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Portland composer Andy Akiho’s ‘Seven Pillars’ blends sound and light into a percussion extravaganza

Brett Campbell /Oregon Live

Created by Portlanders past and present, Chamber Music Northwest’s “Seven Pillars” is more than a concert. Composer Andy Akiho’s 11-movement extravaganza for Sandbox Percussion quartet also integrates stage director Michael McQuilken’s colorful lighting effects and stage design that add up to a multicolored dance of light and sound.

It’s also a showcase for some of today’s most inventive artists. Akiho created “Seven Pillars” explicitly for and with Sandbox and McQuilken. The quartet has quickly risen to be one of the world’s most prominent and accomplished new music percussion groups. Another opera designed by McQuilken, “Angel’s Bone,” won the 2016 Pulitzer. Sandbox’s recording of “Seven Pillars” earned a pair of Grammy nominations.

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 such as eighth blackbird and Bang on a Can All Stars. His “Seven Pillars” music was one of three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize.

“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 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.”

Percussion Immersion

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 bands. College percussion courses also introduced Akiho to the steel pan, best known for its Caribbean repertoire, which became his signature instrument.

Eager to expand his palette, Akiho wound up studying percussion at Manhattan School of Music, and then composition in graduate school at Yale and then Princeton. He didn’t really explore classical repertoire until he was 30, and those influences have joined his earlier infatuations — postbop jazz, headbanger rock, global percussion — to help form Akiho’s diverse yet singular style. The combination has won him audiences around the world — including several stints at Chamber Music Northwest.

He enjoyed his Portland experiences so much that he moved to the city (where a good friend and fellow percussionist already lived) a few years ago. “I felt at home there, and the city embraced my music,” he said. Akiho is really an itinerant composer, spending months in various cities where he can work with orchestras, dance companies and ensembles that commission his new music.

“I write all over the world,” he explained. “It’s inspiring to me to be in the places I’m working.”

Akiho builds his own musical community wherever he goes, because he’s most inspired by working with collaborators. He likes to get to know the performers he’s composing for, and tailors their parts to their personalities, tastes, preferences and skills.

Akiho’s inclination for collaboration permeates “Seven Pillars.” He created it in conjunction with the Sandbox quartet (Jonny Allen, Victor Caccese, Rosenbaum and Terry Sweeney), who formed a pandemic pod comprising only themselves, Akiho, producer Sean Dixon, and their families, so they could complete the work in 2020-21. The lockdown afforded opportunities for a back-and-forth creative process during extended residencies at a rural New Hampshire barn-turned-recording studio. Sometimes working all night, improvising on various instruments himself for up to 10 hours at a time, Akiho imagined various sounds, asked the Sandbox players to try them out, recorded them on his iPhone, picked out the sections he liked most, and revised based on their feedback and what he heard.

“A lot of the ideas originated with me just hanging out with Sandbox,” beginning in 2018, Akiho recalled. “We’d bounce ideas off each other. 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.”

Akiho’s ambitions for “Seven Pillars” stretched beyond the music. He and Sandbox envisioned a touring show in which the players themselves could trigger the visual effects. They turned to another artist they’d met in graduate school: Michael McQuilken, who like Akiho was older than most other students, was himself a former street percussionist and happened to be from Portland. They worked together on dozens of projects. He also directed one of 11 short films they commissioned for “Seven Pillars.”

“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.”

The various percussion instruments and 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. Still, the music of “Seven Pillars” shines brightly and colorfully on its own. By turns driving, delicate, dazzling and dramatic, the ensemble “pillars” and the four solo movements separating them provide enough sonic variety (from vibraphone, glockenspiel and marimba to glass bottles and metal pipes, often modified or played in unusual ways both struck and stroked) to enthrall for the full 80 minutes. Akiho used formal elements to tie the components together, but such technical intricacies “are just a means to an end,” he explained, providing a scaffolding that he expanded into an irresistibly immersive soundscape.

“What’s important literally is how does it sound,” he said. “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 coolest thing ever done. Then it’s a true experience.”

Read original feature in Oregon Live here.

Watch 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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