From Scratch, at the Audio Foundation, 6 May. With Phil Dadson, Darren Patterson-Harkness, Adrian Croucher and guests including Don McGlashan, James McCarthy, Geoff Chapple and others.
The promotion was pretty clear: no bookings, doors open 8 pm. So I was a little surprised to find only a few people there by twenty past. The gig was an album launch: Five Rhythm Works, which consists of exactly that: five pieces, all of which were composed before 1982, one of which is previously unreleased, their first ever recording, Passage.
The cover price included the gig and album. But Phil Dadson – the From Scratch originator – had also brought in a bunch of unsold original pressings. Tough choice! I settled on an original 1985 pressing of Pacific 3, 2, 1,Zero, which has Drum/Sing on the flip.
By that time, there were sounds emanating from the next room, and the audience was growing rapidly. Phil was onstage with Adrian Croucher and Darren Patterson-Harkness. They were immersed in a playground of hand made instruments, a prepared piano, some ambient microphones and a few pedals. At the back end of the room were more people behind various consoles and laptops: more than you’d expect from a small gig and an act that’s got an almost spiritual regard for the acoustic.
Over the next 2 and a half hours, the trio explored the playground enthusiastically and non-stop. Occasionally, former members and guests of the group wandered in, bringing their own instrumental contributions, usually in cardboard boxes, and home-made or found. They’d join in the noodling for maybe 20 minutes or so, wander off, and be replaced by the next one. At one point there were half a half a dozen people on stage.
I don’t know the names of all of them. A drummer – was it Wayne Laird? – joined in and put some kick into the big drum, nudging the atonal, polyrhythmic noise towards something you could tap your toe to. A young guy picked up a double bass and scraped harmonics out of it I never heard before. James McCarthy plonked a cardboard box on stage, removed a wide range of circular saw blades and steel bowls on which he duly rattled out paradiddles. Don McGlashan turned up, played with some chimes and a delay pedal, and mixed in some tenor horn business. There were conch shells.
For the first hour it – and they – came and went. The sound moved from noodling naval gazers to broad slabs of jazzy swing. Some of it bored me. But even in those moments I found it hard to look away. And then I closed my eyes for about half an hour.
There was a guy rolling marbles around steel bowls, and another guy who played a range of magnificent recorders. Simultaneously.
There was also a star turn by Geoff Chapple. He walked on stage with a large sack marked “poultry feed” and a hiker’s backpack. He upended the contents of the sack into the tray, and loudly declaimed geological expressions while his accomplice or – rather -his accompanist responded to the declamations by scrunching her feet into the tray, to various acoustic effects. It was pretty chaotic, and it kind of stepped things up a bit.
It turns out that Phil’s an ace at the piano, too. If you gave Thelonius Monk a piano prepared by Stockhausen, you’d be moving in the right direction. While we’re making comparisons, the highly processed guitar sounded sounded like Adrian Belew’s, and Darren’s modal, picked-out riffs and off-beat tempos would have been quite at home on any King Crimson album.
Then, just as things were calming down – and you’re thinking this can’t go on – a whole range of electronic noises came through the PA, while the musos kept on noodling. Weird stuff. A scream, clear and present. Sepultura-style death metal voices. More abstract things. People started looking around. Where the hell was this coming from? Suddenly, the folks behind the consoles at the back of the room looked busier than they did before, even the implacable girl in headphones.
And as things reached ultimate weirdness, a guy took the stage with what looked like a soprano sax, going hard on volume, technique and colour: an atonal eruption while the others consolidated their rhythms and melodies (don’t ask me to hum it). Some PVC appeared, but heavily truncated from the crowd-pleasers of old: just a single bit. And it was adapted to be not only struck, but also tuned, and also blown.
Phil switched to a couple of antique car horns, alternating a micro-tuned, two note honking rhythm with big, blocky piano chords. It reached a fever pitch, stayed there for blissful ages, and gently, naturally came to a standstill, two and a half hours after it began.
Music can be anything you damn well like. There’s no reason to rehearse or plan anything. It’s ok to get in the room and just start. There needs to be more of this.
On one hand, it can feel rather intellectual. But that’s bullshit. Sure, it goes against the grain of a popular culture hell bent on convention: endlessly regurgitating the same forms. Name a song on commercial or student radio which isn’t written in 2/4 or 4/4. Name a song which doesn’t have a chorus. Name a sonata that breaks the form. Sure, we all know the exceptions. The trouble with conventions is that even if you break them, you’re still observing them.
What Phil Dadson and his From Scratch ensemble did last night was not break convention, but rather, ignore it. The only preparation was a bit of a phone round to see who could turn up. It was more about musicians curated, than music rehearsed. This ignoring of convention is the highest respect possible for the artists, the audience and the form itself. Because it starts with the premise that music can be any thing. Anything you like.