The All Seeing Sky, a new double percussion concerto by John Psathas will be premiered this week by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, with a second performance with Orchestra Wellington a week later. Karlo Margetić caught up with John to talk about the new work.

The All Seeing Sky was commissioned for Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach. How did you meet these guys? Can you tell us about some projects you did with them before?

My relationship is really with Fabian Ziegler. Luca I’m meeting for the first time when he comes to New Zealand next week. Fabian and I are into our fourth project now. The first was a reworking of View From Olympus, to create a new karaoke version, but I upgraded it with electric guitars, basses and synths, things like that, rather than just an orchestra backing track. Then he commissioned a duo for himself and his wife Akvilė Šileikaitė, for piano, vibes and backing track called Atalanta. [It] has really done well, it’s taken off and is getting played a huge amount. Then Fabian put together a percussion consortium and commissioned a piece for solo percussion, backing track, and video. He commissioned Filip Merčep, a percussionist and video artist, to make a separate layer that goes with the piece – which is fantastic. That’s called RealBadNow, all one word! This double concerto is the fourth project that we’ve done together.

How did the plan for this concerto come about?

Fabian wanted a double percussion concerto, and I’m keen to do that because I’ve written a couple of solo percussion concertos, and two quadruple percussion concertos. I haven’t written a double. The tendency is that [orchestral programmers] freak out so much when you say ‘percussion concerto’ because they know it’s going to involve basically everything! Because percussion can be so big, the orchestra also tends to be really big to match the percussion, and that means [it’s] really expensive. Fabian and I decided we were going to scale the whole thing back, so I suggested that we go for a Mozart-sized orchestra, and in fact I think we went even smaller. The [solo] percussion is just one vibraphone, one marimba. [It] was fascinating writing it with that limitation. If you know any of my other works, this will be different – there is a lot of space and clarity in the sound because there wasn’t enough to fill it up with! It was very limited, but in a beautiful way, I really enjoyed [writing] it.

Can you tell us about the subject matter of The All Seeing Sky?

The subject matter emerged from the writing, which is generally how it is for me. The All Seeing Sky, which is the name of the piece and of the last movement, refers to the idea of a kind of omnipotent surveillance. The idea of God has for long been that not even your thoughts are private, that you have thought crime, that Orwellian idea that even your thoughts can be monitored and judged. With the breaking down of religions and the changes in faith over the last 100 or 150 years, there’s been a vacuum created in various parts of society and culture, and [it’s] so interesting to see what’s [filled that vacuum]: particularly the introduction of technology and social media. Also what’s fascinating is the transformation of private life into a public performance, which is what happens online, and also the fact that nothing is secret when you’re online: all of your data, all of your history – which is often so many of your thoughts. [It’s] a kind of diary of your thinking. There are generations being born now that won’t understand the concept of privacy, they won’t understand it the way I’ve understood it. That’s the end of the piece. But the way it begins: I’d again read Dante’s Inferno. I really, really enjoy reading that book, because the older I am, the more I get out of [it]. At the same time I was reading it, I came across Gustave Doré’s illustrations inspired by the Inferno. I became fixated on a couple of these.

Gustave Doré – Crossing the Styx, 1861

They’re so immersive!

Oh my God! Aren’t they! I ended up ordering the book so I could spend time with [the illustrations]. There’s one image of somebody being taken across the river Styx: you’re in the world of the living, you cross the river and you’re in the world of the dead. In Doré’s image there are people in the water trying to get [in] the boat, there’s just suffering all around. I had a moment where I thought ‘what would that feel like to be on that boat’, to know you are headed for Hell? What I’ve created is very serene and disturbed, this idea of ‘wow, this is actually happening’. In that movement, there’s another reflection, the idea that those waiting for you, the bureaucrats of Hell, those preparing your punishments, would have a great fanfare for your arrival – they would be so glad you’re arriving! That’s the first movement. The second movement is called The Upper World. In Inferno there is a moment where the traveller and the poet emerge from Hell and they see the world again. I had this thought that if you did travel to Hell and you came back out again, it’s possible you’d see a lot of similarities [with] the world we live in. That’s the idea of the upper world, a kind of Hell on earth. I didn’t quite make it to the positive in this piece, I normally do but—

—You hint at it towards the end.

Yeah, a little bit. Musically there’s a more positive ending.

Do you think artists can really do anything in the face of all the horrible things that are happening? It’s so easy to feel inadequate, like you’re not contributing.

I’m a big fan of documentary maker Adam Curtis. One of the things he’s been talking about is the hyper-individualistic age that we live in, in the sense that ‘what I feel from minute to minute is the most important thing’, that’s the world we’re in. Hyper-individualism is amazing because of all the freedoms that come with it, but it makes it very hard to do things collectively. So this is now the problem, self-expression has become the most important thing, not collective expression. The problem with art right now is that it feeds into the self expression problem because we’re all expressing ourselves. The only kind of change that will matter is something that is more group oriented, not nationalistic, but something to do with groups of people working together for a positive goal. I think abstract music, music with no words that puts sounds together and creates an experience, I think is incredibly, if not ultimately limited in terms of making any kind of impact or change. Until you introduce something literal, song lyrics or text, conveying something very literal and concrete, then essentially what we’re really doing is feeding into people’s feelings. We’re swimming around in the soup of human feeling.

Allowing people to map themselves onto an experience.

Yes, exactly that.

