Andy Akiho spent much of the pandemic living communally with the group Sandbox Percussion. They experimented with different instruments and sounds, and worked together to create a piece called “Seven Pillars.” The piece was nominated for two Grammy awards and the Pulitzer prize this year. It is being performed on Tuesday night at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, presented by Chamber Music Northwest, as a part of their 2022 Summer Festival. Akiho joins us to talk about how lights, video and percussion all come together in this piece.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. The Portland based percussionist and composer Andy Akiho spent much of the pandemic living communally with the Sandbox Percussion quartet. Together, they experimented with different instruments and sounds and worked to create a piece called Seven Pillars. The resulting recording was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Akiho’s composition was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times called Seven Pillars “Clangorous… a lush, brooding celebration of noise.” The Pulitzer Prize board said it showcases “sensuous timbers, an agile command of rhythm, and a wide span of international influences. Seven Pillars is being performed tomorrow night at 8:00 at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, and Andy Akiho joins us now to talk about it. Welcome.
Andy Akiho: Hi.
Miller: Hi there. I want to start with some music, and then we can talk about it. We’re going to hear part of a movement that’s in the middle of this 80 minute complete work. This is a section from Pillar Five.
[Percussion music plays]
Andy Akiho, what was your starting point for this massive work?
Akiho: This work started in 2013, and it started as a single movement commission. I had some percussionist friends that also included Ian Rosenbaum. And then when Ian really got established with Sandbox Percussion, they wanted to commission this whole 11 movement work. So the roots of it start back in January 2013, and it’s been a journey. The composition was finished around June last year, and then premiered late last year in Seattle.
Miller: What can you tell us about this ensemble, this percussion quartet Sandbox that you worked so intimately with?
Akiho: They’re my favorite. They’re incredible. They’re like family to me. They’re some of the best musicians on the planet, I think, and also some of the nicest people in the world to work with. So it’s been a lot of fun, this whole journey working with them. Ian and I go back from school about 12 years ago. And we’ve been working together nonstop since then.
Miller: Do you basically need four virtuosos for this piece to be played?
Akiho: For the whole 11 movements, it’s about 80 minutes total. I think you need a lot of virtuosic ability, and also endurance just in the mental endurance. The musicality, and just to be able to play for that long, and keep the energy up. I think it takes a very special performance to pull that off.
Miller: And it helps that, as you said, they’re also nice guys.
Akiho: Oh yeah, they’re amazing to work with. And they love doing this. That’s why we do this. We’re all in this together, and we’re having a fun time, and we’re trying to share these experiences with everybody.
Miller: I’ve read that in the writing and creation of Seven Pillars, you would sometimes film yourself with your iPhone camera while you noodled around and experimented for hours at a time, I read in the New York Times article, sometimes for eight hours at a time. What would you then do with that video? Would you watch it back?
Akiho: Yeah, it was often 8 to 10 hours at a time. But I wouldn’t record that long, just for the battery. Let’s say I would play for two hours, and then I would record maybe 20 minutes, and then listen back, see my favorite parts. It allowed me to pick the good stuff that I wanted. And working within some really intense architecture and set of rules that kept the foundation of the piece, and then improvisations are what I filled that mold with.
Miller: How would you know when it was time to turn the camera on? Or later listening back, how would you know that this was the diamond in the rough, the two minutes that you really wanted to keep out of eight hours?
Akiho: It’s very organic. Anytime I just felt really good about the sounds that were coming out. I didn’t want to overthink it, that’s why I wanted to record it and not immediately write it down sometimes. Because sometimes if I’m writing, I’ll forget what I just played. And it’s nice to be able to hear this back, look at it, feel the energy, and then start writing down anything that was really tangible and inspiring to me to keep moving forward with. And then also sharing that with the other guys, sharing some of these ideas. Sometimes, they were literally in the same room while I was writing, and I could bounce ideas immediately on the spot and see their emotions with it. If they’re hyped about it, I’m going to get more hyped. And then we build off of that.
Miller: Why did you want to basically do big stretches of early lockdown with these musicians?
Akiho: My goal is always to write for the musicians, write for the people, their personalities. The things they love, the things that challenge them, the things that challenge me. But also play to their strengths.
It’s more of a vibe. It’s more really getting to know the musicians and writing for them. It’s the Duke Ellington kind of approach. If they play kazoos, I’d rather write for them than writing for the instruments. It is specifically writing for those four guys.
