Some composers prefer to fly solo. Alone in their garrett or coffee shop, they imagine worlds and send them off to performers to turn into shows. Then there are the collaborative creators, like Duke Ellington, who conceive of an idea, maybe a chord structure or a theme, and then work with the musicians who’ll bring it to life, or at least put flesh on the bones. In truth, like most things, it’s really a spectrum, not a binary, and even composers/writers/designers/whatever who tend toward one end of the scale might choose different strategies for different creative projects.
Portland composer Andy Akiho leans toward the Ellington end. Ever since his formative days in high school marching band, he’s reveled in making music with others. A few years ago, he was ready to take a giant creative leap — a project so ambitious he needed help to pull it off.
That help arrived in the form of a new ensemble, as well as — quite unexpectedly — a pandemic. The former, Sandbox Percussion, gave him the players he needed not just to realize his expansive vision but also to help clarify it. The latter afforded the team the time and creative space to make it happen.
The spectacular result, an 80 minute cycle of sounds for percussion quartet called 7 Pillars, made Akiho and Sandbox finalists for last year’s Grammy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize in music. On Tuesday night, Chamber Music Northwest brings it to Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.
Akiho provided the guiding vision, yet 7 Pillars is more than a concert. Akiho’s extravaganza also integrates Portland stage director Michael McQuilken’s colorful lighting effects and stage design, adding up to a tightly choreographed multicolored dance of light and sound. Sandbox also commissioned 11 videos from various directors, one for each movement.
It’s a showcase for some of today’s most inventive artists and a lesson in collaborative creation. Since its formation, Sandbox has quickly risen to be one of the world’s most prominent and accomplished new music percussion groups. McQuilken has become an in-demand designer and videographer whose work has graced some of the past decade’s most scintillating shows, including Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone, which won the 2016 Pulitzer.
Even though 7 Pillars wasn’t made in Oregon, it was created by Portlanders past and present. Now living in Connecticut, McQuilken grew up here, and Portland-based Akiho is increasingly acclaimed as one of America’s most exciting composers. His music has been performed by leading orchestras (New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, Oregon Symphony and many others) and ensembles (eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can All Stars, et al).
“Andy has an incredible ear for color and sound,” says Sandbox’s Ian Rosenbaum, who’s known Akiho and played his music since their graduate school days at Yale in 2009. “He invents these new sounds and seamlessly assimilates them into his own unique language. His music has so many layers of enjoyment to it. If you’re a listener who doesn’t know anything about theory, you can listen to Andy’s pieces and enjoy them simply because of how beautiful they are.”
The 43-year-old Akiho’s earliest influences weren’t classical, but the ‘80s rock and rap he heard growing up in South Carolina: Van Halen, Metallica, Run-DMC. His older sister, a rock drummer, introduced him to her instrument, and he played drums in his high school and college marching band. College percussion courses also introduced Akiho to global music like West African drumming and the steel pan, best known for its Caribbean repertoire.
Enchanted by the steel pan, he headed to Trinidad for study with professional players after college graduation. Sometimes modified in offbeat ways, it became his signature instrument–even when he writes for other instruments, most of his compositions still originate on the pan.
Akiho moved to New York in 2003, where he hoped eventually to become a jazz musician. He’d been transfixed by postbop styles during study at the college jazz Mecca of the University of North Texas. Eager to expand his palette, Akiho wound up studying percussion at Manhattan School of Music, and then to graduate school in composition at Yale and then Princeton. He didn’t really explore classical repertoire till he was 30, (Bartok, Beethoven and Stravinsky blew him away) and those influences have joined his earlier infatuations — post-bop jazz, headbanger rock, global percussion. These forged Akiho’s diverse yet singular style, which frequently involves experiments in polyrhythms, varied instrumental timbres, complex musical structures — but always put in the service of emotional expression, not nerdery for its own sake.
Over the next decade, he received prestigious prizes for his original music, and performances from leading orchestras and ensembles. And he continued writing, recording and playing music for smaller ensembles, including several performances at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest.
ArtsWatch covered many of those local shows, which have been among the most impressive musical experiences here over the past decade (read some of that here, here, and here). “I’m starting to see in him a perfect representation of what a 21st-century composer can be,” wrote OAW Music Editor Matthew Andrews, “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.”
