One Composer, Four Players, ‘Seven Pillars’
The industrial stretch of south Brooklyn where Sandbox Percussion makes its home was nearly silent on a cool, clear Sunday afternoon at the end of September. Not so inside, where the Sandbox quartet had put in earplugs to rehearse Andy Akiho’s clangorous “Seven Pillars,” a lush, brooding celebration of noise.
Akiho, 42, an increasingly in-demand composer who rose as a steel pan virtuoso, sat watching, with a surfer’s laid-back demeanor but intently focused. He isn’t part of the group, but over the years has grown so close with its members, and has spent so much time in their studio, that he installed an espresso machine to fuel his work marathons there.
“That’s my bedroom,” he said, pointing to a tiny soundproofed recording space walled off in the corner.
Akiho has written substantial works for steel pan, for percussion, for marimba and string quartet, for snare drum and sampled dog barking, and many other configurations — even a concerto for onstage Ping-Pong players and orchestra. But “Seven Pillars” is a breakthrough for him, in its 80-minute length and its conceptual complexity.
It is being unveiled as a live theatrical event staged by Michael McQuilken, with striking lights synchronized with the music, in Seattle on Friday, and will tour in the coming years, including to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York in April. But because of the pandemic, it was first released in September as a recording, with accompanying short films. The album has been nominated for two Grammy Awards: One of the categories, best contemporary classical composition, specifically honors Akiho, and the other, best chamber music/small ensemble performance, Sandbox Percussion.
This is an appropriate balance, since “Seven Pillars” is an auteur’s vision that was also shaped through an unusually close collaboration with its performers. (Displaying a video clip of a 2019 workshop session, time-stamped at 12:59 a.m., the Sandbox player Ian David Rosenbaum said, “We were just getting started.”) Akiho and the group bundled together for stretches of the lockdown with their producer, Sean Dixon, working on the recording at Avaloch Farm Music Institute in rural New Hampshire.
“We’re not interested in that kind of relationship where we just get a piece,” said Victor Caccese, another Sandbox member, who for “Seven Pillars” developed a customized table of tuned metal pipes. (Jonny Allen and Terry Sweeney round out the ensemble.)
The 11-part work has a palindromic structure, with the “pillars” — all written for more than one musician — interspersed with four solos, each of which introduces a new instrument into the mix. Starting with a pair of pounding, echoing beats, the raucous relentlessness of “Pillar I” gives way to the first of the solos: the gentle, jeweled reticence of “Amethyst,” for vibraphone.
In the otherworldly “Pillar II,” which dissolves into a dizzying kaleidoscope of high-pitched chirps, the edges of a vibraphone are bowed — not an unusual effect in contemporary percussion music. What is unusual is that Akiho asks not for a generalized airy sound, but for precisely notated rhythms.
“I didn’t know it was possible to play those rhythms with a bow,” Rosenbaum said. “He will create a vocabulary, and then create beautiful music using that vocabulary.”
Akiho has an uncanny gift for intricate rhythmic counterpoint, though the mathematical precision of the final product emerged through epic stretches of stream-of-consciousness play. Developing “Seven Pillars,” he would keep his iPhone camera trained on himself as he banged and noodled, making something like eight hours of improvised video at a time and sleeping at the foot of whichever instrument he was working on.
“Pillar III,” mixing antsy chimes and a low-slung beat below, is an interplay of lines that shouldn’t fit together but do. After the piece builds in force, it finally collapses in ferocious shudders, explosions and shivers before an ominous lullaby. The score asks one of the players to run sticks along the vibraphone pipes. But on that September Sunday, Akiho also experimented with hammering on the pipes.
“For someone to be playing one of these instruments with a hammer is, even for us, unconventional,” Caccese said with a grin.
“Spiel” conveys both the toylike quality and jittery anxiety, the sweet tones and clipped tapping, of the glockenspiel. “Pillar IV,” the center of the palindrome — and, at 11 and a half minutes, the longest section — is the grandest expression of the work’s mixture of sinister darkness, stained-glass glinting and communal energy.
After that intensity comes the relief of “mARImbA,” which is, as the title hints, a longing aria for its instrument, an exploration of the different textures of bowed and struck tones, trembling waves of sound and lonely echoes. The sly, light “Pillar V,” with its cascades of chimes, leads to “Pillar VI,” more ruminative than the others; the shadowy tangle of “carTogRAPh”; and the fluttering hush of “Pillar VII.”
