Musical alchemist dreams of ecstasy

By William Dart

No-nonsense John Psathas loves the APO's sense of adventure. Photo / Supplied
No-nonsense John Psathas loves the APO's sense of adventure. Photo / Supplied

Ask composer John Psathas what he might have been doing, had he emigrated back to Greece with his family in the late'80s, and he's quick with an answer: "250kgs, with eight kids, five mistresses and a little music school in the village that I never went to but just had other people working there," he laughs. "Instead, I'd have been down at the cafe drinking coffee and playing backgammon."

I interrupt New Zealand's busiest composer while he is working with Australian saxophonist Adam Page on a performance that premieres tomorrow at Wellington's Downstage. And it is just one of many projects lined up for this year.

Psathas' Facebook page keeps us in touch with the reviews of New Zealand film-maker Mike Wallis' western, Good for Nothing, from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

He is chuffed that Josef Woodard in the Independent picked out his score as "perhaps the most fully realised aspect of the film" with its "symphonic John Barry-esque sweep".

Best of all, for Aucklanders, next Thursday sees Psathas' Tarantismo at Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's first Town Hall concert of the season.

Now in the second year of his residency with the APO, Psathas finds the orchestra "incredibly open to ideas. I've put a lot of time into approaching orchestras with various projects. You go along and see eyes glaze in the first 30 seconds. Not so with the APO. They're very adventurous and have taken more risks than any other orchestra in the country."

For years, Psathas had been trying to get his New Zeibekiko off the ground, a concert hall spectacular framing Greek musicians Manos Achalinotopoulos and Vagelis Karypis in symphonic surround, with music ranging over 2500 years.

This will now be the APO's big splash on March 18 in the upcoming Auckland Arts Festival, so little wonder its composer thinks the orchestra is "absolutely the best place to go with a fresh idea".

Thursday's Tarantismo has nothing at all to do with the maverick director of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, although it could slip rather niftily into one of the director's soundtracks.

Tarantismo is based on the same legend that created the tarantella, the idea of "dancing faster and faster to get the poison of the tarantula spider out of your system," as Psathas explains. "My theory is that, back then, perhaps one pretended to have been bitten by a spider to give you an excuse for dancing, whirling faster and faster, and ever more frenzied, towards an ecstatic release."

These last two words, he stresses, are entrenched in his musical philosophy. "For me, the whole idea of ecstatic release describes the intense effort of trying to launch something off the stage and into the audience, to make that electric point of connection. Other people can do that in a very calm, quiet and profound way, but with me it's delirious, ecstatic and - when it works - irresistible."

He reminds me of a moment in Sound And Fury, the recent Artsville documentary, in which the Germans who had experienced his View from Olympus marvelled at the transfer of energy that had taken place.

"It's my dream, my ideal, the whole idea that at the end of a piece you feel something that you didn't feel when it started."

Yet, I remind him, he has also fashioned some exquisite poetry at the other end of the decibel scale in works such as the 1996 Abhisheka which opens the New Zealand String Quartet's new Atoll CD, Notes from a Journey.

"With my music, there are the two extremes and very little in the middle," Psathas explains. "My biggest nightmare would be to write something that's not memorable; to do something that after the first 30 seconds has a listener thinking, 'How much of this do I have to sit through?"'

John Psathas' straight-talking, no-nonsense approach will no doubt serve him well as one of the newly-appointed Apra Ambassadors.

Working with the likes of Opshop's Jason Kerrigan and Nesian Mystic's Te Awanui Reeder, the ambassadors will investigate issues such as "the fact that artists are losing everything through sharing and piracy".

"I'm defined as a classical composer with Apra, but I spend so little of my time in that world," Psathas reflects.

"I may work a lot with old instruments like violins and oboes because of the music I write, but I don't think of myself as a classical composer at all."

In fact, in the process of completing a new concerto for Warren Maxwell of Little Bushman, due to be premiered in the APO Amped concert in early May, Psathas stresses he is "not aware of borders, musically or geographically".

Far more important, as far as he is concerned, is "that galvanising energy needed to bridge the gap and make a connection between players, audience and composer. That's what music offers us and, at its best, there's nothing to equal it."

Performance

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday 8pm

On disc: New Zealand String Quartet, Notes from a Journey (Atoll, through Ode Records)

On screen: Artsville: John Psathas - Sound and Fury replay: tvnz.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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