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Interview with JOHN PSATHAS

Posted May 10th, 2023

Hi, John, thanks so much for joining us. Lovely to have you here. A few questions ahead of your piece with us on June 3rd. Firstly, if you could just talk to us about how everything's going – we’re very, very excited.

Thank you. For me, it's a big occasion having Zahara played again. The history of it, is that I had written an earlier saxophone concerto for legendary player Michael Brecker, the jazz musician who has since passed away, and the premiere of that was one of the big moments of my life. It was in the big Piazza in Bologna, a huge outdoor concert, and it was very successful. At that concert there was also an Italian saxophonist, Federico Mondelci. I was struck by his playing. He's a wonderful classical saxophone player, and he was very impressed with my saxophone concerto. He got in touch with me afterwards and said he'd like to commission something new from me. I was really into that, and I wrote this piece, Zahara – inspired by a book called “Skeletons on the Zahara”, which is an amazing read – then, Federico came out to New Zealand to premiere the piece. That’s a long time ago, almost 20 years ago now. We did three concerts. They went really well, and it's never been played since. I love this piece – it’s a big deal for me. For me, it's a very grounded and powerful kind of writing – from my output anyway. So the fact that it's being played, again, is super important and very special for me. Also, it's very exciting that Valentine Michaud is coming over from Switzerland, because she's a wonderful player, she's young, she's got this incredible virtuosity and amazing stage presence. So I'm also very excited – her and I are in contact quite frequently sorting out little things in the score and sharing little bits of advice backwards and forwards. So I think it's going to be pretty incredible.

Throughout your career, it seems that you have a very strong connection to those who perform your work. Particularly thinking back to Fabian Ziegler & Luca Staffelbach. Is this often something that's fostered prior to composition? Or is that something that you will compose and seek out said artist? 

Well, it's something that evolves over one's life, so when I was in the early stages, I was your classic “nerdy, stay at home, sit in a room and write music” composer, with not a lot of awesome social skills. But over time, fortunately, for me, the way that my journey has unfolded, it's been built on relationships. It's become more and more about these unique relationships with musicians. Valentine is a very good example, because I'm just getting to know her, it's a new relationship. But I have just been messaging with her this morning about what we're going to do the days after the concert. So I've given her the options of the canopy tour over the forest in Rotorua or black water rafting in the Waitomo caves. These things I did with Fabian and Luca, when they were here. We spent four or five days traveling around the North Island, looking at beautiful places, doing incredible things. And so I go back to Switzerland (like I did a few months ago), with my wife and we stay with them, and they take us up into the Swiss Alps. And I think that these things actually deepen, profoundly, the musical experiences that you have together. It's like the golden dimension to having a life in music, these relationships. The music is obviously the driver for everything, and it's the thing that we all share. But for me personally, it's having these friends and friendships that emerge from the work that really mean everything.

In your work, your Greek heritage is prevalent. How do you reconcile having your heritage and history being from one of the most culturally significant places in the history of humanity to somewhere like New Zealand, which has its own strong cultural identity, but essentially, isolated from the rest of the world? 

I think it’s given me a relatively rare combination of features. That combination consists of two things. One is, as you say, I have embraced a very strong connection to my roots in Europe, particularly Greece, and particularly, the Eastern concept of Greece, not so much the western concept. So for me, Eastern means Greece to Turkey to the Middle East, going in that direction, because you could also go north from Greece, up into the Balkans. And then you can go west, from Greece into Italy, and the Mediterranean. For me, it's more about the Eastern connection. What New Zealand has given me is a clean slate, like this open playing field in which I've been able to, with enormous freedom, define myself and decide who I am, and basically, who I want to be. And also, it's given me permission to change that musical identity if I feel like it. And I say that because I've gotten to know other composers that are based in say, Germany, or Italy or France, and they are born into extremely powerfully established traditions. So the idea there of being a composer, it's very clear what that means. Whereas here, I think, even now, with people like myself and others who have established themselves, it's not that clear to the public what it means to be a composer. When I go to Italy, I get called Maestro (which I have to admit I secretly quite like). But that’s an indication of how established things are there. And I know from conversations with fellow composers there that they feel very locked into having to either follow or reject that established tradition. And that's not been the case here – there is a huge amount of freedom, which is of course more difficult, because you don't have parameters to guide you. There's no pressure to follow, or even push back against, a prevailing tradition. So you have to invent everything and form your own set of intentions. Basically, every time you write a piece you have the choice of starting from scratch. So it's very special. But then it does require you to be strong within that, about yourself.

