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Andy Akiho review: Music for strings, color, and percussion

By Matthew Neil Andrews
August 12, 2016
Featured, Music

Earlier this summer, one of my fellow MHCC percussionists was practicing this uncanny little 5/8 riff on the vibraphone, and he insisted that it was in 4/4, or anyways was written in 4/4. I later came to realize that this layering of meter is a central feature of that composer’s music. The riff was from a piece called NO one To kNOW one (stylized capitalizations revealing hidden messages being another trademark of this composer), and the accompanying video became my introduction to the weird world of Andy Akiho.

A few weeks later, Chamber Music Northwest, which had earlier included the 35-year-old Akiho as one of the rising young artists in its Protege Project, devoted a couple of concerts to the South Carolina born, New York-based composer’s music.

For those of you who have yet to encounter Andy Akiho, let me give you my first impressions: young man, clean shaven, intense and relaxed in the manner of most serious percussionists; gracefully virtuosic at his instrument, the steelpan of Trinidad, which he studied under the legendary Ray Holman; nervous and self-effacing at the microphone when introducing his music and his collaborators; precise, complex, groovy, modern, and fun as hell as a composer. Much of what he writes has a populist, dancy feel, even when he’s borrowing dissonant harmonies from Iannis Xenakis or riffing on the metric-modulation ideas of Elliott Carter, which, in his hands, remind me more of the faux-African prog of King Crimson or the math-grooves of Swedish metal group Meshuggah.

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo:

Andy Akiho joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

At his first CMNW concert at Alberta Rose Theatre, Akiho was accompanied by frequent collaborator Ian Rosenbaum (percussion), along with Portland State University professor and Florestan Trio cellist Hamilton Cheifetz and fellow CMNW Protege Project artists Brandon Garbot (violin) and Yevgeny Yontov (piano) in arrangements of selections from his Synesthesia Suite, a collection of fourteen early compositions (twelve colors corresponding to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, plus one each for black and white) written following an experience of synesthesia induced by playing octatonic licks at 2:00 a.m. with Holman and over 100 other steelpan players in Trinidad. All four of the calypso-like “color pieces” played at Alberta Rose sounded wonderful in their percussion and piano trio arrangements, and I was especially amused by Daidai Iro (Orange), in which pianist Yontov took a break from all the extended piano techniques to sit cross-legged down-stage and play an adorable little toy piano.

This relentless reinvention of musical material—the drive to “never perform a piece the same way twice”—is another characteristic of Akiho’s musical personality. The compositions making up the Synesthesia Suite, for instance, began life as solo steelpan pieces and have now appeared in versions for duos, chamber groups, even orchestra. Another classic Akiho composition, 21 (based on harmonic and melodic material derived from the twenty-first measure of the famous fugue in J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor), was originally written for cellist Mariel Roberts; that first version, written for steel pan and cello, has the cellist using looping technology and a bass drum to create layers of polymetric grooves. A later version, adapted for Roberts and percussionist Ian Rosenbaum, replaces the steel pan part with marimba. Akiho debuted yet another arrangement of 21 at Alberta Rose, reclaiming the steel pan part for himself and adapting the cello part (loops and all) to Rosenbaum’s marimba. For me, Akiho’s bemused description, from the stage, of all this shuffling was a huge part of the fun. My only real complaint is that the piano trio performed so little qua piano trio (aside from the Schubert trio they performed in the second half, that is). Of Akiho’s Five Movements for Piano Trio, they only performed the second—a haunting, Webernesque passacaglia built on an uncanny ersatz-swing ostinato played ably by cellist Cheifetz.

Sweet Synesthesia

Nothing in the Alberta Rose show could have prepared me for what happened at the second concert, presented in the basement of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall as part of CMNW’s New@Noon series. Rosenbaum began the concert with a solo for snare drum and electronics entitled Stop Speaking. I was first reminded of Steve Reich’s work with transcribed spoken word (most notably in Different Trains and The Cave), and later of Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ rather shocking multimedia piece Grab It! (in which the performer mimics and accompanies snippets of speech remixed from interviews with death row inmates). In Stop Speaking, the electronic voice of “Vicki” (one of the voices included with Apple’s MacInTalk text-to-speech program) reads sentences, words, and fragments written and edited by the composer. I didn’t catch it all (how could I?), but one memorable refrain was “My name is Vicki. I am alive, and I am happy. To provide the text. For this composition.” In playing both with and against the text, Akiho and Rosenbaum brought out every possibility on the snare drum: parade-style rudimental stick tricks, complicated tabla-like figures played with the fingers, moving and removing a towel on the head, playing swishes and rolls with a little rubber stick, and so on.

Akiho followed Rosenbaum’s solo with one of his own: Omnipresent, a beautiful early composition for steelpan dating back to his first encounter with the instrument as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina. Next, the two played a duo version of another piece from the Synesthesia Suite: a catchy, song-like polymetric workout called Karakurenai (Crimson). By this point I was starting to really like these guys. Akiho made puns on being unprepared for his prepared pan scordatura, using gum instead of the usual magnets to retune the instrument; at the end of the composition, as they completed the last cycle of 31-against-4 polymetric phrases, they grinned and laughed, and I swear they were this close to high-fiving each other. This, I thought, is my kind of classical music.

Akiho and Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo:

Akiho and Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon concert at Portland State University. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Then, LIgNEouS happened. Those first three pieces, it turns out, were the shiny lights on the angler’s head, designed to intrigue us, delight us, and lure us closer. The LIgNEouS Suite (note, again, the hidden message—“lines made of wood”—in the capital letters), composed for marimba and string quartet, was performed by Ian Rosenbaum with the Orion String Quartet, now in their twelfth season with CMNW. The four (so far) movements have been written in phases following an encounter with the work of 20th century Greek-French composer and architect Iannis Xenakis, known for writing dense, difficult music of “hypercomplexity,” in which harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral possibilities are stretched to their limits while still being united by precisely constructed structural schemata. The result is a sort of stochastic ordo ab chao, apparent chaos giving expression to hidden, latent order.

Akiho’s take on this type of music reflects the intense modernism of not only Xenakis, but fellow 20th century composers Penderecki, Bartók, and Ligeti as well. In this premiere performance of the fourth movement, in addition to the usual gamut of extended techniques in the strings (col legno, sul ponticello, tapping, “snap” pizzicati, glissandi galore), Akiho expands the marimba’s vocabulary in similar directions. Rosenbaum uses special dowel rod bundles (known as rutes) and mallet shafts (normal marimba mallets with their yarn heads removed), strikes various parts of the marimba’s frame, performs his own flurries of glissandi on the metal resonators, and at one point I’m pretty sure I saw him using five mallets — a real rarity. They even achieved a Bartók-pizzicato effect, so named for Bartók’s extensive use of the technique (the string player executes this type of pizzicato by plucking the string so forcefully that it snaps back against the fingerboard); an oversized rubber band was affixed to the five-octave marimba’s low D and snapped by the performer.

LIgNEouS seems to represent a new compositional high point for Akiho. I’m always fascinated by the way percussionist-composers handle other instruments, especially strings, and I was enthralled by Akiho’s skillful and sensitive treatment of the post-tonal string quartet idiom. Melodic cells derived from atonal pitch-class-sets, long dissonant drones, and highly expressive chromatic solos dominated all four movements. LIgNEouS 2 and 3 are slow, intense, melancholy, and almost nightmarish; I was especially reminded of Ligeti’s micropolyphony (as heard in Lux Aeterna and the famous Atmospheres), the drones in the last two movements of Shostakovich’s brooding eighth string quartet, and even some parts of Bartók’s enigmatic third string quartet. LIgNEouS 1 and 4 combine all this lovely dissonance with the driving rhythmic intensity and richness that I had already started to associate with Akiho’s work. It’s not too often that music literally takes my breath away, but by the end of the LIgNEouS Suite I was gasping with excitement and delight.

I’ve been following up on Akiho, and I’m starting to see in him a perfect representation of what a 21st-century composer can be: an exemplary performer, a generous collaborator, a faithful preserver and interpreter of multiple traditions, a restless innovator, and a serious—but not elitist—classical musician. This, I thought, is definitely my kind of classical music.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Mount Hood Community College. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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