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‘That space in between is called ma’: Discussing Andy Akiho’s ‘Sculptures’ with the composer

Oregon Symphony will perform Akiho’s latest this weekend, alongside Dvořák’s Othello Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.”

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Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kuneko's sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.
Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kaneko’s sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.

The best thing about Andy Akiho’s music is that it makes no real distinction between seriousness and playfulness. This is more evident than ever on his latest composition, Sculptures, inspired by the work of Jun Kaneko, a Japanese-American sculptor based in Omaha (with a presence in Oregon you can read about here). The 37-minute work was co-commissioned by the Omaha Symphony and the Oregon Symphony, premiered by the former this March and to be performed again November 4-6 at The Schnitz by the latter.

You can listen to the recording – captured live in Omaha – on Bandcamp and the usual streaming services. The album is a characteristically Akiho-esque palindrome, five orchestral movements interspersed with four percussion movements recorded by the composer and sound engineer Sean Dixon in Kaneko’s studio/gallery space. Strikingly, the “percussion” movements are performed directly upon various of Kaneko’s sculptures, one of them a ten-foot bronze head – a feat that will be replicated in the concert hall by Akiho and percussionist Michael Roberts.

Andy Akiho performs “Sculptures” with the Omaha Symphony, featuring a large bronze head created by Jun Kaneko. Photo by Casey Wood.
Andy Akiho performs “Sculptures” with the Omaha Symphony, featuring a large bronze head created by Jun Kaneko. Photo by Casey Wood.

The sixth movement, “Ma,” also features the sculptor himself explaining the Shinto concept central to his work: ma (), generally translated in the West as a type of very active negative space. Kaneko explains:

I want my sculptures to shake the air around them. To stand just like they should be there, in that space and at that time. That space in between is called ma.

Ma is like a vibration.

The first thing that stands out about the music – besides its obvious percussive and thematic qualities – is the beautiful, bounteous brass writing. It’s going to sound amazing in the Schnitz when the astounding Oregon Symphony brass section gets hold of this lovely, rich, deeply melodic music. To our ear it’s reminiscent, more than anything, of the similarly luscious brass writing in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. But of course Akiho’s music always has something of Bartók’s spirit in it.

This bears considering, because it would be easy enough to describe Akiho as a Minimalist composer, capital M and all, with the usual prevalence of rhythmic energy, and the building up of musical interest through repeated patterns, and so on. But if it’s Minimalist, it’s the Minimalism of the later, more harmonically and melodically sophisticated works of John Adams and Steve Reich – think Harmonielehre or The Desert Music.

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Every time we hear new work from Akiho, he’s grown as a composer. Not that he wasn’t fully formed to begin with – the music on his first album, NO one To kNOW one, would have secured his place as a significant composer. But when his suite for marimba & string quartet LIgNEouS followed in 2010-16 (finally recorded and released on last year’s Oculus), it established a trajectory that continued through the works on 2018’s The War Below (available on vinyl from the composer’s website), 2019’s Percussion Concerto (premiered by Colin Currie and Oregon Symphony), and 2021’s Seven Pillars.

This trajectory shows the restless creative drive that has kept us continually interested in Akiho, happy with each new development and always excited for the next step. You can read our past coverage of Akiho here, here, here, here, here – well, you get the idea.

Sandbox Percussion performed Andy Akiho's "Seven Pillars" at Alberta Rose Theatre for CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Sandbox Percussion performed Andy Akiho’s “Seven Pillars” at Alberta Rose Theatre for Chambe Music Northwest in 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

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We recently spoke with Akiho again by phone to discuss the new work. His answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Oregon ArtsWatch: What’s it like composing for these huge sculptures, and playing them in a concert hall? How do you even begin to move them around?

Andy Akiho: Well, I’m not in charge of that, that’s the entire Kaneko team. I think they’re driving those out soon. And then they have to work with the halls and figure out the dimensions and make sure it fits through the door and on stage, and make sure it’s not gonna fall through the stage. Because it’s a heavy huge piece of equipment, the sculpture, it’s bronze, it’s huge.

