September 22, 2012
“Phil Dadson: A Community of Instruments, Found and Made” by Christopher DeLaurenti
The musical instruments of Phil Dadson hook you with wonderfully weird, whimsical names. Yet the zitherum, waterbells, songstones, and gloop-springstringthing—just to name a few of Dadson’s amazing creations—quickly lure you into a lush sound world.
Resembling several zithers sawed in half and then glued end to end, the zitherum thrums like a high-voltage power line singing back to all the birds perched along the wire. The waterbells, heard on Dadson’s 1999 album Global Hockets (Scratch Records), peal and chime with a squooshy, gelatinous ring. The aptly named songstones chirp, gulp, and clack in surprising ways.
“I love the aspect of discovery,” states Dadson, a New Zealand-based artist who has been building and finding instruments since the early 1970s—sometimes in quite unlikely places. Recounting the origin of the songstones, Dadson recalls, “I was on a film project in the south island of New Zealand at the time. While exploring some of the dry riverbeds there, I discovered these beautiful, almost ovoid, little disks of schist.” Paired together, one stone is the striker while the other serves as a resonator. With practice, Dadson realized “I could make them speak, even sing a bit.” He continued picking these things up wherever he went. “I have a collection of about 200 pairs now.”
Dadson transforms traditional instruments too. The Nunndrum, which he suggests is “basically a modified bass drum,” sounds like a wind-swept forest of pinging metal sticks. “I replaced the traditional skin with a very thin wooden ply membrane,” explains Dadson, who then affixed slender, bent metal rods to the drum’s new skin. With a laugh he declares, “The whole thing looks like a rather strange insect!”
For his visit to Cornish College of the Arts this fall, Dadson plans to bring songstones and some smaller, portable musical inventions. A veteran improviser, Dadson designs his creations for live performance: “When you’re playing a new instrument you’re also discovering its potential. It’s amazing what can evolve. I’ve discovered my best sounds and techniques while playing live.”
When asked to describe his collection, Dadson gently counters any notion that he has built an orchestra: “I think of my instruments not as an orchestra but a community.” For Dadson, this principle has roots in the late 1960s as a member of the foundation group for the legendary Scratch Orchestra, initiated by Cornelius Cardew. Collectively, the orchestra expanded the possibilities of performance, embraced a broad definition of musical instruments, and questioned the very nature of music.
Dadson believes that discovering and inventing instruments charts a path to new ways of listening. “For the average listener, stones, for example, probably all sound similar at first,” says Dadson. But in the hands of a skilled performer, listeners can begin to hear music from a humble rock and, adds Dadson, “Distinguish how each stone has its own vibratory quality, its own voice.”
Phil Dadson masterclass
Friday, October 19 at 12 pm
PONCHO Concert Hall, Kerry Hall, Cornish College of the Arts
Free and open to the public
Christopher DeLaurenti is a sound artist, improvisor, phonographer, and music writer based in Virginia.
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