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September 1, 2007 | by  | in Music |
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John Psathas

What do you do when you’ve just scored the biggest show on earth? If you’re John Psathas, you adopt a lower profile. The internationally renowned New Zealand composer (and popular lecturer at the NZ School of Music) who wrote the ceremonial music for the Athens Olympics and had his face on a Wellington city billboard, is downsizing his website, teaching for just half the year, and accepting only those commissions which will allow him to develop his distinctive musical language.

So the premiere later this month of his concert-piece “Planet Damnation” by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the NZSO’s master timpanist Laurence Reese, may be the last chance to experience Psathas’ trademark rhythmic dynamism in a new work. While the propulsive energy has typically connoted exuberance rather than aggression, “Planet Damnation” threatens to be more sinister, highlighting the kettledrums’ role as former implements of war — to intimidate the enemy and to send signals on the battlefield. Expect, in addition, some family resemblance to the soundtrack of the western and other film genres that glorify violence.

This “dithyrambic” style first came to prominence in 1991 with the percussion/piano duo “Matre’s Dance”, written shortly after Psathas had completed his studies at Victoria. Championed by celebrated Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, it did much to establish his reputation overseas as well as in New Zealand.

The fast, high-energy mode has led to comparisons with his contemporary Gareth Farr. But, like Farr, Psathas too has his quietly lyrical moments (in Farr’s case, think of the pianissimo “Haeata” for solo marimba, or the romantic Stephen Foster “Jeanie” reference in the piano trio “Ahi”). With Psathas, the introspective vein goes back as far as his Masters portfolio and the modern “moonlight sonata”, “Waiting for the Aeroplane”.

“Aeroplane” (played by pianist Dan Poynton) appears on Psathnas’ first CD, Rhythm Spike (Rattle Records). So does the piano-guitar-percussion trio “Calenture”, a compact compendium of Psathas’ approaches: part 1 slow, poised, minimalist — mirroring the more reflective side of Glass (Philip, not window); part 2 syncopated, jazzy (another acknowledged influence); part 3 minimalist, again, but livelier, with sliding rock-guitar glissandi; part 4 solemn, the piano interjection prefiguring the jagged modernist language of the piano duo “Motet” from Michael Houston and Deidre Irons — the toughest piece on the disc.

Strangest, and I think most memorable of all on the CD, is “Abhisheka”, a meditation requiring the New Zealand String Quartet to pitch quarter tone harmonies and execute chant-like instrumental melismas.

The New Zealand born composer’s Greek heritage is evident in his Pian Quintet, the standout on his second CD, Psathas/Fragments (Morrison Music Trust). Limpid minimalist textures of the outer movements frame the core of the piece, containing the NZSQ’s earthy version of a Greek violin melody, and string quarter tones that make Stephen Gosling’s piano sound eerily microtonal. (The Greek connection was to be further reinforced in “Zeibekiko”, a programme embracing ancient fragments, traditional improvisations, and arrangements of three of his own scores that Psathas curated in 2004 for the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble.) Gosling appears on all tracks of Psathas/Fragments, venturing the glinting solo “Jettatura” (or “Mal Occhio”, the “evil eye”), the archetypal “Matre’s Dance”, and the contemplative “Fragment”.

“Fragment” recurs on the Rattle release View From Olympus as an optional epilogue to the 2002 piano-and-percussion concerto.Perhaps Psathas’ best work to date (along with the Piano Quintet), the three main movements with their different titles and kaupapa are unified by the shimmering aura of the upper registers of Michael Houston’s piano and Pedro Carneiro’s metallophones.

The piano concerto “Three Psalms” shares in that scintillating sound world (again like the Quintet, and “Calenture”), and with its extensive keyboard percussion and timpani parts is a precursor to both “Olympus” and “Planet Damnation”. The middle movement, in particular, has an unsettling dreamlike logic.

“Omnifenix”, the third concerto on the disc, is an exceptionally compatible combination of orchestra (the NZSO under Marc Taddei) with jazz: saxophonist Joshua Redman is given scope to improvise in an environment in which he clearly feels comfortable.

The success of “Omnifenix” has opened up a future possibility of working with rock band and orchestra. It has already led to a second saxophone concerto, the exotically inflected “Zahara”, premiered by Federico Mondelci in Wellington last year.

“Zahara” is an example of Psathas’ continuing interest in the transcription of traditional folk music. In contrast to his NZSM colleague Jack Body, however, transcription is less the basis for a composition, and more a way of internalizing an unfamiliar idiom.

Some recent (and projected) works introduce into art music an adaptation of the aural means of transmission common in folk, jazz and rock: before they see the written notes, the performers learn by listening to a sophisticated MIDI recording that captures the subtleties of rhythm and intonation that Psathas wants. “Kartsigar”, a rendition of Greek improvisation, was presented to the NZ String Quartet in this way.

So was this year’s “Helix” for the New Zealand Trio — something of a breakthrough for Psathas, with an austere first section stripped not only of the timbral variety of the orchestral scores (well it is just a trio after all), but also the microchromatic colouring of “Abhisheka”, the Piano Quintet, and the 2005 “Kartsigar”. Instead there is a rhythmic fluidity of line and an almost heterophonic independence of the parts.

“Kartsigar”, “Helix”, and two titles featuring percussion with pre-recorded sound, are due for release from Rattle next year. In the meantime, don’t forget , the NZSO and Laurence Reese will be in concert with a thumping good live premiere of “Planet Damnation”.


New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart with Laurence Reese (Timpani), “Planet Damnation” by John Psathas, also Mozart Piano Concerto K488 and Rachmaninov Symphony 2, Michael Fowler Centre, October 19, 6.30pm (student, senior, community services card rush tickets $12.50 plus booking fee, with ID, on the day up to 6pm at MFC Ticketek).

John Psathas CDs:

Rhythm Spike, Rattle Records RAT D008
Psathas/Fragments, Morrison Music Trust MMT 2047
Zeibekiko, NBELIVE , NBECD 014
View From Olympus, CD/DVD, Rattle RAT

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