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Review | "Exquisite corps: Akiho’s Pillars"

The Pulitzer-nominated piece for percussion drew an epic crowd to CMNW’s penultimate New@Night concert.

Charles Rose / Oregon ArtsWatch

Last Tuesday we were treated to one of the biggest shows of Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Night series: Andy Akiho’s Pulitzer Finalist opus Seven Pillars, written for (or perhaps with) Sandbox Percussion. This show–along with the previous week’s insane performance of Crumb’s A Journey Beyond Time, which had over 120 percussion instruments–represented some of the best offerings for percussion music at this festival.

“Seven Pillars” at Alberta Rose Theatre for CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Performances of Akiho’s work here have always brought big crowds, but this one was staggering. Not only was the Alberta Rose theater packed to the aisles with a sold-out show, but there were all sorts of crowds we don’t usually spot at shows like this, even for the New@Night. I caught a few big names associated with the Oregon Symphony and Third Angle, along with a good number of high school percussionists. Some of the latter, I learned, heard about this show from the recent percussion camp at PSU, Portland Summer Percussion Academy, hosted by Joel Bluestone and Chris Whyte. The energy in the room was palpable as the audience clapped after nearly every movement–usually a faux pas at any classical show. But what were we supposed to do after each incredible movement? Sit silently? Let out a suppressed cough?

We’ve talked about Akiho a lot here at ArtsWatch, and for good reason. We like to claim Akiho as one of our own, since he lives here now and has crept up alongside Kenji Bunch to become one of the most-performed local composers. In fact some of the people I’ve asked about the prospect of a “Portland School” of composition often cite Akiho as one of the top composers in the city.

I’m a bit skeptical of this: he has such a unique voice in the community that he can hardly be the head of a “school of composition,” which usually implies some continuity of aesthetic principles and compositional techniques. I think Akiho is just a damn good composer we are lucky to have in our midst. But we’ll have to see what happens when some of those young percussionists start composing, or when the young composers I know personally who do explicitly draw from Akiho start to garner some recognition.

Exquisite corps

During the performance I couldn’t help but think back to drum corps. It’s an entire tradition and massively popular summer activity for band kids in their late teens and early twenties (in fact, it’s going on right now). Summer drum corps is where you learn to play your instrument at a very high level, get buff and tan by running around in the sun for ten hours a day, and store up stories to tell once you get back. It’s a vibrant yet somewhat insular community, with a large base of devoted fans and former players.

Akiho, like a surprising number of professional percussionists, has drum corps experience with Carolina Crown and the Cadets (I tried looking through older videos to find him, but given the poor early 2000s video quality I couldn’t be certain). Check out Crown’s first-place 2013 show–a take on Glass’ Einstein on the Beach–for a taste of what it’s like. As a high school marching band kid, this is mind-blowing stuff.

It’s very common for percussionists to do drum corps either before or during college–I’ve known a few. There’s little better for training young percussionists than to spend an entire summer drilling rudiments with a metronome blasting in their ear. This becomes a huge part of the sound of Seven Pillars: the first Pillar alone has god knows how many paradiddle-diddles.

The entire sound of the ensemble at times sounded like a drum corps performance, with super tight, quick rhythms played on the driest instruments possible together in lock-step precision. The opening of Seven Pillars presents the sounds of the rims of drums, woodblocks and bass drums for an oppressive, pitchless sound. As the piece progresses more metallic instruments and pitched instruments get added to the sound, ending in a frontline-like quartet of vibraphone, marimba, xylophone and glockenspiel.

And the drum corps experience is not restricted to mere technicality: it has a whole musical-theater vibe, where impressive theatrics and fancy tricks are the order of the day. This came up a couple times in Seven Pillars, when there were fast staggered sixteenth notes: one player plays the downbeats and another the offbeats. This is extremely hard to do, since any minor deviation in rhythm will cause the whole thing to fall apart. During one of the solo movements, we saw the “spinning vibraphone trick” (where two players spin the instrument while another keeps playing) that comes up often in drum corps and its winter counterpart, indoor drumline.

One of my favorite movements opened with overlapping bowed crotales, forming a cloud of overlapping sine waves piercing through the hall. In this respect it almost sounded like some of the furthest, most abstract sorts of ambient music. All goes to show that percussion isn’t merely one thing, nor does it need to be strictly loud or mellow.

Pillars of the community

Seven Pillars was nominated for the Pulitzer in music, as well as two Grammys. Two awards we like to say we don’t care about–except when we complain as they get things wrong and are delighted when they get things right for once. In this case, I’m glad to see Akiho get recognized for his work.

If you can sense my enthusiasm seeping through these words, it’s because I have a lot of experience with this world of percussion, via high school marching band and drumline. Drums were the first instrument I really took seriously, and while I haven’t played as much since my undergrad days I still like to break out the practice pad every once in a while. It was from my high school drumline instructors that I first heard the name Andy Akiho–before I really knew much about contemporary classical music at all.

The sounds that opens the piece comes from the rim of the bass drum along with woodblocks and later the marimba, played with thin wooden rods rather than the usual felt mallets, strengthening the woody tone. These wooden rods (which also showed up in his suite LIgNEouS) appear throughout the Pillars, along with some of Akiho’s other signature sounds, such as the rubber bands snapping the low bars on the marimba (akin to the so-called Bartók pizzicato). One of my favorite moments was the vibraphone solo interlude, with its dense tone clusters in the lower register.

Akiho got up onstage briefly before and after the show to present the piece and thank lighting and stage designer Michael Joseph McQuilken, a Portland native. He was funny and charming, with what seemed like a persistent joy at where his career has brought him so far. (You can read more about the role both McQuilken and Sandbox played in the creation of Seven Pillars in Brett Campbell’s feature profile).

Pass the ear plugs

What can I say? The show was fantastic. I chose to forego ear plugs–I’ve gone to much louder shows (and I do wear earplugs for those). Ear plugs can also muffle the sound a bit, which is nice for tamping down the piercing distortion at rock concerts, but in this instance I wanted to hear the full frequency band as clearly as possible.

Seven Pillars strikes a wonderful balance between timbral and rhythmic variety. It is a real showcase for everything the percussion ensemble is capable of when placed in the hands of four more-than-capable musicians like those in Sandbox Percussion, who exhibited a stunning display of technicality throughout.

One of my favorite things about Seven Pillars is that no matter how rhythmically dense it becomes, the groove is always there. It’s not hard to bob your head along to Seven Pillars, or really any of Akiho’s music–as long as you aren’t afraid of a few metric modulations here and there.

This dense polyrhythmic approach is the order of the day in two musical traditions which feature heavily in the corpus of Western percussion music: West African percussion and Indonesian gamelan. It’s also common in jazz, and among the more progressive sides of rock and metal music, with bands like Meshuggah, King Crimson, Tool, and King Gizzard–among dozens of others–garnering huge followings with this stuff. While Akiho’s style is unique for the classical world, there’s plenty of precedent for it–which is probably why he’s found success with a wider audience than many contemporary classical composers.

“Seven Pillars” at Alberta Rose Theatre for CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Read full feature in Oregon ArtsWatch here

Watch Seven Pillars teaser video here

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

Music by Andy Akiho

Performed by Ian Rosenbaum, Jonny Allen, Terry Sweeney, Victor Caccese

Produced by Andy Akiho, Sean Dixon and Sandbox Percussion

Engineered & Mixed by Sean Dixon

Mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering Studios


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