A Baroque groove master at work

A conversation with composer Andy Akiho and percussionist Colin Currie, featured on this weekend's Oregon Symphony concerts

Composer-percussionist Andy Akiho gestured across the room to a table in the corner of the Heathman Hotel’s cozy library. “I composed most of it right there,” he said. “They let me stay here until three in the morning sometimes.”

Akiho is speaking of his Percussion Concerto, which Colin Currie and the Oregon Symphony will premiere this weekend alongside two of Akiho’s heroes, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives. Currie himself joined us, and both spoke fondly of Portland, where Akiho now spends half the year. Currie told me the first time he landed at PDX airport, he was immediately reminded of his native Scotland. “Then it rained all week,” Currie said, “and I thought, ah this is bliss!”

The percussionists maintain busy schedules. Currie will be conducting Steve Reich’s tribute to painter Gerhard Richter, Reich/Richter, and is excited about Scottish composer Helen Grime’s Percussion Concerto–very different from Akiho’s–which Currie commissioned and will be performing several times this year. Meanwhile, Akiho has been finalizing the recording of his LIgNEouS Suite for marimba and strings, is currently finishing an album with his band Miyamoto is Black Enough, and somehow also finds time to work on an eleven-movement quartet for Ian Rosenbaum’s Sandbox Percussion.

This weekend, though, it’s all about the long-awaited concerto: Akiho’s first major orchestral work (2015’s Ping Pong Concerto notwithstanding) is full of ceramic bowls, a meaty marimba, and all the rhythmic complexity and melodic verve we’ve come to expect from one of our favorite young composers. The Oregon Symphony performs at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

Arts Watch recently spoke in person with Akiho and Currie; their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

Inception, inspiration, orchestration

Andy Akiho: I’m obviously inspired by the city, because I wrote almost all of it here. There’s no story or anything, that’s why it’s just called Percussion Concerto for now—until Colin comes up with a story, then we’ll change the title.

I like to know who I’m writing for, their personalities. It affects what I do. I got to meet the percussionists, I got to play with a lot of them. I did a Classical Up Close and played my string quartet with steel pan piece In/Exchange. Kenji Bunch played on it, Searmi Park and Ruby Chen, and Kevin Kunkel. It was a cool crew. Most of the people I know in Portland are affiliated with the symphony. Or coffee.

Colin Currie: A piece that turns out to bigger and more consuming than first imagined is an upgrade, and that is to be encouraged. [Oregon Symphony] did the right thing by granting Andy more time to complete the piece, and I’m delighted by that, and also very grateful. They’ll definitely be getting a return on their investment.

Akiho: From the start, Colin was saying this is a really solid orchestra. We didn’t want to just have this crazy percussion with the orchestra holding long tones the whole time or something. Having that extra time really allowed me to go in there and do things I’ve never done before on such a larger scale.

Currie: It’s immediately obvious when you see the score, it’s immaculately done. Start to finish, every phrase of mine is beautifully supported in the orchestra. Lots of finesse and variety, a bang up job.

Akiho: I tried to treat it how I pay attention to so much detail in the chamber works. In my chamber works it’s more like driving a sports car, and I wanted to do that more on this one than I’ve done in the past. Because I haven’t written much orchestra music, and nothing to this level of scope.

Currie: Scope is a good word, because it does have a symphonic grandeur.

A percussive narrative

Currie: It ends up being in movements. I left [instrument choice] pretty much up to Andy. We spoke a little bit about some things I would like to see. I do enjoy a substantial marimba part in a concerto, just because the instrument is so cultivated, and has a great register, and I enjoy playing it. And I knew his student writing and was very fond of it. So I did say, “let’s have some meat on the marimba bone.” The rest was from Andy. Certainly some nice surprises.

It’s one of those pieces, and it’s nice when they come along, where there are new skill sets to be learned. The opening movement is extremely ingenious: it’s one octave only, on these ceramic bowls. So a relatively small register, and quite a high register too. It’s tricky to pull off, an entire movement just for these bowls played with chopsticks. And sometimes four of them, two in each hand, and although I have a four-mallet technique Andy helped me develop my approach to this instrument. I’ve found a slightly different technique for myself, which is great. It’s very liberating, finding yourself with a new thing going on, your hands working in a different way.

The marimba movement is marvelous, very powerful, very expressive, very natural. It develops from a few lovely notes and chords, then builds up and becomes more intense as the movement goes on. The third movement is an interlude, just a duet for toy piano and violin, quite a scampering, cheeky little number. Very Akiho, very infectious, kind of zany, very compelling. And then the last movement’s a real beauty, has the feel of a finale—very exciting, but also quite emotional. It’s fairly heavy, although it’s got a bright tempo. It’s quite poignant, in a way.

Ceramic bowls and earworms

Akiho: [The bowls] were tediously chosen. I live in Chinatown when I’m in New York, and they have shops everywhere. I love the sound of those, so I’ll go into Hong Kong Supermarket or something and go through a thousand bowls. I’ll sit there with my iphone and tuner and just find sets.

