practice, under the name sonicsfromscratch.

In 2017, at the invitation of Auckland Arts Festival the group reconvened for a major exhibition and performance series in 2018/19 and in 2020 made a regional, national tour of NZ with Arts on Tour.