John Psathas has been one of our highest-profile composers for some time. His accessible mix of minimalism, free-jazz rhythms and Greek folkloric heritage has endeared him to us all.
For this new-look Psathas – Between Zero and One performed by Strike Percussion – Christchurch Arts Festival staff menacingly give us ear plugs advising us to sit as far back as possible from the stage while being assaulted with 100dB aural brutality from two Big Bang sonic mosaics “co-created” by Jack Hooker, which bookend the 70-minute non-stop piece.
During my post-concert chat with Psathas, he praises the hyper-versatility of Strike as indispensable. Imaginative use of their armoury of different drums, round chromium bowls, tuned percussion such as marimba, piles of body percussion (especially from the mouth), plus choreographed movement, keeps impact constantly on the boil.
For instance, Strike’s one female enters whirring a long rope round an outer circle of drummers. One by one, they push their drum forward to be struck by the rope, then withdraw singly, abandoning her and the whirring.
This interaction within Strike is so spontaneous you think they must be improvising. “No,” says Psathas. “Their memories are as abnormal as their playing. Every aspect of that work is written. The score took me a year to write.”
Where’s the new Psathas? As well as thinking in more visionary breadth, he gives us a fluid multi-arts work. A huge bank of control panels at the rear of the hall provides all the visual computer wizardry projecting abstract patterns constantly changing shape and colour, with Strike members faded in and out.
The new Psathas then tells me his climactic point: “It’s a culmination of all my past life in rhythm.” He builds on the eternally modern Rite of Spring where Igor Stravinsky uses perpetual changes of meter and time signatures in the opening Danse Sacrale.
In one place, Psathas has a cluster of about 20-part rhythmic counterpoint. In shorter mosaics, he sometimes puts three independent ideas into a quodlibet of different speeds, lengths and meters. In this masterpiece, the mindsets of Gyorgy Ligeti (Études, Chamber Concerto third movement) and Psathas are identical: a quest for variability of all possible rhythmic parameters.
For all the work’s modernity, Psathas gets a standing ovation in what could be one of the arts festival’s high points.