John Psathas was born in 1966 and grew up in Taumaranui and Napier. He left high school early to study composition and piano at Victoria University of Wellington, supporting himself partly by playing regular gigs in a jazz trio. Studying with composer Jacqueline Fontyn in Belgium before committing himself to a career in New Zealand, John now lectures in the School of Music at Victoria University and continues to fulfil a busy schedule of commissions.
John Psathas (born 1966) is a New Zealand composer.
He has works in the repertoire of such high profile musicians as Evelyn Glennie, Michael Houstoun, Michael Brecker and the New Juilliard Ensemble, and is one of New Zealand's most frequently performed composers. He has established an international profile and receives regular commissions from organisations in New Zealand and overseas.
Psathas grew up in Taumarunui and then Napier. He left high school early to study composition and piano at Victoria University of Wellington. He supported himself as a student partly by playing up to nine gigs a week in a jazz trio.
Psathas studied further with composer Jacqueline Fontyn in Belgium before returning to New Zealand, where he has since lectured in music at Victoria University and continued to fulfil a busy schedule of commissions.
Early success came with Matre's Dance in 1991, a maximum-energy duet for percussion and piano that has since made Psathas' name internationally through having been taken up and championed by percussionist Evelyn Glennie. This work and Drum Dances are fast becoming standard repertoire for percussionists throughout the world.
According to his publisher Promethean Editions, a new work by John Psathas is an individual, unique entity, and his music is like that of no-one else. His 'sound' is difficult to define – the harmony and improvisational feel of jazz, the compelling rhythmic drive and excitement of rock music and the sustained repetitive textures of minimalism are apparent as influences, yet they combine and intermingle with something else more intangible. This undefinable quality is partly what makes his one of the most original voices in the arena of contemporary classical music in New Zealand.
Psathas' relationship with Evelyn Glennie has been a particularly fruitful one for them both. Her performing repertoire includes Matre's Dance, Drum Dances, Spike, Happy Tachyons and the double concerto for piano and percussion View From Olympus. She has recorded Matre's Dance on her CDs Drumming and Greatest Hits (BMG), and she continues to commission new works.
A highlight of 2000 was the premiere of the Saxophone Concerto at an outdoor concert (before an audience of 8000 people) at the 2 Agosto Festival in Bologna, Italy. This work was tailored to the particular improvising talents of tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker.
A retrospective concert of Psathas' chamber music was given in the 2000 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, culminating with the premiere of the specially commissioned Piano Quintet. In the programme to the concert, he described the process of creating his music:
"When I write music, it's not a sense of inventing I experience, as much as it is a sense of finding something that exists at the remote periphery of what I know. It is like seeing things – that aren't really there – in the corner of one's eye, but not spinning around to view them, because then they would simply cease to be. It is a case of being aware of a thing in one's peripheral vision and, while staring straight ahead, trying to decipher, without looking at it, the true nature of what it is. What one is finding is exactly the right thing for any given moment in a musical work."
John Psathas is not only one of New Zealand's most frequently performed, but also one of the finest amongst the younger generation of composers in this country. Internationally, John made his name in 1991 with Matre's Dance. A maximum-energy duet for percussion and piano, it was taken up and championed by world-famous Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. John's collaboration with Evelyn Glennie has been a particularly productive one-fruitful for both of them. Her performing repertoire includes John's Matre's Dance, Drum Dances, Spike, Happy Tachyons and the double concerto for piano and percussion, View From Olympus, and she has recorded Matre's Dance on several of her CDs. With his work now featuring in the standard repertoire of such high-profile musicians as Glennie, John has established an international profile and receives regular commissions from New Zealand and overseas.
Career highlights are numerous, for example in 2003 John had his work performed and recorded in Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, and America. A new CD, Fragments was launched to rave reviews. In the Listener, for example, Ian Dando celebrated John as "the best of our younger composers", enthusing that "his originality lunges" at you".
Notable performances of 2004 included the premiere season of Zeibekiko, a major commission from the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble (NBE), which invited him to create an entire programme based around the theme of 2500 years of Greek Music. This collaborative work was performed by the NBE throughout Holland and at the Bath Festival (UK) and will be (was) performed at the 2006 New Zealand International Arts Festival. John's Piano Concerto, commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, (for solo piano, percussion, harp and strings), was premiered at concerts throughout New Zealand by Stephen Gosling with the NZSO under James Judd.
The principal highlight of 2004, however, was the exposure John received as the composer of the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. John commuted several times between Wellington and Athens to work on the music and supervise the rehearsal process. His music included a number of fanfares and processionals to accompany the arrival of the IOC President, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron and preceded the Olympic oaths, and he was responsible for the soundtrack to the entire flame sequence of the ceremony. John also arranged the National Anthem of Greece, the Olympic Hymn and music by Shostakovich, Debussy and the foremost living Greek Composer Mikis Theodorakis that accompanied other parts of the ceremony. His compositions also featured during the fireworks at the Games closing ceremony.
John's View from Olympus is now travelling the world with the LA Philharmonic the latest orchestra to perform the piece. Internationally renowned soloists Evelyn Glennie and Philip Smith performed John's double concerto for percussion, piano and orchestra, with conductor Michael Christie in May 2005 and a recording of View from Olympus is underway. In November 2005, at the Wellington Michael Fowler Centre, the NZSO recorded the title track with soloists Michael Houstoun (piano, NZ) and Pedro Carneiro (percussion, Portugal), conducted by Marc Taddei. The production, undertaken by New Zealand art music label Rattle Records, has just begun. The end result, a combined CD/DVD package featuring 3 concertos traversing a massive stylistic and emotional range, is to be released late 2006.This project is the biggest orchestral recording to take place here to date and has been supported by Creative NZ, Victoria University and, more recently, Wellington City. For more information visit www.viewfromolympus.com, or www.rattle.co.nz.
Reflecting on his creative career, John says, "Composing for me is essentially a continual re-travelling of a journey that begins with 'any conceivable thing is possible at this moment' and concludes with, 'it couldn't be anything but this.' "