In 2022 Psappha celebrates its 30th anniversary. The group was founded in Manchester by Tim Williams, a percussionist who chose the name Psappha after a work for solo percussion by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Psappha was the ancient name of Sappho, the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos whose words were used in songs around 600BC.
Ahead of their concert in Sheffield, Psappha’s pianist and incoming Artistic Director, Benjamin Powell sat down with Music in the Round’s Events and Participation Coordinator Ellen Sargen who began by asking Ben how he would introduce Psappha:
Psappha’s reputation was made by their peerless performances of modernist works from the immediate decades after the Second World War, with a focus on the music of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti and Elliott Carter. Psappha also began to stage experimental music theatre works, especially those of Peter Maxwell Davies, who would eventually become Psappha’s patron.
Their performances of Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies are always without a conductor, which removes a certain barrier between musicians and audience, giving this already disturbing music an increased sense of anxiety and absurdity:
Psappha has always reflected changing trends in the new music world, and as interest has moved away from the European avant-garde of the 1950s-1970s, so too has Tim Williams’ approach to programming. Psappha has worked with jazz musicians like guitarist Mike Walker:
Psappha has also collaborated with many musicians working in styles outside of the Western tradition, including the sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun.
Ellen and Ben discussed the relationship between composers and performers and how tat plays out in the work of Psappha:
Psappha has always worked with composers in the early years of their career, some of whom are now major figures in the music world. Through the Composing for … scheme, composers get the chance to work for a year with the group’s musicians, leading to recordings and performances of a new work. Ellen asked Ben about this strand of Psapppha’s work:
Two of these works feature in Psappha’s Sheffield performance.
Watch it now: Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade – Three études for piano and flower pots
Watch it now: Joanna Ward – Translucent
Tim Williams is also one of the few percussionists in the UK to play the Hungarian cimbalom in concerts of new music.
Watch it now: Keting Sun – Yong for cimbalom and violin
Psappha still performs landmark modernist works, and their concert in Sheffield as part of Sounds of Now included The Axe Manual by Harrison Birtwistle for piano and a huge range of percussion. This extraordinarily difficult piece is all about the onstage relationship between the two performers: that relationship can be harmonious and at times even placid; but in the blink of an eye it can descend into violent combat. Ellen Asked Ben about the physicality of performing such pieces:
Watch it now: Harrison Burtwistle – The Axe Manual
And to conclude their conversation, Ben described recent changes for Psappha and Ellen asked Ben one of the questions which underpins Sounds of Now — what is chamber music?
Read and watch more on Psappha’s website.