NZ-Greek composer John Psathas shot to worldwide fame when his music was heard by a global audience of more than a billion during the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, during the intervening years his music has been commissioned and performed by top musicians around the globe.
Psathas was a sought-after faculty member at the NZSM (New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington) for 25 years, before closing the door on that chapter three years ago to devote more time to growing his international profile and embarking on a return to performing onstage.
His collaborations have included top orchestras, soloists, and ensembles around the world; festivals closer to home including recent projects with the World of Wearable Art (WOW), Womad, CubaDupa, and the Auckland Arts Festival; and a long and varied list of kiwi collaborators – from Shapeshifter and Little Bushmen to singer/songwriters Christine White and Arjuna Oakes.
Genre-Crossing Musical Output
When glancing over Psathas’ career, one element impossible to overlook is the scope and sheer variety of his collaborations.
He has collaborated on a Billboard classical chart-topping album with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, has written multiple NZ film scores including Good for Nothing and White Lies, has crossed over into jazz in projects with jazz luminaries Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman, and has even collaborated on an e-book project with Salman Rushdie.
There are few composers who cross the boundaries of musical genres to the extent that Psathas does, and with such ongoing global success.
Since hanging up the cap and gown of the university three years ago, Psathas has worked with NZ band Shapeshifter on orchestrations of their songs for the reopening of the Christchurch Town Hall in 2019, and wrote a work for world musicians and electronics that featured in the World of Wearable Arts festival in Wellington that same year.
His piece Three Psalms was featured in a new work choreographed by Neil Ieremia for a Black Grace tour of NZ last year, and Orchestra Wellington – who have engaged him for a three-year Composer Residency – recently premiered his Call to the Wild with Australian multi-instrumentalist Adam Page.
The emergence of COVID-19 also served to further broaden the scope of Psathas’ work, with the 2020 release of It’s Already Tomorrow, a long-distance collaborative album from NZ producers and guest performers from here and around the world, Including works by the likes of Grayson Gilmour, Arjuna Oakes, and Briar Prastiti.
The result, eight new luminous tracks were harvested from NZ artists redefining themselves in the pandemic.
From introspective ambient tracks to hybrid folk-electronica to dystopian synth-rock, this album refuses easy categorisation a second album born out of the pandemic is Last Days of March, an EP with collaborators as wide-ranging as Serj Tankian, Oum, American jazz oboist and ambient electronica guru Russel Walder, Sydney-based kiwi pop artist Xela, and local sonic artist and virtuoso guitarist Jack Hooker.
Psathas’ work was also called upon when NZ ensembles returned to the concert halls in the second half of last year, with a commission for a fanfare called The Five Million premiered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra when they returned to the stage in July 2020.
New Commissions on an Epic Scale
After the global success of Psathas’ music for the epic Ceremonies of the Athens Olympics in 2004, it should come as no surprise that he has continued to create music that is large in scale – another hallmark of his output.
For example, No Man’s Land was a centrepiece of New Zealand’s WWI commemorations in 2016 – an 80-minute live cinematic multimedia concert that included 150 musicians from 25 nations, filmed on significant WWI battlefields by musicians from opposing forces of the Great War to create a massive global orchestra.
In the years since his foray into the freelance scene, super-sized projects include a collaboration with Wellington’s CubaDupa festival – which turned out to be one of the largest massed events to be held anywhere in the world during 2021 – where Psathas wrote CubaSonic, a work for 300 musicians spaced out along Wellington’s iconic Cuba Street with a 60-speaker synchronised PA system.
Earlier this year the Auckland Arts Festival premiered Voices at the End, a 40-minute masterpiece scored for six grand pianos and immersive electronics, inspired by the documentary Planetary.
Percussion has always been a strong feature of Psathas’ output. Recent large-scale commissions include a percussion concerto, using junk and trash in place of percussion instruments – as a response to climate change – for the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and percussion virtuoso Alexej Gerassimez, and an epic pop-classical hybrid work Orbital commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln for amplified orchestra, percussion quartet, epic cinematic backing track, and live electronics.
This year also sees ten world premieres of RealBadNow commissioned by percussionists from ten countries.
Mentoring and Building Community
John Psathas has continued to mentor a wide range of composers and performers since leaving the NZSM.
For the past three years he has been the mentor for the annual Todd Young Composer Awards, where eight young composers selected from nationwide entries receive coaching and have works recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
He also hosts workshops at his own compositional haven at Waitarere Beach, including a retreat for ten young composers last year, and another one planned for composers aged between 50-70 later this year.
His dedication to the cultural fabric of the country and his local community has not gone unnoticed – he was recently named one of 12 recipients of the 2021 Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian Awards, where Deputy Mayor Sarah Free said the awardees “highlight the inspiration and energy given to many causes and communities that have brought people together.”
Upcoming Projects in NZ
A raft of John’s latest works are scheduled to be performed here in New Zealand, with an imminent Chamber Music New Zealand tour of Irirangi for flute and taonga pūoro in six NZ cities, his marimba concerto Djinn to be performed by Orchestra Wellington and Australian percussionist Claire Edwardes in November, and the premiere of a new work to be premiered by Swiss percussionists Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Wellington in May 2022. Psathas’ newest works are inspired by social, political, and climate-driven issues, and he has just been commissioned with funding from Creative New Zealand to write a new multi-media work – inspired by the writings of cultural critic Henry A. Giroux – for pianists Michael Houstoun (NZ) and Dawn Hardwick (UK).