John Psathas

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Donald Nicolson (piano)
New Zealand String Quartet
  Helene Pohl (violin)

  Douglas Beilman (violin)

  Gillian Ansell (viola)

  Rolf Gjelsten (cello)
  Justine Cormack (violin)
  Ashley Brown (cello)
  Sarah Watkins (piano)
John Psathas (gamelan, loops and sequences)

Best Classical Album finalist - 2011 NZ Music Awards

Helix is a truly 21st century album. Inspired by an eclectic range of musical interests, the album takes the listener on a millennia-leaping journey, from the sounds of the ancient Mediterranean, through the dance music of 18th century Italy, to the latest dubstep and drum’n’bass beats of 21st century South East London. The album features stellar performances by the New Zealand String Quartet, NZTrio and Donald Nicolson.


Review by Graham Reid, ELSEWHERE

It seems entirely fitting that the final piece on New Zealand composer John Psathas' new album Helix should be dedicated to Jack Body, a composer like Psathas who has always looked outward as much as inward for his inspiration. Body has found source material in Indonesia and in his tribute Waiting:Still, Psathas pairs the spare piano figures of Donald Nicolson with himself on gently resounding gamelan for a meditative piece which seems both weightless and grounded simultaneously, and which drifts to a close leaving the listener aching for just that little more to . . .

Helix is an exceptional album in its imaginative and musical scope, much like the man himself who has spanned the classical world but also seems to have a populist touch and interest (his orchestral arrangements for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on the album with the psychedelic blues-rock band Little Bushman) and his music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics in '04. Psathas' compositions have been played internationally by percussionist Evelyn Glennie, pianist Michael Houston and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman. And of course many orchestras. His work is that rarity in the contemporary classical world, it genuinely crosses over from the art music crowd to a general audience. And does so with no artistic compromise at all. It is music which looks out and in.

As a New Zealander born to Greek parents, Psathas has also assimilated and incorporated a European sensibility into his music, which also refers to the urgency of rock music as well as jazz (he has worked with jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker). But as a collection, Helix is very different again. The opening three pieces (His Second Time, Minos and Demonic Thesis, entitled Songs for Simon) have Nicolson's piano -- which is increasingly simmering on His Second Time, vigorously angular and jazz-like on Demonic Thesis -- against the composer on rhythmic loops and sequences behind which patter, create cosmic ambience, come off like a cool jazz drummer dropping soft touches with brushes, or bring home some rushing beats in the manner of rapid-fire young techno artists. This is an impressive opening trilogy of pieces which races to the finish line at a breathless pace, and would not sound out of place in a contemporary jazz collection.

What follows however is the New Zealand String Quartet on Psathas' transcription of an exotically Mediterranean Kartsigar by the Greek composer Manos Achalinotopoulos (whose album Flight on Light has had simultaneous release on Rattle, and tellingly includes some New Zealand jazz performers). This hypnotic piece -- in two sections, the second dramatic and twisting -- refers to traditional dance as much as contemporary classical and world music, and is followed in turn by Sleeper for solo piano where the more obvious reference point might be the more gentle end of early "minimalist" works by Philip Glass or the refined chamber jazz on ECM. There's a case to be made that Sleeper is in fact more innovative and interesting than much of the recent piano work coming out of the ECM roster.

Then there is the three-part title piece by the NZTrio where Greek elements appear again, and in Tarantismo -- after the melancholy and lachrymose central section -- the energy levels are pushed through Sarah Watkins' piano behind swirling and stabbing and searing violin (Justine Cormack) and cello (Ashley Brown). Helix is an album of exceptional musical and emotional scope and, much like its composer perhaps, doesn't settle in one place but is on a constant search for meaning and expression - looking outward as much as inward.


Review by William Dart, THE CRITIC'S CHAIR (April 2011)

John Psathas' latest disc is far, far removed from his spectacular View from Olympus, which so caught the media imagination a few years back. It's a chamber music album, with various artists navigating nervy, demanding music, sometimes against beats, loops or other electronic companionship from the composer himself. Songs for Simon as played by a fiercely concentrating Donald Nicholson is a suitably mesmeric opener, underpinned by rhythms that suggest trickier things may be on the way. In Kartsigar for string quartet, early Psathas weaves exotic Mediterranean melodies against the gentle throb, not of beats or electronica, but of string pizzicato. Psathas's title piece for piano trio, Helix, goes back to 2007 and it has a third movement which has since been adapted for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's New Zeibekiko. It's not quite as fulsome when played by Justine Cormack, Sarah Watkins and Ashley Brown, but it’s a minor miracle what a big sound, and an exciting one, the three musicians can make. 


RAT-D022 (April, 2011)

This recording was produced with the support of Creative New Zealand, Victoria University, and the New Zealand School of Music

Production: John Psathas
Recording: Steve Garden
Design: UnkleFranc
Photography: Keith Hill

Songs for Simon
   His Second Time  (4:11)
   Minos     (4:27)
   Demonic Thesis      (4:49)
 Commissioned by Jack Richards for the SOUNZtender Project

   Part One  (6:39)
   Part Two  (7:04)
 Based on a transcription of a performance by Manos Achalinotopoulos

 Commissioned by Wellington Chamber Music Society with support from Creative New Zealand

Sleeper (4:12)
 Commissioned by James Wallace Arts Trust for Stephen De Pledge
 Dedicated to the memory of young Fergus Schulz. An intrepid traveller, still travelling…

   Archon : Metron  (8:32)
   The Biggest Nothing Of Them All  (7:01)
   Tarantismo  (6:49)
 Commissioned by NZTrio with support from the University of Auckland

Waiting : Still (5:36)
 Dedicated to Jack Body

All music published by Promethean Editions