Currie: [laughs] He shipped me an octave. It arrived at my house in London, it’s this immaculately tuned set of soup bowls! Each bowl rings beautifully.

Akiho: It creates a more homogenous sound, more of an instrument.

Currie: When you see it you might think, “yeah, what’s that going to sound like?” But as soon as it starts I think everyone will be caught up in it. It’s brilliantly conceived, and a good challenge for other composers—to see what you can do with one octave. That’s what you’re working with in that first movement, and by golly there’s a lot of variety. Fantastic, extremely catchy melodies. Real earworms. You’ll go home whistling this one.

Akiho: It’s all one thing, melody and rhythm. Composing the first movement, with the bowls, I would just set up my iphone and play for hours. Then I’d listen back and really like something. Very childlike, very intuitive.

Currie: So a lot of it comes about through improvisation.

Akiho: Definitely. And I think because of that, it might naturally make things more idiomatic. I just play, and eventually I’ll repeat something over and over and over. And if that sticks, I’ll keep it. A lot of it was improvised, and then I’ll sculpt it from there.

Currie: The idiomatic side of it has been very enjoyable to me. I premiere a lot of pieces, and learning Andy’s piece was a fabulous experience. It’s a virtuosic piece, and it’s very hands friendly—it goes into the hands rather efficiently. That’s a strength of the piece, and partly why it will sound so strong.

Rhythm and counterpoint

Akiho: There’s a lot of [rhythmic complexity] in this piece, and I tried to do it differently than I would for percussion ensemble. [taps 9-against-4 rhythm on table] There’s a lot of 9 over 4 in the orchestra parts, but it’s all in 3/4 and nine-bar phrases. So they don’t even know they’re doing it.

Currie: He’s got a lot under the radar in this piece. If you told them what they were doing it would fall apart!

Akiho: It’s hidden in there. I didn’t want to try too hard with it—that’s just the rhythms I feel, and I really wanted those kind of things in there. So it’s all in there, but it looks as simple as possible.

Currie: My part is the glue, in a way. There’s a lot more constant 16-notes, maintaining the groove. And then some of these syncopations will be exposed by what the orchestra is doing. In the first movement on the bowls there are some excellent accents in important places. I was up early this morning going over the part again, marking my accents very carefully. There’s a kind of Baroque aspect to it. We’ve never spoken of that, but it’s very clear. It’s a very scholarly piece, in the right way. A Baroque groove master at work.

Akiho: That’s stuff I explored in The War Below too, contrapuntal lines. I’m thinking in Baroque type shapes and lines, but I also think Renaissance and the horizontal. I’m not thinking, “this is a IV chord.” The harmony ends up working itself out through how it horizontally lines up. If I overthink each block of chord, I’ll get stuck in a box. But if I think contrapuntally, three or four lines, it feels more Renaissance even if I’m using Baroque vocabulary.

Learning the music

Currie: What I’ve learned over the years is knowing what I really do need to practice. And also knowing that it really only needs to hit critical mass on Saturday night. So even as I sit here now there’s some bits that are still not quite there, and that’s allowed. It’s just a question of getting it all in the right place for the concert. There are technical challenges that are a little bit separate from the musical ones. My musical ideas about the piece are fairly fully formed at this stage, and they probably won’t change much.

But there will always be things to work out with the orchestra, particularly to do with placement—exactly whether a groove is going on the front foot, middle, or back, or somewhere else. Working out how to fit with the winds, or the strings, or combination thereof. Practicing is just narrowing it down, finding the things that do need to be drilled. Other things, you could learn to let them happen rather than trying to make them happen.

Self-care for musicians

Currie: Every musician who travels like this has stories of how difficult it is. When I first started travelling, it was the most enormous buzz. Every city was a new adventure. That’s had to calm down a lot over the years, now I’m much more focused on trying to maintain some fitness in my life. The road is good, but the music’s the thing.

Akiho: It’s so different for a band that’s on the road all the time, doing the same set every night.

Currie: Part of why I have my own group now is that in a band, you’re with your mates. Even if they’re not your mates, it’s a constant, and it’s something from back home. Having a couple of familiar faces makes a difference.

Then there’s jet lag, which as well as making you tired gives you the blues. No one ever explains these things. Someone needs to write a book; doesn’t even need to be a book, just a postcard. Ten basic things about life on the road, what you can do, what you should do. Things that no one would ever teach you at college.

The first thing is knowing how to get enough rest. Secondly, make wherever you’re staying a comfortable place. Another thing is exercise; that’s part of the job. When you get on the treadmill, that’s part of the work. If you let that slip, it’s curtains! I also feel that when I’m on an airplane, getting my elbows jostled—that’s what I get paid for. Andy’s music, I’d play it for free. No problem. I get paid to sit on airplanes.

Akiho: You forget about stuff like making sure you exercise. It’s all connected, that affects your mental health, everything.

What’s next?

Akiho: Another piece for Colin, for vibraphone and JACK Quartet.

Currie: He’s mine now!

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