At home in two worlds

A six-month sab­bat­i­cal in Europe changed com­poser John Psathas’ view of him­self, and his plans for the fu­ture.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Clare de Lore

A six-month sab­bat­i­cal in Europe changed com­poser John Psathas’ view of him­self, and his plans for the fu­ture.

In 2003, then Lis­tener mu­sic critic Ian Dando posed the ques­tion, “Is it time to pro­claim John Psathas a ge­nius?” Part of a re­sound­ing “yes” came within a year, when Psathas’ com­po­si­tions for the 2004 Athens Olympics were per­formed, to critical ac­claim, for a live global au­di­ence of a bil­lion peo­ple. Psathas’s ca­reer has con­tin­ued on an ever up­wards tra­jec­tory; per­cus­sion­ist Eve­lyn Glen­nie is the best known of a range of top mu­si­cians reg­u­larly per­form­ing his works around the world.

Psathas’s com­po­si­tions cross gen­res, as does his own taste in mu­sic. Un­til re­cently, he had evenly di­vided his en­er­gies be­tween com­pos­ing and teach­ing at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity of Welling­ton, where he is pro­fes­sor of com­po­si­tion at the New Zealand School of Mu­sic Te Kōkī.

The son of Greek im­mi­grants, Psathas spent his early child­hood in Tau­marunui, and his teens in Napier. His par­ents, Em­manuel and Anas­ta­sia, ar­rived in

New Zealand with noth­ing, quickly built up their busi­nesses, and 28 years later re­turned to Greece with their then 26-year-old daugh­ter, Ta­nia. John, then a 21-year-old stu­dent, stayed in New Zealand to com­plete his stud­ies but be­came more im­mersed in the coun­try, mar­ry­ing, hav­ing two chil­dren, and es­tab­lish­ing his ca­reer.

Psathas’s Lon­don-based son, Emanuel, is bet­ter known to his fans as the rap­per Name UL. Daugh­ter Zoe, 18, is study­ing at her fa­ther’s alma mater. Psathas and his wife, Carla, re­cently spent six months in Europe, the com­poser mak­ing con­tact with lead­ing mu­si­cians and spend­ing time with his Greek fam­ily.

Are con­nec­tions to Greece as strong as to New Zealand?

Mu­sic is my cul­tural bedrock, but for my par­ents, and for a lot of im­mi­grants, the home­land be­comes mythol­o­gised. What I heard from my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion was, “Greece is the best coun­try in the world – I can’t wait to go back … the food, the dance, the sun.” My fa­ther had more re­solve than most; at ex­actly the age I am now [52], he sold ev­ery­thing and went back with my mother and my sis­ter. They went back in the late-80s and it didn’t turn out well – you know what Greece is like now, eco­nom­i­cally. How did you cope af­ter your fam­ily left? My fam­ily be­ing in Greece means I’ve lived with a very deep sense of loss, be­cause we are a very tight fam­ily. I go every year at least once; even as a stu­dent, I was work­ing seven nights a week, sav­ing, so that I could go and see them. I have the Greek tragedy gene, this deep sense of tragedy. It’s of­ten felt by im­mi­grants, es­pe­cially when they are torn from their home and their fam­ily. I have to fight it all the time. Mu­sic has been the thing that saved me or I would prob­a­bly suf­fer from se­ri­ous de­pres­sion. I am al­ways be­ing sus­tained by mu­sic.

What are your ear­li­est mu­si­cal mem­o­ries?

I had an amaz­ing birth as a mu­si­cian. My fam­ily were typ­i­cal Greeks – fish and chip shops, and restau­rants. My fa­ther had an old valve record player and all the old LPs. They lis­tened to a lot of mu­sic and they would ask me to put on this record or that, and I could find any record even be­fore I could read. I lis­tened to mu­sic a lot as a very young child and have ever since.

Was there pres­sure to do well at school?