Miller: Like Duke Ellington, he knew he had this piano player or this trumpeter or saxophone player, so give that person a solo or some particular lick, because he knew those people and he knew their personalities, and it wasn’t for the instrument, it was for that player?
Akiho: Yes, that was my goal. And that’s my goal with every piece. But I never get this much liberty to spend that much time with a group.
Miller: So maybe this is impossible to know then, but how do you think that this piece would have been different if you had just written it by yourself in a room? And that could have been at any time, but it’s even to me more pointed because that was the experience of so many of us in various ways during the pandemic. So many of us were alone in rooms with computers.
Akiho: Luckily, percussion is what I know the most of all the families of instruments. And I can feel things idiomatically, I can work on my own. But the main thing is it makes the process more fun, it makes the journey more fun. It’s just a funner process, and it’s more meaningful. And I feel like it makes the material stronger on a subconscious level. So it would have been a completely different piece. I’m confident it would have worked, but I don’t think it would have been quite as strong as it is, being able to work with them.
Miller: And the act of making it wouldn’t have been joyous, it seems like, or not communal?
Akiho: Yeah, I come from more of a performer background. I didn’t start really composing until much later in life. So I’m always wanting to work with musicians live. I don’t like being alone to write. That’s why I write in coffee shops or bars or anywhere. I don’t like the solitude, going off the cabin in the woods and writing for months. I’d rather be in the action.
Miller: We’re going to hear Pillar Four in just a second, which my understanding is that that was the first movement, you wrote this big chunk in the middle, and then you engineered, in pretty intense musicological ways, these movements on either side of it.
But if you were writing that in a coffee shop, what would it have sounded like? What are you doing in a coffee shop as you write music?
Akiho: It’s funny you bring that one up, because that was the one that I did in solitude, in coffee shops. Because this was before Sandbox commissioned the other 10 movements. It was still written with the performers in mind that I knew from that group, like Ian, Svet Stoyanov, Ayano Kataoka, Gwen Dease, these were the original four commissioners for that movement. So I had them in mind, but I wasn’t working with them closely. I was actually living in Rome when I wrote most of it, and I was bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop to speakeasies at three in the morning. And also the studio where I was staying at in Rome. It started in Princeton, I started writing there, and then I finished it in Rome in late 2014.
Miller: Let’s have a listen, this is the beginning of the movement that’s called Pillar Four.
[Percussion music plays]
One of the things I really love about this piece, and a lot of movements, is that even though the rhythmic counterpoint, mathematically it’s beyond me, I can’t really figure out the math of it, I can still appreciate the excitement and the beauty of these movements. How do you think about audience and accessibility, given that most of us may not actually be able to truly understand the rhythmic complexity of what’s going on?
Akiho: My number one goal is to be in the audience and enjoy the performance. So I want to do whatever it takes to get there, and I want everybody to enjoy it too. Not that I’m just purposely making it accessible. I want to write what I want to write, and I want to be able to hear things that I would love to hear, whether I was writing it or not. So I’m trying to write the best music that I want to personally hear. And I’m very fortunate when other people like hearing it too, and enjoy the experience. And I’m really happy when the performers enjoy that too.
I try to go nonstop until it’s the music I want to hear. And that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how I get there. It doesn’t matter, any of the architecture or the math. There’s a lot of that in this piece, but I think what ultimately matters is what does it sound like, at the very end of the day That’s important to me.
Miller: I’m curious what your early musical loves were. What were you listening to as a teenager?
Akiho: I grew up with my sister introducing me to the Beatles White Album. That was one of the first albums I remember. Anything from Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Run D.M.C. Music that was popular in the 80s, but also stuff my parents were listening to. Anything from Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, everything.
And then as a teenager, that was still continuing. And then I guess near the end of that I was starting to really get into jazz, especially bebop. Mid-fifties jazz was my favorite, like Miles Davis Prestige albums. And then later in life, I went back to school when I was around 28, and that started getting more into classical, through Bang on a Can, contemporary classical. And then that got me into the older classical like Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, all that stuff that I really love.
So actually a pretty normal intro to it, but maybe not quite the conservatory vibe, but going backwards into that from music that I grew up with.
Miller: And now it’s all somewhere in the stew?
Akiho: Yes. And then also calypso and Caribbean music.
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