I was just treating it like a percussion instrument. But it has pitches – the bronze head has about seven different pitches and about a hundred variations of each one. When I originally wrote it, I didn’t know if I was going to use the head with the orchestra, so I was trying to purposely find pitches that were more tuned to A440, or equal temperament. There’s these tabs that stick out that all have their own fundamental pitch, and they have a set of overtones on them as well, usually a major tenth. So a lot of it was finding where they were so things could work idiomatically. But also just being childlike with it, just really hitting on it, finding whatever sounds cool and going with that melodically too. Treating it like a found sound percussion instrument almost.

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Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kuneko's sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.
Andy Akiho playing one of Jun Kaneko’s sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.

OAW: So then how do you notate that? Or do you even need to?

AA: It’s standard notation, on the treble staff, at written pitch. And then because I want this piece to be able to be performed on any instrument, I might have overnotated it. Even if it was a little sharp or flat, I would put a quarter tone looking thing above the note. If it was like a slightly flat C#, you know, there might be a little flat with the arrow above it. But I didn’t overdo it. It’s mainly the pitches that are written. And so that means theoretically it could be played on other instruments that could mimic that kind of sound, maybe some kind of sound plates or maybe another large metallic sound. I didn’t want to limit it just to this very specific sculpture; that’s just one way you can do it.

OAW: So how many versions of this piece could there be?

AA: There’s three versions of this piece. One is exactly how we’re going to do it, and that’s the original version with the sculptures, the full version we did in Omaha for the premiere. The bronze heads, those are duets, so I’m playing it with Michael Roberts, principal percussionist. And then I’m performing on the cylinders. And then the other movement, the fourth movement of the percussion set of this concert, is a music video and that’s “Ma.”

Andy Akiho playing Jun Kaneko's 'Ceramic' sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.
Andy Akiho playing Jun Kaneko’s ceramic sculptures. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony and the composer.

The second version will be the orchestra movements and video movements. So I’m making performance videos of the bronze head and the other instruments I’ll be playing on stage. And then the third version is just doing the orchestra movements, not having the percussion movements. I guess there’s a fourth version, doing it how we’re doing it now, but instead of sculptures it could be done on other percussion instruments. I haven’t even thought that far ahead. I think I can just leave it up to the performers.

For example, “Bronze II” I could see theoretically working well with sound plates and chromatic metal pipes or something, any other kind of found sound. “Bronze I” might be a little trickier because that is all bowed, primarily. I mean you could bow sound plates, probably. I haven’t experimented much with bowing almglocken. When you bow almglocken, does it give you the fundamental? Plus there’s also major tenth harmonics on it. So I guess you would just play those at pitch on whatever percussion instruments you would decide to bow on. But it could work. There’s all kinds of things you could get creative with.

With the head, with the tabs, when you bow it, there’s parts where you actually bend the pitch, and you do that by applying different pressure in the bow. So, for example, if you were to translate that to vibraphone, you would have to do other things. It would be a slightly different kind of character. And with the sculpture, because it’s shaped as a head you can make it almost laugh and cry with the bow pressure.

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OAW: In the orchestral movements, how did you approach orchestration itself? How did you choose your instruments and textures?

AA: That’s very intuitive. I let the art intuitively choose the colors, even the melodic and harmonic material. With the percussion I purposely picked instruments that would remind me of how the sculptures look and sound. So for example the percussion section has almglocken, glockenspiel, tuned metal pipes, a set of tuned Thai nipple gongs, a set of bell plates, prepared piano with poster tacks, and celeste. And there’s a lot of harp.

So orchestra-percussion-piano-celeste-harp: that’s the sculpture kind of sounds. A lot of people might hear that and think that those are actually sculptures playing with the orchestra. I wanted to blur the line between the actual sculptures and the percussion instruments that are used in the orchestra. None of the movements with the full orchestra have the sculptures in it. I think trying to get those types of metallic resonant timbres really mimics a lot of what the sculptures remind me of, or actually sound like.

OAW: What are some more examples of the music taking inspiration from the sculptures, and from Kaneko’s work?

