A worthy sacrifice

Renowned composer John Psathas received even bigger acclaim after his composition of Athens Olympic Games ceremony

Composer John Psathas shares a universal tale of the experience of the child of Greek immigrants. His parents Emmanuel and Anastasia Psathas entered the food business when they migrated from Michaniona to New Zealand in the ’60s. His parents’ dream wasn’t to spend half of their lifetime cooking fish and chips in the take away shops they owned. But they did so to create opportunities for their children.
As other immigrants, they would have their kids working from the early age. But the thing was that their businesses would close late in the night.
After his night shift, their son, then 11-year-old John Psathas would come home energised and restless. With eyes wide open, he would lay down in the dark room, headphones on, while going through all the albums his family had in their music collection.
Young and without any knowledge of music and no point of reference, he would listen to his father’s classical and opera albums, pop, Greek – everything. From Theodorakis, to Elton John, Keith Jarrett, and Split Enz.
Today, an internationally renowned composer and Professor at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand School of Music, John Psathas says without a shadow of a doubt that becoming a musician and composer was related to his experience in the family business.
He is often referred to as one of the three biggest living composers of the Greek diaspora, among the most talented composers of his generation; a man who composed the ceremonial music for the opening and closing of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Yet, even though he has written for orchestras, he doesn’t think of himself as a classical musician.
“The problem is if you do anything for an orchestra they think of you as a classical musician. These days those borders between the genre and the styles have been rubbed out in a lot of places. Everybody is crossing over, it’s a new age,” John tells Neos Kosmos.
When talking to John, you can’t escape the feeling of pride he emits when talking of his Greek heritage, his patriko spiti in Michaniona, his parents’ sacrifice, and the music.
John was born in the small New Zealand town of Taumarunui; a place where there were no Greeks for miles.
“I think that their philosophy was if they were going to another end of the world, they should get to know it, and not just have a bubble of their own people. They were keen to become part of New Zealand society.”
The way John remembers his way into music is connected with the strong experiences he had while immersing into it, night after night, after his shift in the restaurant was finished. Music was incredibly powerful to him.
“I started having really strong experiences with music. Listening to it on my own, in the dark, I became addicted to certain pieces – I would listen to them hundreds times. I completely fell in love with music, but also what I did is created a very isolated world, that took me inside myself rather than outside. I never sang and I never danced; I never dance today – which is a huge handicap when attending Greek dances,” he says with laugh.
The life revelation for John came early. At the age of 12, he had made a decision that the most amazing experience that you could have would to be a person that creates the music, that gives someone else the experience he was living while listening to music.
By the time he left high school and entered university aged only 17, in terms of theory of music he knew way more than he needed to.
“I became like a music theory junkie, I went to all of these after-school courses and couldn’t get enough.”
For what may sound as a ‘mission impossible’ for piano virtuosos, now renowned composer started playing piano at the age of 12. At the age of 16, he auditioned for university and was accepted as a pianist.
“I think of myself as a very average piano player. But looking back, I must have made a phenomenal progress in those few years – even though I have nothing left to show for it,” John says.
“I used to play the piano all night. My parents eventually moved to a new house, where they put my room four walls away from their bedroom. I would sit at about midnight – when they would wake up in the morning, I would still be playing, and than I would fall asleep at school.”
Depicting what was it like growing up as a musician in a Greek immigrants’ family, John says his parents were open, but as a proper Greek parents all they wanted to know was if their childrew would be able to look after themselves.
When the time came – and it became obvious that for John there was no path in life other than music – his father Emmanuel had no context in music where to place his son’s virtuosity.
“He didn’t know if I was any good, so without me knowing he went to see one of my piano teachers. ‘What do you think, I don’t know what to do’, he told her. On my teacher’s question ‘what do you want for your son?’, my father replied ‘I just want him to be able to pay the bills and to support his family’. Once the teacher said ‘he is very likely to be able to do that’, I had all their support.”
When I am creating music…
“The nuts and bolts of the music are something I avoid talking about. I have been surrounded by musical analysis and deconstruction my entire life and I have an almost superstitious dread of destroying the magic of music by discussing the materials in any technical way. When I write it is a revelatory experience; I do not know in what way the piece will unfold as I begin the first few bars,” John Psathas once wrote.
