7 Dec 2018

John Psathas - the musical storyteller

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 7 December 2018

Wellington based composer John Psathas is arguably one of the most creative storytellers of the musical world.

The Emeritus Professor of Music at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington has resigned from his full-time teaching role to spend more time creating new compositions.


John Psathas Photo: Gareth Watkins / Lilburn Trust / Wallace Arts Trust

For Psathas, music is a work of art and should tell a story. It’s also about grabbing the audience from the first note, something Psathas tries to do in every composition.

“What matters to me the most is that a composer is creating a section of time in which an audience will travel through from A to Z,” he says. “At the beginning you have to grab the audience by the hand and say ‘come with me … we’re going on this amazing adventure together’.”

He says a lot of the narrative and story-telling in his compositions comes from just the title.

“A good title is a really good asset… it gives you a contextual frame for listening,” he says. “If there is a concept… [a title] can be valuable. [But] it has to be sincere; it can’t be cynical or manipulative.”

His story-telling is also about providing a multi-sensory experiences for the audience, something festivals around the world are asking for. “Music on stage … is no longer enough,” he says. “[It’s about] thinking how to present and share music as an artform.”

He’ll be spending more time on commissions now that he has stepped down from his full-time teaching career. He enjoyed his teaching role and sharing his knowledge and experiences with the next generation of composers but has found a sustainable way to live and create music.

His calendar is booked up for the next four years already. “It’s fair to ask for a fee that will give you a realistic amount of time to produce your best work,” he says. “I feel like I’ve earned it … I can write pieces I’ve been dying to write for a long time for people who I respect so much.

“It’s exhilarating and terrifying!”