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Seven Pillars: reflections on the creative journey behind Akiho's new work for Sandbox Percussion

Jonny Allen (pictured first left) describes his first encounter with the music of Andy Akiho and the unique creative process behind Seven Pillars, Akiho's extensive new work for Sandbox Percussion with lighting design and stage direction by Michael McQuilken.

Jonny Allen (pictured first left) describes his first encounter with the music of Andy Akiho and the unique creative process behind Seven Pillars, Akiho's extensive new work for Sandbox Percussion with lighting design and stage direction by Michael McQuilken.

Six years ago, we lived in a world where one of my favorite composers of all time, Andy Akiho, had not written a single note for percussion quartet. To me, this was akin to Chopin not writing any solo piano pieces. Thankfully this has changed, and six years later we are on the cusp of bringing Seven Pillars, 75 minutes of Andy’s music, into the world. This evening-length interdisciplinary work for percussion and light will include seven quartets, four solos, and one giant check mark on my bucket list.

It only feels right to start this story from the first time I ever saw the name Andy Akiho. It was the summer of 2008. I was between my freshman and sophomore year of college and had the task of “teaching my grandma the internet”. I could have used some internet lessons myself, so this was mostly an excuse to spend time with my grandma and receive praise for knowing words like “URL” and “search engine”.

workshopping Seven Pillars at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City
Sandbox Percussion workshopping Seven Pillars at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City

That day she had the idea to check out the PBS website and we did our usual perusal of the site – a click here, a back-page there. Eventually, we landed in the arts and culture section where they had a feature on the Bang-on-a-Can Summer Music Institute. We could watch a video of one of the pieces they were rehearsing, a piece called to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem by Andy Akiho. Both my grandma and I sat transfixed as the piece gripped us from start to finish. I had never heard music like this before, and yet it had a strange transcendent familiarity, an inevitability. I knew it was special, and not least for captivating the attention of a 19 year old and an 85 year old simultaneously. I made a mental note of the name, Andy Akiho, and went about my life for years without needing to recall it.

From that moment on, I was on a path of exponential interaction with Andy’s name. The second time I heard it was in 2010 when it appeared in a conversation with Kurt, a bass player I played with. Kurt mentioned meeting a steel pan player named Andy Akiho at a coffee shop in New Haven. Andy gave him a burned CD with some original tunes on it (classic Andy, ever the entrepreneur), and Kurt and I listened to it together. These were tracks from the Synesthesia Suite—not that I knew that at the time—and they rocked my world yet again.

A year or two later when I entered grad school at Yale, Andy’s name was in the air even more often – he had just graduated, and several of my classmates knew him personally. And with my discovery of Spotify, I started actively seeking out more of his music. Shortly thereafter, I joined Sandbox Percussion and our dream to commission Andy Akiho to write a percussion piece began to form.

In 2014, that dream became a reality…for someone else! The Time Travelers Percussion Quartet, all good friends of mine, commissioned Andy Akiho to write a piece and my excitement for them was tainted with the slightest bit of jealousy – I’m still embarrassed by that. This commission was a massive win for the entire percussion community and to feel anything short of exuberance was counterproductive, but that was my unfortunate truth. I could only watch as they lived my dream, rehearsing, performing, and recording what turned out to be an immaculate masterpiece. It was called Pillar IV.

As proof of how foolish and myopic my brief fling with envy was, I need only remind myself that Seven Pillars would not exist without this Time Travelers commission. This was an infinitely valuable lesson and I actually learned it the easy way. Any time I feel even a tinge of bitterness, a subtle shift in perspective helps me realize that only time will tell, and time spent languishing is time wasted.

So, as Andy wrote the Time Travelers piece, he saw it fitting inside an inevitable larger work and he encoded this message into the name, Pillar IV. As he wrote Pillar IV, he sketched out ideas for the other movements, and even wrote a draft of a glockenspiel solo. Sandbox learned the bejesus out of Pillar IV. On one hand, this was just what we did, but on the other, this could show Andy that we were a quartet capable of taking on the larger work. We could commission Seven Pillars.

After nearly a year of fundraising and grant-writing, we were equipped to begin the collaborative process with Andy. I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to express our sincerest gratitude to the Barlow Endowment, Chamber Music America, and our generous supporters – all of whom came together to help us commission this work. The story would have ended here without them and, beyond the financial support, they gave us additional confidence and motivation to see this through.

To start this journey, we spent about five weeks total at Avaloch Farm Music Institute in the summer of 2018 and fall of 2019—a massive thank you to Deb, Dian, Fred, Hannah, Mike, and Pete for putting up with us. Avaloch is an idyllic environment where we had space to work, delicious food to eat, beds to sleep in and, most importantly, time to spend together building trust and rapport.

We settled into a work schedule that was roughly noon until 4am, I think we woke up for breakfast about as many times as we stayed up until breakfast. Andy has a contagious energy and enthusiasm that motivated us, in the first visit, to generate a large scale form for Seven Pillars, memorize and record Pillar IV, arrange and record Haiku 2, memorize and recorded Empty Your Mind, and get pretty decent at ping pong and pool.

This time together at Avaloch cultivated a sort of interpersonal vocabulary, a vocabulary that we used in our second Avaloch session for Andy to compose on us in real time as if we were a live midi sequencer. In this way we developed and recorded sketches for the majority of the piece. We also watched some of Andy’s favorite scary movies: Hereditary and Midsommar. I’m forever scarred.

Now we were ready to begin our work on the visual element of the piece. We had always dreamed that Seven Pillars would be an immersive experience stimulating all the senses, so we brought on Michael McQuilken, a long-time friend and collaborator of ours and Andy’s, to help us with this. During a session at Avaloch, he began to dream up the idea for a lighting design created solely on eight wireless LED lights of seemingly limitless potential that could all be controlled with an iPad. These would be Michael’s canvas for the 75-minute duration of Seven Pillars.

In February of 2020, Sandbox, Michael, Andy, three cars of percussion equipment, and these eight LED lights joined forces for one week at Mana Contemporary, a residency space in Jersey City. These days (and nights) were a true synthesis of our full artistic capacity. Andy was obsessively composing music, we were manically memorizing it, and Michael was feverishly learning, designing, and directing our staging and lighting cues that we could trigger during the performance. When it was all said and done, we were “playing” the light cues as if they were percussion instruments, tightly synced with the twists and turns of the music. There is something so satisfying about decorating an impactful sonic moment with an equally visceral visual impulse. Not to mention the way a warm, gentle glow can inspire me to play with even more serenity and lyricism. This time at Mana was a brilliantly inspiring experience and it brings us to the current moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted the world and I’m writing this blog as we were supposed to be premiering Seven Pillars for a sold-out audience at the Mondavi Center in California. Maybe I’m supposed to be upset, even devastated at the cancelation; but I look back on the process and remember that this piece has already given me so much. I’m also reminded of the lesson I learned six years ago, after the original Pillar IV commission. With a subtle perspective shift, even a moment like this can be mined for improvement and hope. I’ll keep plugging away and time will tell.

More Links:

Click here to view the article above as posted on Sandbox Percussion's news feed.

Click here to watch Sandbox discuss the creative process behind Seven Pillars with Andy Akiho.


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