Speaking of surveillance, you recently decided to get off social media completely. How has that affected your life?

Entirely positively. The 1% that’s not positive is that every now and then I have a bit of angst about what I’m missing out on – but I don’t know what I’m missing out on! Leaving [social media] was part of a larger project to try and take control of two things. One is the attention that is focused on my work, however much or little that might be. Now if anybody wants to find out anything about what I’m doing, mostly they have to come to my website. I’ve put a huge amount of resource into it, and it’s really working. The other thing I do is produce a newsletter. The thing about a newsletter is that [it results in] much more solid relationships, it’s not as many people, but it matters more, and I get all kinds of feedback and all kinds of things that come from that. It’s been extremely positive. The other thing was that I wanted to control what triggers the dopamine hits in my life, literally! People often talk about how negative they feel after using [social media]. I try to be very controlled about what I absorb now, and I have to tell you, it’s [had] a massive impact [on] my mind, my stability, balance, my ability to have conversations, the actual quality of the interactions I have with people. I feel like I’m a much better contributor to a conversation. It’s made me a better listener.

Your concerto has a very practical origin story, and percussionists were until relatively recently quite starved of repertoire. How have you approached filling that gap? How have you seen the repertoire change?

The change I’ve seen is that as more and more composers have been writing for percussion, the repertoire itself has gained more depth and substance. More serious and substantial works are being produced – really amazing repertoire. Because percussion started late in the 20th century as a viable solo instrument, it doesn’t have Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto written for it, it doesn’t have any of those pieces. We’re in that sort of environment where there is this wide open playing field to create really amazing work, and you’re not butting up against dozens of pre-existing master works.

It’s quite rare to have a multi-year composer residency like you have at Orchestra Wellington. How has that been and can you see a trajectory over the three years?

Any situation where you get two of your orchestral works performed by a great orchestra each year to a really open and enthusiastic audience is a great gift, and I’m deeply appreciative of it. We’ve also built-in to the residency a recording project. We’re recording four concertos as part of the residency. The impact of the three years culminated in the writing of [The All Seeing Sky]. As I was writing this piece (it’s also being played by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and The City Lights Orchestra in Lucerne) I was kind of thinking of it as my Orchestra Wellington residency project. After three years of working with the orchestra I could picture the face of every single player as I was writing, and I had this amazing personal awareness of the players in the orchestra. It’s very rare to be in that sort of situation, and I think I wrote differently because of that.

How has working out in Waitārere affected your writing?

Profoundly really. I finished teaching at the end of 2018, so in 2019-21 I was out at Watārere maybe 80% of the time, a lot of that time completely on my own, composing. I had a massive roster because I was making the transition [to freelancing]. I had to work extremely hard. I found that if you can immerse yourself in a work for three days in a row with no interruptions, and then it becomes five days, then two weeks, then three weeks, and more, then something extraordinary happens. You basically go into an altered state with your relationship to the work. The extension of time is the important thing because a momentum builds up and a creative power emerges because you’ve internalised everything that’s going on in the work. Obviously the quantity of my output went up, but I definitely feel, qualitatively, it is also the best I’ve done, by far. I wish it on everyone that they have at least some period in their journey where they can take months, if possible, of just working on one piece without interruptions, so that by the end of it, when they’ve finished it, they go ‘I cannot improve that, that has everything I’m capable of’.

John’s composing space at Waitārere Beach, Horowhenua.

You’ve been hosting regular retreats for composers in Waitarere. Besides being an excuse to hang out with friends after being alone, do you have a broader goal with these get-togethers?

Absolutely. It’s to do with strength through community, which I think we’re sorely lacking in the arts. I think writers get together regularly to share work and give each other advice and so on, but certainly not composers. Nelson Composers’ Workshop is fantastic, but it’s once a year. There are so many people there it’s not particularly easy to get to know everybody.

We’re a profession of hermits as well.

But not necessarily willingly so! I had two retreats, one for composers 50-70 years old, the other for composers between around 23 and 40. I got to hang out with the older composers, and we had some really special moments, some really important conversations about a lifetime of doing this thing. We talked a lot about teaching and what that means to different people. Then two days later I was with younger composers and I was able to see the line from the younger to the older, to see the characteristics that are in the young composers, to understand how they can evolve into what these older composers were talking about. I feel in terms of  things like the loneliness, the isolation and so on, these experiences of being together – in a very trusting, safe way, to share work, to allow yourself to be enthusiastic, to be vulnerable, and to realise, ‘wow! all these people are incredibly supportive, I should hang out with them a bit more’ – these experiences are extremely valuable. If I have any agenda it’s to develop an awareness of the value of such a thing.

What have you got lined up next?

This month with Fabian and Luca is going to be great, we’ve got a concert with Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, then Day of Percussion here in Wellington, there’s a workshop at NZSM, then Orchestra Wellington, and the day after, a chamber concert at Wellington College. Then I’m going to drive them up the country, giving talks and masterclasses at Waikato and Auckland. I’m not sure they know, but I’m booking them to go zip-lining in Rotorua! I’ve got another amazing percussionist coming over in September, Alexej Gerassimez, to play my other concerto, Leviathan with Orchestra Wellington.

And a big, big orchestra!

Huge! His set-up is monstrous. But the big news for me is that I’m travelling overseas, finally. I’ll hear The All Seeing Sky in Switzerland and then [spend] two months in Greece with family.