ian rosenbaum

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.

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Spontaneous Combustion reviews 1: from hub to sandbox

Two extraordinary young East Coast new music quartets light up the new music festival's first edition

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch deployed a small squadron of reviewers to most of the Spontaneous Combustion Festival’s seven programs spread over 17 concerts in three cities. Here are some of the highlights of the first edition of this valuable new addition to Oregon’s music scene. Read part two here.

Sandbox Percussion started their concert in January’s Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival with a bit of theatricality, the four percussionists emerging singly from backstage, each in turn adding his phasing rhythmic patterns to the ligneous melee of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood — performed, quite appropriately, on actual slabs of wood (rather than the usual tuned claves). The thing about a piece like this is that if you can just rip through it accurately, that’s really good enough to sell it for most listeners. Reich’s intentionally transparent, semi-automatic compositional process carries the work, and the sheer athleticism required to perform it is impressive enough that matters of interpretation are almost unnecessary.

But no, just as Sandbox insisted on using authentic instruments (can we call this a Historically Informed Performance?), these four decided to be insanely, obsessively precise down to the last little detail, executing unbelievably smooth level changes and cross-fades like a four-man mixing board. Their rhythmic intonation, so to speak, would make the whole city vibrate if a choir were doing it.

Sandbox Percussion performed in Portland’s Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music.

And yet within this strictness was a great deal of expressivity, even individual freedom (much like that imaginary choir we mentioned, which may as well be Hilliard Ensemble since that’s who we’re all imagining anyways). In Sandbox’s subtle, dynamic blend, “soloists” could pop out of the texture just with a shift in their posture; the Old Church’s sensitive acoustics are more than capable of picking up such tiny cues and broadcasting them all over the room, and the concentrated awe on the players faces told me they knew this perfectly well. These little solos, never obtrusive and always musical, made living music out of simple patterns and four planks. And that was just the opener.

It ended up being a whole evening of this sort of thing, uncommonly intimate percussion playing like we heard in this same venue nearly two years ago. It became clear that these four spend a lot of time working together and basking in the “simple joy of playing together.”

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