Akiho lived in Italy in 2014 and ’15 as a winner of the Rome Prize, and he mused that there may be some subconscious connection between the Pantheon’s pillars and his musical ones. But “Seven Pillars” is pretty much as pure as music gets — it’s only “about” its own structure and self-imposed constrictions.
He and Sandbox admit that the work would be an easier sell to grant makers and presenters if there was a narrative behind it, and at one point in the writing process he flirted with imposing a concept based on the seven Japanese gods of fortune.
“But that’s not really who I am,” he said. “I would be lying to myself and the audience.”
It wasn’t so many years before his Rome Prize that Akiho didn’t think of himself as a composer at all. He grew up in Columbia, S.C.; his white Southern mother met his father, a Japanese hibachi chef, when she went out to eat.
Akiho’s father wasn’t in the picture for much of his childhood, and his older sister helped raise him; she was into rock drumming and introduced him to her kit. In high school, he dived into the world of drum lines, and at the University of South Carolina stumbled on an unexpectedly rich musical environment for a school without a conservatory. There was West African drumming, jazz ensembles and, crucially, steel pan, for which Akiho quickly showed an affinity.
“I became the steel pan guy,” he said over onigiri after the Sandbox rehearsal. Akiho traveled to Trinidad to experience large pan ensembles, then moved to New York in 2003. He played with bands in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; did cocktail party and wedding gigs; and helped to organize a steel pan program in two public schools.
Reunited a few years later with his father, who was living in Washington, Akiho briefly went to work there as a sushi chef. “It’s like music,” he recalled realizing. “I could devote the rest of my life to doing this. But I have to pick one or the other; I can’t do both. So I picked music.”
He hadn’t had to read a score in years, but was accepted into the contemporary performance program at Manhattan School of Music as his class’s only percussionist, which placed him in high demand as a player. The program didn’t focus on composition, but after full days of classes, he would go home and write.
Having met the renowned composer Julia Wolfe, he began to study with her on the side, bartering rhythm lessons for her children. “I had creative ideas, but I didn’t know what I was doing yet,” he said. “And her vibe was not trying to sculpt me into a specific dogma.”
Wolfe, one of the Bang on a Can trio of composers, offered entree to that group’s rock-tinged and proudly genre-crossing world. Then, in 2009, Akiho started a master’s program in composition at Yale University. He began to write pieces in which he wasn’t also featured as a performer.
A few years ago, he moved to Portland, Ore., where he knew some people, including a friend who plays timpani with the Oregon Symphony. “He’s a year or two younger than me,” Akiho said, but the timpanist and his wife “kind of almost adopted me. They feel like family to me.”
That grounding has helped — as has hiring an assistant — as Akiho tries to get more of a handle on a booming career that has escalated almost out of control. He is an inveterate procrastinator, regularly crashing deadlines only to face others he’s blown past.
“I would go a year without looking at email,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Like, it was bad. I had an email from Jon Batiste for, like, months, and I didn’t even see it, talking about maybe doing a recording. And I was like, I need to get my life together.”
“A lot of times you can think you need that hectic kind of life or your stuff won’t be good,” he added. “But I think when I’m healthy I write better, and I’m happier with what I’m doing. It’s more about enjoying the journey than trying to get to the finish line and crashing.”
He dreams about collaborations beyond the classical world with artists like Batiste and — the ideal — Kendrick Lamar. He wrote music for a coming dance by Benjamin Millepied. And with the Industry, an avant-garde opera company in Los Angeles, he workshopped an adaptation of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo.” (He’s also just a dissertation away from earning his doctorate from Princeton.)
“I want to go to Japan for a while, maybe several months or something, and collaborate over there,” he said. “Get more in touch with those roots and the traditional music.”
The deadline for “Seven Pillars,” the premiere of which was scheduled for last year, was suddenly lifted because of the pandemic. So it got around Akiho’s usual practice of rushing works to completion, and allowed for the communal development with Sandbox that now infuses it. His past music lacked neither vigor nor reverie, but here he casts a new kind of spell, a trance experienced by four players at once.
“It wouldn’t have been as personal” without the space the piece was given, Akiho said. “It wouldn’t have been as deep.”