Akiho so cherished his Portland experiences that a few years back he moved to the city, where a good friend and fellow percussionist already lived. “I felt at home there, and the city embraced my music,” he says; that has included work with Third Angle New Music, 45th Parallel Universe, and Oregon Symphony–the orchestra performed his percussion concerto with Colin Currie last year, and performs his steel pan concerto next spring. Akiho appreciated Portland’s natural beauty and the opportunity to take his music bicoastal. He frequently returns to New York, and spends months in various cities where he can work with orchestras, dance companies, and ensembles that commission his new music.
“I work better writing a piece in a new place,” he explains. “I write all over the world. It’s inspiring to me to be in the places I’m working.”
Though artistically itinerant, Akiho builds his own musical community wherever he goes, because he’s most inspired by working with collaborators — other performers and artists.
Akiho’s inclination for collaboration permeates 7 Pillars. He’d actually commenced work on what became the central pillar in early 2013, and developed the overall architecture vocabulary over the next few years while both he and Sandbox quartet (Jonny Allen, Victor Caccese, Rosenbaum and Terry Sweeney) pursued myriad other projects. Then, funding came together for the biggest work of their careers. Sandbox began working on the piece in 2016.
“A lot of ideas originated with me just hanging out with Sandbox,” beginning in 2018, Akiho recalls, as the group worked on some of his older pieces at first while he got to know them as individuals. He likes to tailor musicians’ parts to their personalities, tastes, preferences and skills. “I got to know them as I was writing. Ian already knew how I worked, and the other three became like brothers to me too.”
The pandemic pause and lockdown afforded them unprecedented opportunities for back-and-forth creative process during extended residencies at a rural New Hampshire barn-turned-recording studio. After the shutdowns scotched a planned partial LA premiere, Sandbox formed a pandemic professional pod comprising only themselves, Akiho, producer Sean Dixon, and their families, so they could complete it in 2020-21. Rosenbaum says that not only did the unplanned extra-year interregnum enable the group to refine Akiho’s music, it also permitted them to hone their performance to a degree even such a virtuosic ensemble could never imagine — and may have changed their preferred working method going forward.
Sometimes working all night for up to 10 hours at a time, improvising on various instruments (from woodblocks to whiskey bottles) himself, Akiho imagined various sounds, asked the Sandbox players to try them out, recorded them on his iPhone, picked out the sections he liked most, revised and incorporated them based on their feedback and what he heard, repeat a few hundred times.
Hearing the sometimes unprecedented sounds he’d imagined in real life helped Akiho immensely. And the group had the opportunity to devise new performance techniques (like rhythmically bowing percussion instruments in a way that provided for real articulation) to realize his offbeat vision. “We had to quite literally raise the level of bowing technique in the percussion world,” to get what Akiho wanted, Rosenbaum recalls. That’s often how the art form has progressed throughout its history, he says, percussionists figuring out how to play music that was hitherto unplayable.
“We’d bounce ideas off each other, challenge each other to new ideas,” Akiho remembered. “Being able to work the parts out in real time with them was magical. It wasn’t me just writing and handing it to them. We were all really in the laboratory together.”
With all performances canceled or postponed, “Sandbox was rehearsing much more during the pandemic than in a normal year because we had so much time,” Rosenbaum remembers. One member might practice a newly written part while another would edit a just-recorded session and another discuss the next phase with Akiho. “Crucially, we had no deadlines,” Rosenbaum says. “We weren’t going to record it until it was really ready, so we didn’t plan the recording session until it felt right to Andy.”
It was the opposite of the usual classical practices — inadequate, last minute rehearsals (especially with deadline-challenged composers like Akiho), making the recording first and only then honing it in extensive rehearsals for the album tour. Rosenbaum hopes to apply those lessons in space and time to future Sandbox projects.
“Having that flexibility with nothing else on the schedule was a new thing for us and Andy both, and the quality we were able to create was far beyond anything else we’d ever experienced,” he says. “By the time we recorded it, we’d played the music thousands of times. We know the piece like it’s our own names. By going through this process, the four of us in Sandbox know this piece so well that in 50 years, we’ll probably forget our siblings’ names — but we will still know every note for 7 Pillars.”
