Kiwi composer John Psathas shot to fame when his music was heard (and acclaimed) by billions at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens. Over nearly 20 years since then, his music has continued to open up exciting and immersive experiences for audiences and build collaborations locally and all around the globe. Clare Martin spoke with him.
Internationally acclaimed NZ/Greek contemporary classical composer John Psathas is a man on a mission.
Over the last two years alone his music was performed in 35 different countries, and with no less than eight world premiere performances of his works this year alone, he is currently one of the world’s most performed contemporary composers. With his career really taking off he also sees this as an important time to spread the word about the extraordinary world of classical music.
Through his composing and interest in mentoring, John is burning to create opportunities for young artists, composers, audiences and musicians to explore. “Unlike Lorde, or Flight Of The Conchords, or Peter Jackson, no one really knows what’s going on with classical music,” he says.
A hallmark of John’s output has been huge events, most notably obviously the 2004 Olympics. More recently the epic ‘No Man’s Land’ involved a global orchestra of 150 musicians to commemorate the First World War, and Wellington’s CubaDupa street festival involving 1,700 artists which miraculously went ahead in March 2021. He had other big projects that were decimated by Covid cancellations which have meant thousands of hours of preparation being lost for artists like himself.
However, to describe John’s composition as classical monumentally misses the mark. His music has the harmony and improvisational feel of jazz, the compelling rhythmic drive of rock and hip hop, the timbres and beauty of classical and the repetition of minimalism. Some have said his music is post-genre, but perhaps a new term of ‘omni-genre’ should be born here to describe his music.
Now in his mid-50s, Ioannis (John) Psathas was born in Wellington to Greek parents. Growing up in Taumarunui, where the Psathas family were in the restaurant business, as a teenager John played in a Greek band with mates at taverna evenings and weddings. Later he recalls playing up to nine gigs a week in a jazz trio. Growing up “on the outside” of Kiwi culture allowed him a freedom to use all sorts of flavours and genres without the constraint of any strict lineage. He left college early to study piano and composition at Victoria University of Wellington and there discovered electro-acoustic composition.
Back in the 1980s, he was writing music on a sequencing software – the Roland’s box-like MC-500 sequencer, hugely innovative and popular at the time. A self-confessed Luddite, John suggests that it’s not about having extensive production skills, it’s about the way technology interacts with acoustic instruments and the “collective purpose that comes from it”.
This work would go on to become One Study One Summary (2005) for marimba, digital audio and junk percussion. Many other pieces followed with these kinds of explorations, such as the starry percussion piece Between Zero And One (2013) and Buyan (2017), based on a Slavic myth for timpani and digital audio.
Compositional success had already arrived well before that with Matre’s Dance in 1991, a maximum-energy duet for percussion and piano championed by percussionist Evelyn Glennie. That subsequently led on to multiple works for this extraordinary performer and a lifetime fascination for percussion.
“I like fast music and have for a long time, and it’s one of the reasons I like hip hop and jazz and metal and rock – because it’s often fast. What I personally find super exciting about music is when a group of people are playing together and there is a reaction between the players and the parts. You get that in the fast movement of a Beethoven symphony as well. Percussion is the ideal instrument for that because its articulation is so clear and the rhythm is so precise.”
Hip hop and house music became a huge part of John’s musical life in the ‘90s and early 2000s, informing the drive and rhythm of works such as his fast and furious piano and digital audio piece Demonic Thesis of 2010.
Not to be restricted by genre or musical lineage enables a swirl of influences to be drawn in through his writing. This is a process John describes as a one of discovery – of finding rather than creating.
“There is enormous amounts of effort going into getting out of the way, a kind of meditation where you empty everything out to see what will come out of that. It’s high risk, you can’t control it, but with music it’s possible to allow it, to see where it goes…. and eventually there is a seed, a nugget, and I know that can be a piece of music.”
His own immigrant beginnings have made it easier to connect with other languages and other cultures, working with musicians from all over the world. John has collaborated with an incredible range of artists that include System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian, jazz luminaries Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman, even an eBook project with Salman Rushdie back in 2011.
His prolific output of work was made all the more possible when John “quit the day job” in 2019, leaving a 25-year long post as Professor of Music at Victoria University’s School of Music in Wellington, to compose full-time. He also began working more in a family bach at the beautiful space of Waitarere Beach, where he also convenes with other composers and runs mentoring workshops.
Talking of space, he also quit Facebook and eventually all social media platforms, he had reached the point where he could overlook the marketing potential of social platforms. This he says led to an increase of connection, exchanging the “broad and shallow” thumb ticks for the “narrow and deep” direct conversations. Not only more connectedness but more space, John says his ability to concentrate vastly improved after quitting those platforms.
Now everything is powered through his actively updated website which as well contains his archive and an eStore page to purchase his scores, audio tracks and videos. The genuine need to connect became more urgent in recent years with pressures of climate change, social pressures and Covid-19 sweeping through the world. John’s messaging became more urgent too with pieces like Mentacide (2018) for snare drum and digital audio which distils the writings of cultural critic Henry Giroux – “… a deadening form of historical and social amnesia has taken over… violence and inequality have been normalised.” (The Violence of Organized Forgetting, Giroux.)
Voices At The End performed at the 2021 Auckland Arts Festival for six pianos and digital audio, which was based on the philosophies of Joanna Macy as presented in the film Planetary. It’s a moving work in which John has created a liminal space in order to get the messages of the film across, “but not in a preachy way”, messages which tackle the ruinous effect of perpetual growth on our planet.
His music gives us a unique way to hear and pay attention to such important messages. At the core of what lights, John’s fire is working with an “ever-growing family” of musicians and artists all over the world. “Usually it’s just me working alone in a room – I work that hard in order to have really great relationships with amazing people.” More locally the future will likely hold more exciting possibilities of mentoring/collaborative projects like the album ‘It’s Already Tomorrow’ curated with Wellington guitarist Jack Hooker.
They worked with 16 new generation artists including Arjuna Oakes, Indi (Indira Force of Doprah), Briar Prastiti (Hydra), Purple Pilgrims and John’s own son, hip hop artist and producer Emanuel Psathas (Name UL).
There are more commissions for 2022 and well beyond and a third-year as Composer-in-Residence with Orchestra Wellington. This maps out a rich and vibrant future for John Psathas’ music within his unique ‘omni-genre’, creating a future for all kinds of audiences and music conversations.