In this concert we have Safe Way To Fall, a collaboration between yourself and talented young composer Arjuna Oakes. How different is the creative process working with a younger artist?

Working with young composers is generally one of two experiences. The first one, which for me is the most common, is when you have a lot to offer, because you've simply had more experience, and you've written a lot more music, and you've been in the world, so you can offer a younger composer a lot of useful things and you can respond usefully to their work. That's one kind of experience. The other kind of experience with a younger composer, is when I don't see them as ‘young composers’, but rather, I see them as artists – fully formed, fully established, and incredibly talented. You've mentioned this type already in Arjuna, and Briar; both of them very much in this category. I feel immensely grateful to be working with both of them. And in terms of what I get out of it, it's absolutely what you say, which is that it’s an access to an energy that they have. For instance, just to take Arjuna and Briar; they are so different from each other, and yet, they're both equally phenomenally talented. When I look at them, I think I wasn't anywhere near as able and capable and talented, as they are, when I was their  age. It's just extraordinary for me. So I get energized by it, and I don't feel my age quite so much. And that really is a thing, by the way, because as you age, in music, there's a kind of tendency to respond to your physical and psychological shift. And of course your body, the great betrayer, starts to make it very clear that you're entering a different phase of your life. And the mind is not far behind. So I find being around Briar and Arjuna, actually, totally inspirational. I'm always testing and checking to make sure as far as I can, that they are also getting something out of it, that it's not just me that benefits. And I like to think that's true.

So the song that we're performing, Safe Way To Fall, Arjuna and I wrote together. I have a place up in Waitārere, just past Levin. And Arjuna has been up there a few times, and we have had the most incredible composing collaboration. We've had this creative experience there, where we will sit in a room, there'll be a piano, I'll sit in the chair, he'll sit at the piano, and he starts improvising. I'll be listening. And at some point, I'll say, that was amazing. And he'll say “what, what” and he'll backtrack, and he'll find it again. And then I'll say that that was incredible. And then he'll hear it, because he's moving through time creating all of this content while improvising. And there's something about having me there like a fisherman with a hook, waiting to catch the one that comes past. So we'll find something and it might just be a chord progression or an idea, and we'll sort of tease it out. I mean, we'll maybe add a bar or repeat that, or cut that, or maybe invert that or add a note to that code… and gradually, it turns into something. And we have no idea where we're going, we just do this. But it's so fast. Compared to Zahara which took me a year, we wrote Safe Way To Fall in a day. So the difference is extraordinary. Eventually, we'll get to the point where we have a form, he'll start singing over the top, and we'll start feeling what the melody might be, and from that emerges emotion. That emotion then turns into words, they become the lyrics. Then with that particular song, we felt a kind of orchestral energy within what we were doing. So we explored that with MIDI strings. What we've done for the performance is arrange that song for Orchestra Wellington. I'll be playing piano, Arjuna will be singing, the orchestra will be playing this arrangement and I think it will be beautiful.

Your music, certainly to the uninitiated, tends to transcend the classical genre. There appears to be a degree of contemporary influence in your work. Whether it’s Keith Jarrett, Split Enz, or indeed, your work with Serj Tankian. What value do you think contemporary music holds in the classical world today?