From sound to vision
As massive as the evening-length work grew, Akiho’s ambitions for 7 Pillars stretched beyond the music. He wanted to give audiences something to look at, too, especially during the sometimes tedious moments in classical concerts involving moving either instruments or players between pieces or sections. He and Sandbox envisioned a touring show in which the players themselves could trigger the visual effects, avoiding the need to hire and tour with a technical assistant, as groups such as Kronos Quartet sometimes do.
Akiho knew just who to work with. One day during his Yale studies, he had attended a percussion-augmented show at the drama school, and was enchanted by the staging created by the director, Michael McQuilken, who, like Akiho, was older than most of the other students, and an erstwhile street percussionist himself. A one-time Seattle based theater artist and also a writer, filmmaker and composer — McQuilken happens to be a native of Portland.
“I was there before the post-Portlandia explosion started,” McQuilken remembers. “Except for groups like the Dandy Warhols, Elliot Smith, it was a pretty sleepy town when I was there. Not that hotbed of hipster culture it’s become. It’s been fun to go back and visit and watch it grow. I feel connected to nature because I grew up there, with those snowy mountains for skiing and snowboarding and hikes with beautiful waterfalls.”
“We’re kind of on the same wavelength,” Akiho explains, “even though we grew up on different sides of the country.”
Later, when Akiho wanted to create a video for one of his pieces, Rosenbaum reminded him how much they’d enjoyed McQuilken’s work. Akiho sent him a recording, and the director immediately knew just what to do with it. They worked together on multiple projects over the next few years, so Akiho and Rosenbaum knew McQuilken was the ideal collaborator to create a staged version of 7 Pillars. He also directed one of 11 short films they commissioned for still another visual element in the project.
“I’d always had a dream to work with him on a large scale, live project, with all the music and lighting and staging memorized,” Akiho said. “That’s what my dream has been since I got into composing. I didn’t grow up with the classical scene — I wanted more of the experience of a rock concert, like a Metallica show,” instead of the austere, often ill-rehearsed performances too common in classical music.
McQuilken’s placement of various percussion instruments and patterned pulsations of pillars of colored lights, even the choreography of the players’ movements–including passing around the iPad that wirelessly controls the lighting via Bluetooth–offer a trippy visual dimension missing from most classical concerts. It also means the Sandboxers have to precisely add yet another instrument cue to their already overstuffed scores — e.g “press this button for this this light right after you play this 16th note on the vibraphone,” Rosenbaum says.
As dazzling as the colorful columns of light can be, the music of 7 Pillars shines brightly and colorfully on its own. By turns driving, delicate, and dramatic, the ensemble “pillars” and the four solo movements separating them provide enough sonic variety to enthrall for the full 80 minutes–from vibraphone, glockenspiel and marimba to glass bottles and metal pipes, often modified or played in unusual ways both struck and stroked. Akiho used formal elements to tie the components together. For instance, the score’s structure forms a kind of palindrome, with mirror correspondences between the first and last movements, second and penultimate movements, and so on. But he insists such technical intricacies “are just a means to an end,” providing a scaffolding that he expanded into an irresistibly immersive soundscape.
“What’s important literally is how does it sound,” Akiho insists. “Do you get that energy and emotions we poured into it? That’s what comes first. That’s what attracted me to being a musician in the first place — I want to share those emotions with people. If I go to a concert, I want it to be the coolest thing ever done. Then it’s a true experience.”
Rosenbaum believes 7 Pillars will reverberate beyond these performances and the recording. He says he’s already hearing from other percussionists who are playing parts of it, or want to. “Andy always produces something amazing, but he’s outstripped everything he’s done before with this piece,” he marvels. “We feel so honored to have brought it into the world. There are evening length percussion pieces, but no others I know that have such symphonic scope and architecture. My hope is that it inspires a whole generation of composers to see the expressive possibilities for percussion quartet.” And he hopes the collaborative process that produced it might prove just as influential.
As for Akiho, he considers 7 Pillars to be his biggest achievement so far, but doesn’t consider it a point of arrival — more the latest stop on a long and continuing path. “I’m on a lifelong journey to still find my voice,” he says, “but I haven’t achieved it. My tastes are constantly evolving and I’m always learning. It’s always gonna be changing because I’m always changing, and I’m always gonna be in a different place.”
Chamber Music Northwest presents Sandbox Percussion in “7 Pillars,” 8 p.m. July 19, Alberta Rose Theatre; $10-$30; tickets available here.