John Psathas' ambitious musical remembrance of WWI

By William Dart

Syria's Refugees of Rap, top, and multi-national percussionists Svet at the former battlefield in Verdun, France.
Syria's Refugees of Rap, top, and multi-national percussionists Svet at the former battlefield in Verdun, France.

John Psathas is very much at ease with big projects, as you'd expect of the man whose music opened and closed the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The Wellington composer's latest, No Man's Land, is dauntingly ambitious, courting the spectacular in a way that would suggest that this "love letter to peace" is no simple billet-doux.

Come March, festival audiences at Wellington and Auckland, along with those at New Plymouth's Womad, will experience Psathas' band of star musicians from Greece, Poland and New Zealand, playing live in front of a large screen featuring a 70-minute film, presenting a complex mesh of 150 other musicians from around the globe.

You'll see and hear the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra and an octet from Netherlands Blazers Ensemble, Palestinian bass player Nawras Alhajibrahim and the Refugees of Rap, with their own Middle Eastern blend of hip-hop.

This massive panorama - the work of filmmaker Jasmine Millet and cameraman Mathew Knight - brings together artists from cultures that, a century ago, might have been on opposing sides in the Great War of 1914-18 that inspired No Man's Land. Indeed, performances were filmed in Europe last year against the backdrop of crucial battlefronts of that conflict. Today, the genial Psathas is as happy to talk logistics as any philosophies of peace. He's proud that the seven-week European shoot came together smoothly and how, thanks to expert Kiwi organisation "so many successful musicians with amazing schedules were at the right place at the right time."

You sense the intense pleasure he received from engaging with these artists, marvelling at how all the musicians offered "a unique element in the overall work.

"You might have the Strasbourg Philharmonic playing on screen while the Polish Radio Choir sings above them," he explains. "Then, Indian soloist Meeta Pandit comes in over that, with percussionists from Iran and Bulgaria."

All of which would not have been possible without the internet that puts our geographically isolated country on the world's doorstep.

"Working with someone like Marta Sebestyen on Skype meant that she sang to backing tracks I'd sent her," Psathas tells me. "By the time we got together in person, we had an idea of how it would probably go, but still leaving enough space for improvisation."

As Psathas unfolds the processes in the creation of No Man's Land, you sense a composer revelling in new freedoms.

"The most important thing I learnt was to let go of notated scores," he laughs. "I'd had 30 years of creating music in an authoritarian kind of way, where you stab at a page during rehearsal and say, 'Like this! Like this!' It was time to move on."

No Man's Land grew out of "just getting together with great musicians and somehow we never talked about music because that's what we do in our practice". Instead, they bonded on social issues and discussing their respective communities "and the music came through, out of all that humanity," Psathas explains.

"After all, that's what music's all about. It's never a matter of just getting it right or wrong!"

Psathas trusts that No Man's Land will not disappear after its high-profile March performances. There are plans to tour it internationally and to screen Millet's film as a stand-alone feature in smaller New Zealand towns.

Emphatically, it will live beyond being a centenary marking of World War I.

"We're not just thinking about the hundred years that have been, but the next hundred years."

Psathas cannot resist mentioning one moment on film that cast a special spell on him, between Kiwi saxophonist Hayden Chisholm and Turkish string player Derya Turkan.

"They have this amazing dialogue over some beautiful musical textures," Psathas sighs. "It's like, a century after that terrible war, they're making musical love."

- Weekend magazine

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