AA: So you know the practice of kintsugi? It’s a very interesting process the way Jun has to do it, because you’re repairing it but it’s also an extremely toxic process. You’re repairing with gold, but it’s a toxic process, and you’re also making something better than before it broke – it parallels a lot with life, right?

He’s got this set of sculptures called tanukis. These are Japanese raccoon-dogs; they’re these mythical creatures also but they also literally exist, and they also symbolize a lot in folklore. So there’s motives in “Kintsugi” that are like the tanukis coming in and breaking things. That’s happening in the high woodwinds, and it’s really crazy, but it’s also the gold – all the breaking and all that high stratospheric orchestration is also representing the gold. And then at the end when it chills out, the trumpets are doubling flugelhorn and that’s the aftermath of all the breaking and repairing and getting the beauty out of the new repairs from the kintsugi process.

Jun Kaneko’s “Dango” sculptures at Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Friderike Heuer.

With “in that space, at that time” that’s the feeling of the supernatural from the “Dangos” – those are the oval-shaped sculptures. Taking otherworldly kinds of sounds and not only tying up all the other pieces but also taking you to a new place. Because I feel like that with those, they’re very mystical. They’re very interstellar-feeling. I just wanted to explore all that, and bring all the motives back in that movement. So it’s more orchestrated, it features strings, it has a little bit of everything, and ends with the sculptures singing. The resonance of the percussion, mimicking the sculptures – not the actual sculptures.

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In “Petroglyph,” that’s the brass choir, I wanted you to feel like you’re in old paintings, like cave paintings, really ancient petroglyphs. That’s inspired by his early paintings from 1963 before he moved to America. The paintings are made with oil, but they also foreshadowed that he would become a sculptor because they have sand in the oil. And they have these little markings that look like petroglyphs.

Jun Kuneko, untitled early work, 1963. Satoshi Ogawa Studio; Nagoya, Japan; 1961-1963.
Jun Kaneko, untitled early work, 1963. Satoshi Ogawa Studio; Nagoya, Japan; 1961-1963.

OAW: Could you talk about ma and “the space between”?

AA: You know I write very ‘notey’ music. There’s a lot of space around it too, but I didn’t overthink it. It’s more being felt. “Ma” could have been the title of almost any of these pieces if you think about it. But it worked well to be the title for that video movement because I really wanted to use Jun’s voice speaking about ma. The essence of that is more a subliminal and subconscious kind of inspiration. I’m not gonna try to literally recreate what I think ma is. It’s more the feeling of the composition, the space between the notes, everything like that. But it’s more the inspiration of Jun’s interpretation of ma, because he’s lived his whole life with that philosophy. It’s new to me. So it’s more of my inspiration from them.

OAW: So this is part of the collaborative element with the Kanekos?

AA: I learn by doing. I’m gonna figure out how to get a sound on the instrument on my own. I get my inspiration from literally their personalities. I basically lived in Omaha more than I lived in Portland last year. So hanging out with Jun and his wife Ree all the time, getting breakfast with them, having amaro with them at midnight, and having dinners with them – that’s where I get a lot of inspiration. And then I had 24-hour access to all the warehouses where all his artwork was. So I’m hanging out with the artwork until four in the morning, that’s where the inspiration is coming from.

And then I’m, you know, figuring out how to strike them safely where I’m not going to break these priceless sculptures. They encouraged that. So living with that and being really immersed, that’s the inspiration. My collaboration is more the feeling I get from hanging out with people, so I’m not writing in a basement by myself all the time.

OAW: What’s next?

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AA: I’m really excited about this new recording with the Imani Winds. And that’s gonna be a fun piece because it exists in two ways – it’s gonna exist as just the wind quintet, and then the version where I’m playing with them, too. We premiered it last October, but the album should come out early next year. My friend Sean Dixon’s here recording the steelpan parts with me, and we also worked on the Sculptures album together. He recorded all the percussion movements, and did most of the mixing from the original live recordings. That was a lot of creative inspiration, to work on those mixes.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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