Overview

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Commissioned by ECAT with financial support from Creative New Zealand, this work is inspired by one of the few remnants of ancient Greek music, a short song by the composer Seikilos from the second or first century BC beginning with the words Hoson zes (given here in a contemporary translation):

While you’re alive, shine, man,
Don’t be the least bit blue.
Life’s for a little span;
Time demands its due.

It is engraved on a tombstone as an epitaph by Seikilos for his wife. While writing this piece I found myself contemplating the implications of the occasion it had been commissioned to mark. My own biculturalism and sense of geographical dislocation has resulted in a lifelong fascination with the endless motion of restless people throughout history. As both an insider and outsider I have been shaped as a composer and as a person by what I perceive as the greatest lesson to be learned from my Greek heritage: live while you can.

The work is dedicated to my mother and father, Emmanuel and Anastasia Psathas.

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In Focus:

Seikilos

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Project Details

Seikilos

for Orchestra

Commissioner: ECAT with financial support from Creative New Zealand

Instrumentation: 2(pic:pic).2.2.2 / 4.3.3.2 / timp.2perc / str

Dedication: to my mother and father, Emmanuel and Anastasia Psathas.

Premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Kenneth Young (cond) on December 5, 1998 in Edinburgh, Scotland

Difficulty Level:
Advanced
Duration:
12:15
Type:
Original
Instrument Tags:
Piccolo
Flute
Oboe
Clarinet
Bassoon
French Horn
Trumpet
Trombone
Bass Trombone
Tuba
Timpani
Mixed Percussion
Violin
Viola
Cello
Double Bass
Winds
Brass
Percussion
Strings

Programme Note

John Psathas (1966—)

Seikilos

Kiwi-Greek composer John Psathas has become one of the most important composers of the Greek diaspora. Though he shot to international fame for writing much of the music for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics, long-time listeners of New Zealand classical music will already be familiar with his propulsive high-energy style, thanks to works like Matres Dance and his piano and percussion concerto View From Olympus, commissioned by Dame Evelyn Glennie. Many up-and-coming New Zealand composers also owe a debt of thanks to him in his role as a long-time previous teacher of composition at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington. Seikilos, written in 1998, resembles many of his other works by drinking deeply from the well of Psathas' Greek heritage. Specifically, this work refers to another Greek composer, Seikilos, who lived during the first or second centuries BC. Engraved on the tombstone of his wife is a song Seikilos wrote. In a contemporary translation, the song's words mean:

While you're alive, shine, man Don't be the least bit blue. Life's for a little span; Time demands its due. Death as the creator of meaning in life has long been a theme in art and philosophy, but Psathas sees this as specifically connected to his ethnicity: "I have been shaped as a composer and as a person by what I perceive as the greatest lesson to be learned from my Greek heritage: live while you can."

His focus on percussion and rhythm is evident from the first bar of the piece. The timpani beats out a chaotic leaping battery of notes, underscored by sliding strings. Longer brass lines enter as a new element over pattering percussion (often a continuous throughline running through the piece). Twittering woodwinds creep in, their leaping figures adding another rhythmic layer. Their triple-tongued semiquaver figures find their way into the trumpets and then into the whole orchestra, as the piece coalesces into a vibrant whirlwind of energy. The upper strings' later unison intricate figures give off a Greek vibe with their melismatic curlicues. Again, the percussion carries us through to a final climax, preceded by trombone and string glissandos and rat-a-tat triplet figures that propel us into a final eerie end.

13 MINUTES

Full Instrumentation

2(pic:pic).2.2.2 / 4.3.3.2 / timp.2perc / str

2 Flutes (both dbl Pic)
2 Oboes
2 Clarinets
2 Bassoons

4 Horns
3 Trumpets
3 Trombones
2 Tuba

Timpani

2 Percussionists

Violin 1
Violin 2
Viola
Cello
Double Bass

Resources

RESEARCHERS: EXPLORE SEIKILOS ORCHESTRA AT THE ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY