Andy Akiho: systems within systems

Composer and steely pan virtuoso brings the heat at Chamber Music Northwest, and tells ArtsWatch where the fire comes from

In the midst of a five-week music festival, a weird mid-week show starring composer-performer Andy Akiho felt like a village gathering. Akiho’s music, after all, is geared towards pretty specific tastes: challengingly colorful modern classical music, complex rhythmic grooviness and modern sonorities, rooted in jazz and pop and rock and hip hop, all played on steelpan and other percussions together with flute and strings. Everyone in the mostly full Alberta Rose Theater audience that Wednesday was either already an Akiho fan or about to become one.

Composer Andy Akiho

CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta introduced the concert by jokingly insinuating that Akiho may have been indirectly responsible for last winter’s notorious CMNW office fire. “I picked up eleven copies of his new CD in January when it came out, and there they sat, on my desk in our office, where they burned up. We don’t know what caused the fire: maybe it was mechanical, maybe it was arson, or maybe the CD is just that hot!”

Cool Duos

Akiho himself lurked quietly off-stage, quivering with athletic energy like a young Robert DeNiro, as the show opened with flute goddess Tara Helen O’Connor and Akiho champion Ian Rosenbaum premiering a new arrangement of -intuition) (Expectation, originally composed in 2012 for trumpet and marimba. O’Connor excels at this stuff, and it was wonderful to hear her amplified: flutter-tongued polymetric riffage, breathy backbeats, and crazy wide-registered arpeggiations popped out around the theater, sizzling about over Rosenbaum’s quick quintuplets.

Akiho and Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest in 2016. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The Akiho-Rosenbaum duo dominated the show. They opened Karakurenai with a loose, improvised intro, getting into a full-body head bob and grooving from the spine once that all-important quarter-note pulse got going, Akiho spinning out crazy-fast flashy four-mallet wheedlings all around his steelpan, showing off like a hair metal guitarist, pure Cool.

Next up was one of Akiho’s hits: 21, originally composed for cello and steelpan and performed here in the marimba and steelpan version Akiho and Rosenbaum played in this same spot two years ago. “This is a newer version of an old one,” Akiho said. “I think we did it a few years ago; I think we’ll do it better tonight.”

Their eyes laughed at each other as their feet stomped out 21’s tambourine-and-bass-drum cadence, mallets layering sweet swelled chords, stopping and starting like a bebop duo, horsing around again. Akiho the Entertainer couldn’t resist stepping up his four-mallet flurries, this time flinging out scurrying sextuplets inside the longer melody, not unlike the sort of thing you expect from Kaki King or Stanley Jordan.

Jennifer Frautschi and Andy Akiho performed ‘Deciduous’ at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The full-body head-bobbing kept going with Deciduous, a duet between Akiho and violinist Jennifer Frautschi, a miniature cousin to Joan Tower’s similarly grown-from-seed Sequoia, a long melody emerging gradually between pizzicato flourishes and squealing high-harmonic interjections, rapid septuple patterns over the ubiquitous quarter-note groove.

LIgNEouS Suite: Finally Five

The evening’s centerpiece was the premiere of the complete, five-movement version of Akiho’s quintet for marimba and string quartet, LIgNEouS, performed by Rosenbaum and the Dover Quartet. Rosenbaum has been playing and championing this music for almost a decade, and performed the first four movements with Orion String Quartet at CMNW two summers ago. “It’s occupied a big part of my life for eight years,” said Rosenbaum; when he first heard another group premiere the first movement, he immediately put together his own ensemble to learn it. “And I had a hand in commissioning two more,” Rosenbaum continued. “Stay tuned for the recording, coming this year.”

Now that the fifth movement, commissioned for Dover, has been added and premiered, the work is done. “I don’t think there are more coming,” Rosenbaum joked, arching an eyebrow in Akiho’s direction. “Right Andy? We’re all done?”

The Dover Quartet and Ian David Rosenbaum performed the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s ‘LIgNEouS Suite’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Just Dandy Photography + Social Media; Kimmie Fadem.

The Dover Quartet isn’t an ensemble, they’re a band. Violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee play together like twins, while violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw make a lyrically vibrant rhythm section. The group’s intonational and dynamic cohesion is right up there with the gorgeous blend we heard from Kenari Quartet earlier in the festival; their rhythmic sense has that Goldilocks balance of “not too tight, not too loose” essential for playing music that veers from wide-open multi-dimensional stochastic passages out of Xenakis to the Carteresque metric complexities Akiho is best known for.

Shaw got most of the best moments, and nailed them: the lovely pizzicato solo in the first movement, spooky glissandi galore, Bartóky night music melodies, percussive beating col legno battuto or with fingers directly on the cello’s body, a glint in his eyes as the band sawed away on the closing movement’s gigantically dense chords, a big sigh of relief when they all got to the end.

Ian David Rosenbaum played Andy Akiho’s music at Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Just Dandy Photography + Social Media; Kimmie Fadem.

Rosenbaum showed why he’s The Boss: jumping all over the marimba’s massive five octaves, rocketing out massive arpeggios in Akiho’s peculiar 10-note scale; playing on the marimba’s metal resonators, on the frame, everywhere; reaching over every so often to casually snap the big rubber band that turns the instrument’s low D into an ersatz Bartók pizz (an effect more effective in person than on any recording I’ve heard); legs wide, bracing and centering himself as a five-mallet roll rumbled out a low thundering chord, massive, overwhelming, like a giant concert bass drum; turning his rutes sideways to play cluster chords and funky cross-rhythms and weird little rolls, like Henry Cowell riffing on Scott Joplin. You can watch the whole thing right here.

The Entertainers

For the encore, Akiho and Rosenbaum returned for one last duo, another from his Synesthesia Suite. Akiho gestured to the purple drapes upstage and said, “this one’s called Murasaki, because of this.” The showy tomfoolery went to 11 on this one: the vibe loose and dubby, Rosenbaum’s echoey marimba bass line straight out of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Akiho showing off his Trinidad all-nighter chops, the two old friends having a blast together, playing from memory, playing to each other and to the crowd. For one whole section near the end, they dropped the volume way, way down, nearly inaudible, as the audience held its breath and leaned in. Akiho’s sly little smile said he knew exactly what he was doing: he was Entertaining.

Akiho & Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Arts Watch spoke with Akiho during his CMNW visit. His answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

A Brief History of Musical Experiences

My very first memories are Van Halen’s “Jump”—I remember being like four years old when that came out, and watching MTV. The White Album, my sister had a tape, I think. By the time I was older—seven or eight—I was getting into Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, Metallica Justice For All & Master of Puppets, and LL Cool J was coming up, and Run DMC. Michael Jackson with “Thriller”—that video!—and “Bad” and all that. My mom listened to Led Zeppelin. A little bit of everything, man. And my sister teaching me drum set. She is 10 years older, so she was a rock drummer with the double kick pedal. Two bass drums.

[With classical music] it all started with more contemporary. Julia Wolfe, David Lang’s music. In college, doing drum line in North Texas, we did an arrangement of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2. It was a cross between No. 2 and No. 4. I was like, man this is really cool music. It wasn’t cheesy marching band stuff. They did this incredible arrangement, just drumline. I didn’t know much about Bartók. I learned about him in class a little bit and I remember watching The Shining and I was like “what is this music?”

Andy Akiho

And then when I heard Stravinsky the ballets blew my mind. And then later on — way later — I started listening to late Beethoven string quartets. The C# minor is my favorite piece ever written. And then way later I started listening to Schubert.

I mainly came through contemporary music being a percussionist, listening to contemporary music. Steve Reich, John Cage, Varèse, stuff like that. And then I started going backwards a little bit. I got really into Pérotin and Machaut and Gesualdo, even Palestrina. I’m almost 30 years old by the time I started checking that stuff out. There is something amazing about that connection. It’s our foundation, you know?

But also steelpan, I can’t forget that that is my roots. I started playing steelpan when I was 18 and I took it real seriously around 21, 22. That’s what brought me into classical more, through jazz. My favorite jazz album is probably [Miles Davis Quintet’s] Relaxin’; those four albums are great, and that was very influential. And then Max Roach and Clifford Brown, Cannonball. I really like that era. Especially the mid ‘50s. I love the sound quality of the recordings. It feels like you’re right there.

My first transcription was “St. Thomas,” the Sonny Rollins solo. Those kind of things helped me learn my way around the steelpan. That and learning the Bach G Minor fugue. Learning that on pan and really, really understanding the instrument so much more. Probably every other piece written comes from that somewhere.

Colors and Shapes

It’s very, very much feeling. That’s everything to me. I will create systems sometimes, and I will still work in and out of those on intuition and feeling. I’m trying to create something I would want to hear or listen to nonstop. So, it’s a lot of the music I grew up on, and a lot of my personality. That’s all it really is. If I create these systems to go with that, it’s just to help me have some kind of canvas.

I know I work a lot with rhythm, but I feel like that’s the fundamental parameter in music. Rhythm and timbre. Being a percussionist, I grew up with that.

Akiho and Rosenbaum joined other Chamber Music Northwest musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre in 2016. Photo: Tom Emerson.

I like to create systems within systems just to create these colors—synesthetic kinds of colors. I’ll have some kind of system, or maybe just a melodic minor type, modal maybe, and then I’ll just bring in a totally different polytonal harmony. If I’m feeling it in D minor it’s orange and burgundy and red, and I literally picture this wave of orange crashing through. It’s nice to see these colors take over. I do that visually and aurally, simultaneously. That’s how I think of it.

Sometimes it’s stronger than others. When I improvise, it’s really strong. When I’m memorizing music, it’s photographic almost to the colors. But with rhythms, it is shapes. So triplets is a perfect circle, sixteenth-notes are squares, a septuplet is a very elongated oval. And for some reason, fives are like green circles for me. When I’m coaching my pieces and there are quintuplets, I say “think of a circle,” cause it prevents people from making it square. And if you think of a circle, it really evens out that five, because five is a kind of palindrome.

Another thing I like with those types of rhythms, like seven: I always have this habit of feeling things against the quarter note. Even when I’m writing in 7/16 or 7/8 I’ll feel it against the quarter note, like 7/4. Like a Vinnie Colaiuta kind of thing.

Home, Travel, and Collaboration

I feel like there is an energy on the block around my neighborhood. It’s very inspiring to my music. Well, and everywhere I go and travel. That’s why I like to write outside of New York too. I write a lot not at home, and it’s just a product of the environment I’m surrounded by.

The Chamber Music Northwest audience joined composer Andy Akiho onstage at Mississippi Studios in 2014. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Collaboration with the performer, their portrayal to the audience, is everything. I guess there are still composers that just write for posterity and keep it in the drawer. But I want to entertain because I enjoy that feeling. Whether I’m sitting in the audience and I’ve created something people can relate to or whether I’m on stage trying to portray that, or give that experience, share that.

‘Cause I’m a performer. I grew up being a performer. And I like to really know the performer’s personality. That’s what inspires the music that I write. I just wrote this piece for Ensemble Connect at Carnegie. I didn’t know any of them, so the directors there got us in this residency so I could meet them and make music with them; I wasn’t writing the piece at all, I was just getting to know them. I got to know their personality. You’re chilling, you’re drinking, you’re making music, just having conversations. I got to know them. So when I wrote the piece, I really felt like I could picture every person playing the part as I’m writing it. And then I bounce other ideas and then I put the final touches on it, and then I feel like it’s a piece customized to the individual. I wrote a piece for all 18 musicians.

Violinist Joel Link and the Dover Quartet joined steel pan virtuoso Andy Akiho at Chamber Music Northwest in 2014.

Usually that is more important than instrumentation. I’d rather write for the player than their instrument. I’m in another group with Jeff Zeigler on cello, Sean Dixon on drums, Roger Bonair Agard is a spoken word poet. We do a lot of mash ups with my older music and he is spitting over that, his poems. I think now that we’re together as a group, as a quartet, I want to start from scratch, take some of his words and we work together and really create something. I mean it works, what we are doing, but we could take it to the next level by starting from scratch.

Kendrick Lamar Making Sweaters

I do want to have some really tight stuff with hip hop artists one day. [Kendrick Lamar], that’s who I want to work with! Ever since Butterfly came out, I was like “man, I want to work with him one day.” It’s just very inspiring. I’ve listened to his albums so many times. This is an artist. Just that artistic integrity, as a visionary, that’s what I’m really inspired by. If he was doing country, it doesn’t matter, it’s that integrity and that dedication. You can tell he worked his ass off. And you can tell it’s so much from the soul, from the heart, what he’s doing. If Kendrick was making sweaters, it’d be my favorite sweater. You know? It’s just that mentality of “I want to be the best at this.” Not even from a competitive sense. Just the best he can possible be at something, and that’s what inspired me.

Of course, when I hear the music, I’m immediately drawn in, and then you start to break it down, the lyrics, everything. I’ve never focused on lyrics so much. Hearing it for the first time or the hundredth time, you’re going to catch something new. That’s what I think is so awesome about him.

Lost on Chiaroscuro Street

I’m really happy with it, of course. No matter what, I’m going to have subconscious inspiration from Messiaen, who is one of my favorite composers. Especially his harmonies and melodic tonal sound worlds. Naturally I’m already into those rhythmic things that I did before I even knew what classical music was, and that sound world is stuff I try to intuitively go towards, even though I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. It’s a new kind of piece for me, a different kind of thing. It still sounds like me, but there is no preparation, no crazy extended techniques. I tried to work with counterpoint more. It reminded me of Schubert a little bit. I studied the Schubert piano trio years ago for school and I guess that entered my subconscious.

20180329 Akiho Lost on Chiaroscuro Street for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano from The Chamber Music Society on Vimeo.

I’m obsessed with five movements. I don’t try to; I start a piece and I’m like “ok, this is going to be two movements, or three or four” and I always end up with five. I guess that’s from Bartók. It just ends up working. I love that. And I love five. I love working Macro and Micro with fives. It feels very natural to me.

The third movement, I call it “Interlude” but it’s a clarinet solo. I wrote it on the steelpan and then note-for-note just wrote it down; I just pictured it on the clarinet from the steelpan. I pictured David Shifrin filling up a hall with this beautiful sound. It’s breathing-taking, man.

I’ve tried to do a lot with that. Messiaen, that’s where I learned about the control a great clarinetist can have and that dynamic range from one note, how you can get so much expression from one note or one crescendo. I worked a lot with that.

That’s the hardest thing for me. Figuring out slurs for woodwinds and brass. It’s not intuitive or natural to me, to think of that as a percussionist. A lot of times I really have to ask the performers. I’ll make a lot of edits with slurring. I understand more with the strings because I can visualize it, but woodwinds, it’s intangible to me, you know? I feel like I need to learn one instrument a little bit or at least play a little bit of scales. When I was writing this piece, I bought this clarinet on Ebay and tried to learn a little bit. I was really great at extended techniques!

LIgNEouS Suite: “You Can Do Anything If the Rhythm Is Right”

LIgNEouS is extremely horizontal, harmony-wise, and vertical is the rhythm, so a lot of what happens with harmony is a result of the rhythmic juxtaposition where the lines are falling. It’s not like I’m trying to go, “an F major chord here.” LIgNEouS is a very specialized piece anyways, because the scale is 10 notes long and repeats every major 10th. It’s not a palindrome or anything, but it is very organized, more so than I do in other pieces. Every note is within a scale that spans across the entire 60 note, 5 octave marimba. A lot of the harmony is modal within that.

LIgNEouS is a more formalized scale, so the harmonies came out of that. But it is also really intuitive, because I was sitting there improvising on the marimba for days and days, and I would tape up all the notes on the marimba with scotch tape and I would just come up with stuff. Not doing it just because it is brand new, but just happy to work in something that I built from scratch.

It created a new area I probably wouldn’t have gone to intuitively unless I set up that kind of system for fun. It wasn’t like “alrighty I’m going to do this in major 10ths”—that’s just how it worked out with geometric shapes and things that came up with these triangles and stuff.

I love those kinds of things. That’s why I like Bartók so much. There’s a lot of Bartók influence. Not because I was particularly trying to sound like Bartók, but that’s how a lot of these harmonies work out when dealing with palindromes and retrograde. They just end up having that sound.

And a lot of that is rhythm—you can play anything dissonant and if the right rhythm is there it works out. That’s what I love about rhythm. You can really manipulate anything. You can do anything if the rhythm is right.

On The Future of Classical Music

I think the future of classical music is not really calling it classical music, you know? There is all this cross pollination going on now. We’re already losing those boundaries of what pop is, what hip hop is, what avant-garde is. It’s just creating experiences. We’ve been doing it all through history. There are just so many ways to experience it now.

They weren’t calling it classical music in the 1400s. Whatever music we are making today is in experiences, and it will be nice when even the audience doesn’t have a specific stereotype as to who is going to go to a classical concert, who is going to a contemporary concert, a jazz show.

That’s why I love to present my music, whether it is the most conservative, classical audience ever, or hip people in my neighborhood. I like showing friends in my neighborhood: “Come check out what I’ve been working on.” I love that kind of thing. I just want to create an experience we can all relate to as humans, you know? That is my hope for the future.

I definitely want to have a sound that’s my personality. I want it to be able to inspire people. I want to do that now and 20 years from now with the same kind of energy and challenge myself, but have some sort of balance so I could breathe a little bit, maybe eat, sleep every now and then, that’d be cool too. Otherwise I’m not going to live another 20 years.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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