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May 23, 2011 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

The Man With The Dulcimer: John Psathas on Good For Nothing

Professor John Psathas, Professor of Composition at Victoria University’s New Zealand School of Music, has been reaping the rewards for his own compositions for the new Kiwi film Good for Nothing. His score for this ‘Pavlova Western’ has received accolades at the 2011 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Psathas had previously been offered scoring projects but turned them down, reasoning “you have to feel something in order to write.” Good for Nothing was the first film he’d been approached about that he had strong feelings for. Watching a rough cut of the film, Psathas notes, he began to think to himself: “I could enhance that moment or I could bring this out or I could amplify the emotion.”

Psathas found inspiration for this, his first film score, in the plethora of old ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, filmed in Italy, usually with a couple of Hollywood stars thrown in. Psathas was attracted to its authenticity: its ability to make you “believe that it was in America”. Good for Nothing’s ‘Pavlova Western’ tag is not coincidental—the film was filmed in the McKenzie Country, but set in the American Southwest.

Ennio Morricone was the engineer of archetypal Western scoring found in iconic ‘shoot ’em up’ Western films. Psathas and director Mike Wallis decided that Morricone’s style “focused on the comedy too much, and it didn’t allow the film to have the layers”—layers needed for this unpredictable 21st Century cowboy film. In Psathas’ words: “the music to navigate […] those corners.”

Psathas painstakingly considered every detail of his 80-minute score, from how each instrument was played to every little chord. “Just the choice of the chord,” Psathas says, “totally imprints on the audience how to feel.” For Psathas and Wallis, it was often a case of trial and error until they found “the right tone,” as the music needed to communicate the character’s relationships as well as their identity and surroundings. It needed to reflect, Psathas says, the “utterly masculine environment” where “it’s all dirt and grit and everybody’s dirty.”

One challenge for Psathas was that director Mike Wallis “didn’t want anything electronic, he wanted it entirely acoustic” in order to complete the film’s realm. He wanted music “that could’ve come out of that world.” In response, Psathas made liberal use of guitars and a dulcimer, which is “very ethnic” and had the grit and dirt in the sound Mike sought. Percussion was employed as well as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in order to give majestic background to the epic landscape shots. The instruments themselves were manipulated to add ‘graunch’; for example, in stringed instruments, the heel of the bow was used to give “bite”.

For those studying music at Vic, watch out for his classes which he takes in Trimester 2—a film composition course, which he is now ‘qualified’ to teach due to his involvement with Good for Nothing. In the meantime, Psathas’ score is going from strength to strength, alongside the film, making it a must-see in coming months.


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