6 Apr 2019

Sound Lounge: Composer Dissection - John Psathas on Helix

From Sound Lounge, 9:30 pm on 6 April 2019
Woman with frame drum 390-380 BCE

Woman with frame drum 390-380 BCE Photo: Creative Commons

There's a mysterious, instinctual flow within live traditional folk music which seems effortless and magical. But how do you capture that and notate it?

John Psathas talks about this and more in dissecting his work Helix, a post-modern musical mash up of cultures and eras.

Movement 1 - Archon: Metron

John describes Helix as an epic piece and a massive undertaking for performers learning it, because rhythmically he took it to quite a far place. In the case of the first movement, 'Archon: Metron', that 'far place' is ancient Greece.

"That was such an incredible world, say 500 B.C., what was going on with music then. It's so advanced in so many ways. So the first movement really explores a way of working with rhythm that hearkens back to that time."

Rhythm was an important element of ancient Greek music because their music was connected to dance as well as to poetic texts and meters. They believed that melody without rhythm is "disordered, inert and dark" while it was "vigorous, energetic and precise" once rhythm was added.

Movement 2 - The Biggest Nothing of Them All

The second movement, 'The Biggest Nothing of Them All', is named after a quote from Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now.

It refers to a point in the film where the French are leaving as the US is arriving, two empires transitioning in their occupation of Vietnam. The French reflect that “we fight and die over nothing and this is the biggest nothing of them all.”  For Psathas that is a key realisation and this movement is “all sadness, tragedy and loss."

Movement 3 - Tarantismo

"Prior to writing Helix I'd been transcribing a lot of folk music, and I really wanted to understand, for instance, when a folk clarinettist or violinist from Turkey or Bulgaria or Greece or Egypt or wherever, does their thing. What is it they're actually doing? Why, to my ears, is that so amazing? What's the magic there? What are the mysteries? The only way you can figure that out is by writing it out."

"In the third movement especially it's like a gyspy violinist is playing over the top of a groove, because they're being very slippery around the rhythm but it's beautiful the way that it happens."

But from a listener's point of view, John says this is all irrelevant.

"What matters is what you hear. What I would prefer is that you feel the rhythm and tonality as an emotional state, you feel the rhythm making your physical body react."

Helix was commissioned by NZTrio in 2006 who recorded it for John Psathas's album Helix released by Rattle Records.