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CD Review | "An extraordinary, unclassifiable work"

Excerpted from Classical CD review by Graham Rickson

Two discs of music by American contemporary composer Andy Akiho have caught my ear in recent months. Born in 1979, his biography states that “he spent most of his 20s playing steel pan by ear in Trinidad and began composing at 28,” the physicality and theatricality involved in playing steel pans an essential element of Akiho’s music. Have a look at “Pillar IV” from the vast percussion piece Seven Pillars on YouTube; watching three members of Brooklyn’s Sandbox Percussion in action (look out for the wine bottles) is absorbing.

Seven Pillars is a huge, eleven-movement opus, written for Sandbox between 2018 and 2019, and described by one of the group as “the culminating project of our first decade as an ensemble.” “Pillar IV”, was conceived first as a standalone work, Akiho later adding six more quartet movements and interspersing them with solo sections, each one introducing a new instrument that becomes part of the ensemble.

Buy the physical album and you'll be bowled over by the elaborate presentation, the individual movements introduced by Akiho on a beautiful fold-out sheet full of unexpected creases and cut outs. Don’t try and open it outdoors on a windy day. Packaging apart, this release is a remarkable achievement; my advice would be to clear 80 minutes and listen to the whole thing in a single sitting, marvelling at the players’ collective virtuosity and feats of coordination in the denser sections. The solo movements are enthralling. I especially enjoyed the extended glockenspiel and vibraphone numbers, and who wouldn't want to hear what a bowed marimba sounds like? “Cartograph”, the tenth movement, is stunning. Find the YouTube performance and look out for how Victor Caccese manages to play the bass drum while standing a metre away from it, almost oblivious to what’s happening around him. This is as much high-end sport as music making. An extraordinary, unclassifiable work, and the recording captures every tiny detail.

Photographer Stuart Rome’s haunting photographs of giant redwood trees prompted Oculus, he and Akiho bonding while working at the American Academy in Rome. Akiho’s five-movement LigNEouS Suite (the word meaning made of or resembling wood) is scored for string quartet and marimba, Sandbox Percussion’s Ian Rosenbaum joining the Dover Quartet in music that’s consolatory and violent by turns, the beautiful Bartokian night-music of “LigNEouS IV” rebuffed by the driving rhythms and irregular accents of the final movement. Deciduous is a duet for violinist Kristin Lee and Akiho on steel pan, Akiho making two

seemingly incompatible voices sing together. Who’d have thought that a steel pan could be played with such grace and agility, Akiho’s rippling, harp-like accompaniment allowing Lee to soar above. Speaking Tree features an 11-piece ensemble and was prompted by Akiho’s nocturnal schleps around Princeton, NJ. The musical material was sketched after he’d fallen asleep under a favourite tree in the town’s cemetery. A winning mixture of introspection and exuberance, it’s a beguiling work, with some wonderful writing for chattering trumpets and a doleful tuba. As with Seven Pillars, track down the stylishly-produced physical album, the booklet containing a selection of Rome’s monochrome photographs.

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Watch Seven Pillars teaser video here

"Seven Pillars" - Concert in 11 Parts for Sandbox Percussion

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Listen on all streaming services here


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