Yes, and my sis­ter and I would also work in our fam­ily busi­ness un­til one or two in the morn­ing and go to school the next day. We would get only four or five hours’

“I have the Greek tragedy gene. It’s of­ten felt by im­mi­grants. Mu­sic has been the thing that saved me.”

sleep but I was al­ways in the top 5% and so was my sis­ter.

When did the light switch on in your head, re­gard­ing mu­sic?

I would put the head­phones on and lis­ten to mu­sic through the night af­ter work­ing in the shop. When I was about 11, I started hav­ing very pro­found ex­pe­ri­ences with the mu­sic, whether it was an El­ton John song, or a move­ment from a Beethoven pi­ano sonata, or a Greek song, or some­thing by Alan Par­sons. Within a short time, I was im­pro­vis­ing at the pi­ano a lot and think­ing, “What would be the best thing that I could ever imag­ine do­ing?” I knew it would be giv­ing peo­ple the kind of feel­ing that I ex­pe­ri­enced when I lis­tened to mu­sic. I’ve been locked into that idea ever since.

When you walked here to­day, what were you lis­ten­ing to through your head­phones?

When I was much younger, I be­came addicted to Toto’s al­bum Hy­dra, and I have been lis­ten­ing to them ever since. Most peo­ple know them for their song Africa. Their mu­sic is pos­i­tive and life-af­firm­ing. It’s not par­tic­u­larly deep, in terms of lyrics and songs, but they’ve been cus­to­di­ans of my be­lief in mu­sic in the same way that Beethoven has. I went to see them live in Lon­don and felt this ab­so­lutely over­whelm­ing rush of grat­i­tude. There was so much love in the room – from them and from the au­di­ence for them. That, for me, is what mu­sic re­ally is about.

What about mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment, or ex­plor­ing new forms?

I’m al­ways ex­plor­ing. That might be find­ing, say, Hamza El Din, a Nu­bian Egyp­tian/Su­danese com­poser and oud player. His song A Wish is an ex­am­ple. Mu­sic for me is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment in life; no other art form comes close.

Was that con­nec­tion you made to an au­di­ence of a bil­lion – with the open­ing and clos­ing mu­sic for the Athens Olympics – the defin­ing, or high point, of your ca­reer to date?

The Athens ex­pe­ri­ence, for me, was more cul­tural than mu­si­cal. Greece had been through very dif­fi­cult times the whole of the 20th cen­tury, so the team I was part of were giddy with the thought of cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive his­tor­i­cal mo­ment for the coun­try. It was also, for me, a way of giv­ing back to my par­ents; it was huge for them. Un­for­tu­nately, I can’t re­ally have a pos­i­tive con­ver­sa­tion about this in Greece these days, be­cause there’s a gen­eral view that the Olympics cost the Greek econ­omy a huge amount of money and con­trib­uted to the cur­rent cri­sis.

What’s your next big thing? I’ve just come back from six months over­seas with nearly 30 new projects. That’s at least four or five years’ work, so I’ve de­cided to scale back teach­ing and to fo­cus on com­pos­ing. One thing I dis­cov­ered: I met re­ally great mu­si­cians, and they know who I am and what I have done, es­pe­cially per­cus­sion­ists. The per­cus­sion teach­ers I met all over Europe said, “Every one of my stu­dents is play­ing your mu­sic.” It’s been in­cred­i­ble com­ing to terms with the fact that I have a pres­ence there – I had no idea. Here, it’s hard to com­pre­hend that.

Is there a tall-poppy as­pect to your ex­pe­ri­ence?

Ab­so­lutely, big time. I’ve had this con­ver­sa­tion with a few peo­ple who have been over­seas, and done quite well, and come back. They all say if you do re­ally well over­seas, for ex­am­ple as a film com­poser, and come back, peo­ple as­sume you’re ei­ther too busy or too ex­pen­sive.

And are you ex­pen­sive?

Def­i­nitely for New Zealand. But I don’t have to be, and it’s not all about the money. I am do­ing some projects here in New Zealand for free, or next to noth­ing, be­cause I re­ally be­lieve in them. It’s great hav­ing that choice.