It sounds unreal, but Psathas is probably one of the very few composers that has never written a non-commissioned job. From an early age, while still at University, he was offered more projects than he could do. Since than, all his works were commissioned and championed around the world, by leading international musicians like Evelyn Glennie, the most famous classical percussionist.
In a commissioned music world, motivation for one piece could certainly come from picking a project that earns a lot of money. But John Psathas has never done that.
The motivation for one piece, he says, shows itself in the reasons that drive him to picks one project.
“The motivation that drives me the most is always in the project where I’m going to learn and develop the most, come out of it better – in my craft or my art. Composing is a gift, it’s a luxury, a privilege – but also a very lonely thing to do. You spend 80 per cent of your working life on your own, making music.”
And the pay off for that, what makes it worth it for John, is the amazing lifetime of discovery.
“Music is there to affect people, emotions, to bring people together, to make them dance, all these beautiful things. And for me, my whole life has been finding ways, discovering and learning the magic, the mystery of how that happens, in music. And so, I’ll pick a project that takes me further into that universe, unexplored.
“That’s how it starts. When I sit down to actually write the music, I am really excited and curious and wired, I can’t wait to get into it. And that’s been the case every single day of every single piece that I’ve written. Every day, every step reveals something new; it’s an amazing universe to be in, that musical universe.”
“Music has the ability to introduce positive energy into the world. The thing that keeps me connected to music is that it’s one of a few really positive binding energies that brings people together, one of the things where you can share positive energy. The experience lives within you afterwards, it leaves you with something for life – and I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of that.”
The experience of a migrant child
The truth is music does not really come from music – it comes from life, John says. Amongst the book he read, the people he met, the history he witnessed, one of the biggest influences on the music he creates is his life as the child of immigrants in a distant land.
About his adolescent years when he played with a Greek band in Wellington, in taverns, at Greek christenings and weddings, he says the experience of playing the zembekiko, when everybody gets up and starts dancing, can’t compare with any other experience he had in classical or any other music.
“The power of music for immigrants is profound. My experiences with music, because I was an immigrant child, were really strong. It wasn’t just the top 40 on the radio in the background of the kitchen – music had so much meaning, it was a way of remembering your home, your culture, the people you lost, the ones you miss.”
If someone was to use key words, John’s music is intense, has a strong rhythmic energy. From Matre’s Dance, a maximum-energy duet for percussion and piano that brought him international fame, to View from Olympus, Helix and Zeibekiko (an entire programme celebrating the heritage of Greek music from Antiquity to the present day, commissioned at the request of the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble), his work is epic, fresh, alive, hot blooded, highly-energetic.
And in pieces like View from Olympus, concerto for piano, percussion and orchestra, partly written from the balcony of the family house in Michaniona, from the cliff overlooking the Mount Olympus, it’s like John’s work is an ear into the seemingly still alive world of Ancient Greek Gods, singing and celebrating.
Music, for music
For the sacrifice and opportunities his parents created for him and his sister, John feels huge obligation to make them proud and, more so, to make them feel that their sacrifice was worth it.
Every time John’s father Emmanuel visits Wellington, members of the Greek community congratulate him on what his son has achieved. You must be very proud, they tell him.
“I am very proud of my son, because he is a good person. It’s great that he is doing good in his career as well,” he replies.
“That’s always been the thing that I got from my father – whatever you do, it doesn’t count for anything if you are not a good person. And if you enter the world of fame, and of being successful in the public eye – it is such an important thing to hang on to. It is your life saver,” John tells.
“There are two things you have when you do something in arts and in public. Your work and your persona. The public is aware of both of those things. These days, there is a huge focus on the personality.
“The Olympic Games were and will always be the biggest thing I’ve ever done, in terms of me myself becoming an object of focus of the public and the media. In fact, what the Olympics did for me is made me understand that I don’t want that focus at all. Shortly afterwards when I probably, in retrospect, could have capitalized on a lot of opportunities, I did the opposite – I thought I don’t really want this attention.
“What that means though is – if the work does well, I know that it’s because of the work, not because of me, or because of my public personality. It’s just because of my music.”
“But nothing will ever beat the Olympics, nothing will be bigger than that… Unless, now I am getting into the film music, I win the Oscar,” says John with laugh.
To listen to John Psathas work, visit his YouTube channel www.youtube.com/JohnPsathas