Interview: John Psathas – No Man’s Land

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NO MAN’S LAND John Psathas/Jasmine Millet/Mathew Knight Featuring 150 musicians from over 20 countries, composer John Psathas’s (ONZM) new-grand scale project, No Man’s Land, which debuts at Wellington’s New Zealand Festival, next month, unites descendants of opposing forces in WWI, on film, performing on the very sites where their kin  fought a century ago, with live musicians to create an epic global orchestra. Psathas is one of New Zealand’s most frequently performed composers, having worked with people varied as musicians Evelyn Glennie, Warren Maxwell and Manos Achalinotopoulos, writer Salman Rushdie, director Dana Rotberg, and jazz luminaries Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman.  In 2004 his music was performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics.  But this new work, No Man’s Land, which moves between musical genres and cultures references like flicking through a history book is quite possibly his most ambitious to date.  Tim Gruar listened in amazement, as the composer explained. “80% of the world’s population was involved in WWI. There are so many everyday stories from other ethnicities: Turkish, Polish, Armenian, Russian, Belgian, Greek, Indian.  So we decided to move away from ‘Euro-centric’ stories…chose places that aren’t as well covered, like Poland, for example – so ravaged by the war.  We filmed on the Ukraine border; on the Somme, Passchendaele, Belgium.” Part of the Scope was to find stories of everyday people, affected by the Great War. Women’s stories, for example, are represented by series of singers – Ariana Tikau (NZ); Oum (Morroco/France); Meeta Pandit (India); Hungarian Márta Sebestyén (“The English Patient”) and Jolanta Kossakowska (Poland).  “All from very different cultures but singing this continuous song, handing it over to each other as we move across a No Man’s Land…singing to their beloved across the distance…from all the sweethearts, mothers, sisters who were left behind across the world – sometimes forever.” “I came away from this project,” he says, “realising there are three versions of history.  The official ‘war office’ version; The oral history, told by those who lived through it or their descendants; and a third – what’s preserved in art, music. Like a folk song created straight after battle, women mourning lost sons – that’s the emotional history.”

The show, he explains, features a 7 piece group, performing “in response” to musicians on large screens filmed on location on the battlefields of Europe.  “There’s six distinct parts to the score – the last, an exchange between a Turkish player, an Armenian singer and a Kiwi saxophonist.  Turkey and Armenia are still dealing with issues from the last 100 years. Turkey and NZ were at war 100 years ago.  So this was remarkable, powerful metaphor for what we can imagine is possible.”

The concept for the project came from working with (percussion group) Strike and with Serj Tankin (System of a Down) on a commemorative event marking the 1915 Armenian Genocide. “A window opened for me to understand how powerful it can be to bring together video, music and live performance…and when you marry that with an historical landmark you maximise the potential, the audience is moved very deeply and left very reflective as a result.”

He praises Director Jasmine Millet, who was also the producer on the project, coordinating everything from council permissions to the logistics of moving around over 100 musicians and a camera crew around umpteen locations.  Developing scenes to match the music was also a huge creative challenge. “Normally, a composer sits down and creates the music for the scenes.  Instead, I created this 80 minute epic journey, then we filmed.  Completely back to front.  We did it this way to bring musicians together. Like taking two German and two Scottish percussionists to Polygon Wood (Ypres) to perform on the very soil where their ancestors were fighting 100 years earlier.  Jasmine came up with all these ideas to create narratives around this music, capturing the journeys of the musicians travelling to these battlefields to play, interspersed with archive footage of people 100 years earlier, also leaving home, for the same locations.”

Another level was to film the addition of recitations on death and the afterlife by prominent religious leaders: the Grand Mufti in the Grand Mosque, Paris; a Rabbi in Kraków; a Hindu Priest across Europe.  “We were exploring the spirituality of these soldiers who were constantly living one second away from death every day.”

When it came to performance Psathas collaborated in various ways from improvisation with drummers in European forests to Skype sessions with an Indian singer to working with the Strasbourg orchestra and a Polish choir. “This work represents a huge range of musical styles, cultures, the many kinds of traditions that were there.  My role is a sort of musical curator.  The bringing together of the actual spirits of all these musicians – that’s what makes the project special”

No Man’s Land

2 March

Michael Fowler Centre

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