Is there any spe­cific fu­ture work you can talk about?

I’m just clos­ing on two multi-year, or­ches­tral res­i­den­cies. One is in New Zealand, the other in Europe. I have four or­ches­tral com­mis­sions and three are from over­seas. I have man­aged to cross a line that I don’t think many other peo­ple here have yet, where I can live off in­come from over­seas com­mis­sions.

Do you get anx­ious when your work is pre­miered?

I have re­la­tion­ships with in­cred­i­ble mu­si­cians all around the world, and when they play my mu­sic now, I just sit back and know it is go­ing to be amaz­ing. So I have per­for­mance plea­sure, rather than anx­i­ety.

Your work is com­plex. When com­pos­ing, do you take into ac­count how mu­si­cians will cope with it?

Michael Hous­toun [pi­anist] said some­thing that has stayed with me for­ever. It was, “Write what you want to hear first and fore­most, and solve the per­for­mance prob­lems later.” And I say that to my stu­dents – it’s a great piece of ad­vice and very sim­ple. I don’t make any al­lowances, but I don’t make it un­duly dif­fi­cult, ei­ther.

Are you con­cerned about cuts to the arts in New Zealand uni­ver­si­ties?

I don’t speak po­lit­i­cally but I do think there is a grad­ual shal­low­ing of so­ci­ety go­ing on. It is to do with the way we re­ceive and re­late to in­for­ma­tion. There is a great book called The Shal­lows, by Ni­cholas Carr, which is about our re­la­tion­ship to the in­ter­net and how it is chang­ing us. One of the skills that we have all de­vel­oped, if we use com­put­ers, is the abil­ity to quickly ex­tract in­for­ma­tion we need from a screen with­out ac­tu­ally read­ing what’s on it. It’s a new set of neu­ral con­nec­tions that we’re all de­vel­op­ing. If we stop be­ing book read­ers, we lose depth of un­der­stand­ing, and that is how we re­mem­ber things. So, not great. That is what I call the shal­low­ing of so­ci­ety.

Books are a happy topic for you. What do you like?

I read a lot. I’ve read all the good sci­ence fic­tion that’s around. I love it be­cause of the ideas, even if the writ­ing is not al­ways very good. In the past few years, I have read Henry Giroux’s books in­clud­ing The Vi­o­lence of Or­ga­nized For­get­ting, which is very dis­turb­ing and pow­er­ful, and Dis­pos­able Fu­tures, which he wrote with Brad Evans. I have read lots of Noam Chom­sky, Robert Fisk, John Pil­ger. Those books are very hard go­ing, but I feel they’re a source of truth. The Mex­i­can writer Ly­dia Ca­cho wrote a book called Slav­ery Inc: The Un­told Story of In­ter­na­tional Sex Traf­fick­ing. It was in­cred­i­bly gru­elling. To mit­i­gate those re­ally heavy books, I’ll read some­thing like Hope in the Dark, by Re­becca Sol­nit, filled with rea­sons to feel bet­ter about things. One of my favourite books is A Fine Bal­ance, by Ro­hin­ton Mistry. At the mo­ment, I’m read­ing a novel called The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Stru­gatsky.

If you could have a wish come true, what would that be?

My dream, which I joke about with col­leagues, is to open a small mu­sic academy on a Greek is­land. Just a few of us would go there and work, maybe three months a year, grow grapes and make wine the rest of the time. Wouldn’t that be nice?

John Psathas had no idea of his fol­low­ing in Europe and has nearly 30 projects lined up. Right, in Tau­marunui, aged 4, in a Michael Mat­tar suit.

With sis­ter Ta­nia, right, at their par­ents’ 25th wed­ding an­niver­sary in 1985.

From left, with wife Carla in 1991; with Prime Min­is­ter He­len Clark at the launch of the View from Olym­pus al­bum; with baby Emanuel; with the NZ String Quar­tet.

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