Composer John Psathas on music, suffering and the Greek tragedy gene

by Clare de Lore / 25 October, 2018
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John Psathas. Photo/Clare de Lore

In 2003, then Listener music critic Ian Dando posed the question, “Is it time to declare John Psathas a genius?” Part of a resounding “yes” came within a year, when Psathas’s 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.

John Psathas had no idea of his following in Europe and has nearly 30 projects lined up. Photo/Psathas family collection

John Psathas had no idea of his following in Europe and has nearly 30 projects lined up. Photo/Psathas family collection

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.

In Taumarunui, aged 4, in a Michael Mattar suit.

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’ 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.

With wife Carla in 1991. Photo/Psathas family collection

With wife Carla in 1991. Photo/Psathas family collection

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.

With Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo/Psathas family

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.

With the NZ String Quartet. Photo/Psathas family collection

With the NZ String Quartet. Photo/Psathas family collection

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.

With sister Tania, right, at their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in 1985. Photo/Psathas family collection

With sister Tania, right, at their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in 1985. Photo/Psathas family collection

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?

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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