âThe spirit of percussion is everything,â musician John Cage once said. He had in mind how percussion music can open the door to unusual ways of listening – and even perceiving the environment around us.
This spirit permeates Andy Akiho’s âSeven Pillarsâ. On December 3 at Emerald City Music in Seattle, the New York-based ensemble Sandbox Percussion will give the live world premiere of this epic creation for drums, woodblocks, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel and a host of other instruments ranging from tuned metal pipes to a cigar box.
Written for the percussionist quartet comprising Sandbox – Ian Rosenbaum, Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese and Terry Sweeney – the “Seven Pillars” evening is Akiho’s largest instrumental composition to date.
It can in fact be experienced in several incarnations: as an album (released in September and nominated for two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance), as an accompanying film sequence experimental (viewable on YouTube) and as a live concert staged with a lighting design by theater director Michael Joseph McQuilken – the version that will be presented at Emerald City Music.
âMy goal was to create a concert of different experiences and emotions that are all connected,â Akiho said in a Zoom conversation from his home in Portland. It is particularly fitting that the performance’s premiere takes place in Seattle. It was during his early years at Cornish College of the Arts (late 1930s) that Cage formulated some of his radical ideas. Akiho says he “always felt a connection with Cage”.
The 42-year-old composer and percussionist started the project with a stand-alone piece presented in 2014, âPillar IVâ. But already at this point, Akiho could envision the much larger structure that would become the basis of the nearly 80-minute âSeven Pillarsâ.
Each pillar refers to a marked movement for all four players. Four additional solo moves for each Sandbox member function as extended interludes, making a total of 11 moves.
The result is a vast palindrome, with the original, longest âpillar IVâ positioned in the very center. At the same time, “Seven Pillars” begins with inaccurate sounds but builds a gradually growing palette by incorporating the tuned percussion instruments introduced in the first three solos.
Although Akiho acknowledges that offering a programmatic description might make “Seven Pillars” more “relatable” to an audience, he resists resorting to images like the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” or the “Seven Gods of Fortune.” of Japanese folklore.
âI realized that would force him to have a false narrative and I wanted it to be just the structure of the music itself,â he says. “I’m always intrigued by the backbone of any art, whether it’s martial arts or architecture.”
In fact, the architecture of the Pantheon inspired one of Akiho’s groundbreaking works, âBeneath Lighted Coffers,â a concerto for steel saucepan. While living in Rome as a recipient of a composition award, he became intrigued by the historical layers of the ancient temple with its extraordinary concrete dome. Akiho combined this fascination with his love of the steel pan, an instrument he began to explore during a time spent in Trinidad. âThat’s how I started as a songwriter,â says Akiho, âteaching and organizing steel bands in Crown Heights and Brooklyn. “
An influential director on the contemporary music scene, McQuilken also trained as a street percussionist. After a stint at the University of Washington at the turn of the century, he performed as a busker at the Seattle Center, playing an instrument “mostly made out of garbage – things I knew I could. beat and replace for free “. Now based in New Haven, he considers Seattle “the birthplace of me as a freelance artist”.
For the lighting design component of his staging, McQuilken uses seven pillars of Bluetooth-enabled lights that are manipulated by the percussionists. He describes Akiho’s music as perfectly suited for translation in visual terms: âThere’s so much movement, with jagged angles and moments that add that constant element of surprise. The visuals have so much to answer.
Sandbox musician Rosenbaum, like McQuilken, a longtime collaborator of Akiho, explains that he and his fellow performers control the lighting with an iPad that circulates among the quartet. âIt’s like another instrument. We work our way through hundreds of lighting clues that we are able to rhythmically match to music in ways we never could with an outdoor lighting technician.
This pure physical virtuosity generates considerable excitement. âWe have this ability to reach people who might not normally be interested in a contemporary music concert, because there is visual appeal to what we’re doing,â says Rosenbaum.
But what may appear to be improvised gestures are manifestations of an incredibly disciplined collective musical intelligence: Sandbox players perform hundreds of thousands of notes from an accurately noted score when they play “Seven Pillars.”
âIt’s extremely rewarding to take Andy’s music and analyze it from a very cheesy point of view, if that interests you,â Rosenbaum says. âBut if you don’t care, it’s just nice, fun music to listen to. It can really touch anyone.