I've had some very interesting experiences and thoughts lately about contemporary classical music. The absolute bulk of that music has been generated within and by a university academic environment, because that's where people go and study, it's where you have access to established composers. And the thing that I've started to come to terms with is that I'm no longer differentiating between classical and jazz, or classical and pop, or new classical and old classical. What I'm really feeling now is the difference between a music creator that is actively seeking an audience, and one that isn't, because those are incredibly different kinds of energy. I would say energies at opposite ends of the continuum. What's come out of contemporary classical composition training, is that there hasn't really been any kind of prolonged focused energy on building an audience. And in the worst instances it can lead to a kind of passivity. These days I’m more drawn to people - of any musical genre or tradition -  who are intensely committed to having their music reach others. You mentioned Serj, I mean, Serj is all about communicating and reaching out to others. I have friends who are contemporary art, classical music composers, who are also intensely focused on getting the music out. All I've really listened to has been music that is trying to reach me, very strongly. And I think that's what I reflect back in the work that I do. I find this energy particularly (for me), in non-western, world, or ‘ethnic’ musicians as well. There are very few examples of passive musicians in those traditional cultures. So this is quite a thorny subject, and it's something that, if there were other people here, we'd be arguing about it. But I think the energy that I'm drawn to is the one that wants to connect, and that crosses all genres and all boundaries. I mean, you hear it in every single note of Beethoven, that desire to reach another human being. So that's kind of how I differentiate.

We also have the incredible John Psathas double LP coming up, what’s the story there?

I'm very excited about that, four concertos that have been recorded during the residency with the orchestra. We had these incredible soloists, and we had fantastic performances, and we've captured them. Actually, I've just been listening to the latest edits, and they are really exciting. So you know, we have Leviathan, which was recorded when Alexei Gerassimez from Germany came to New Zealand. We've got The All-Seeing Sky with Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach. And then Call Of The Wild with the incredible Adam Page, and then Djinn, which we recorded with Yoshiko Tsuruta, (even though we didn't manage to deliver the live performance, because of COVID. Interestingly, Djinn was actually commissioned by Orchestra Wellington, about 13 years ago, which makes this album release an extraordinary journey arc for the work. I'm also very excited about the idea of a double vinyl… and if we can get blue and white, that would be great for me. My Greek colours!

We all know how much vinyl has exploded in recent years. Is this something you’ve always been a part of?

It's amazing with vinyl, because in our home, each of us has a vinyl player. I think most of the money we spend on music is on vinyl, because we all love it. There's a thing about putting on a record. I mean, these are all clichés now, but the idea of putting on a record and you have to listen to the whole side, and then you have to physically get up and turn it over. Those sorts of things. But also there's a sound that comes from vinyl, which is different from everything else. I've recently started watching blu-ray DVDs again, because of the amazing quality. We've all accepted mp3 standard for sound, and streaming quality for movies, but I'm of a generation that remembers the most incredible audio and video standards. I think vinyl, if you've got a good player and some nice speakers, takes you back to that experience of a really good warm analogue experience of music. So yes, I'm all for it.

Finally John, we’ve got the first of this year’s Psathas Sessions coming up, where you take us deeper into a well-known composition, giving us your thoughts and insights, whilst having Marc Taddei and the players alongside you. First up is Barber’s Adagio for Strings. What’s special about this piece?

Barber’s Adagio is possibly one of the most famous American compositions. The thing about the Adagio is that it taps into incredibly deep emotions, it amplifies them, and it does it quickly! It gets right past your filters, then it augments and grows, and it gives you this kind of incredible cathartic experience where grief just happens… you have to confront it. You go through it. There’s an incredible landing of this very powerful emotion and then you’re out the other side of it. It’s profound. It’s an extraordinary piece of music… and all in nine minutes. It’s been a real gift to go deep into that piece and pick it apart, find a language for explaining how it does what it does. This is something I’ve really enjoyed about these sessions… the Arvo part session, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, and his Tabula Rasa. Those pieces also manage to immediately get around your filters so that you can’t deny the emotion. It’s not easy, but it’s been a real gift to figure out how to put into words how and why that music does what it does. That’s the kind of thing I would’ve loved to have known when I was younger; why is this music doing this to me? But the trick in these public sessions is to do that without destroying the magic, so you still feel those emotions even when you know how it does what it does.


The Psathas Sessions: Barber takes place at Wellington College on Sunday 14 May 3pm.

Myth & Ritual featuring John Psathas’ Zahara with Valentine Michaud saxophone, and Arjuna Oakes’s Safe Way To Fall, takes place at Michael Fowler Centre Saturday 3rd June 7.30pm.

Tickets available here.