No One to Know One
A Portrait of Andy Akiho:
Each year on Labor Day, more than 2 million New Yorkers gather on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for the West Indian American Day Parade. This daylong procession celebrating Caribbean culture and pride begins at about 5 a.m. and lasts more than 12 hours. The sound of steel pans, Soca (Soul Calypso), and Dance Hall shake the neighborhood at a decibel level that even Ozzy Osbourne would find offensive. The north side of the Brooklyn Museum hides itself underneath a mask of colors—red, white, and black for Trinidad, yellow and green for Jamaica. Young women in elaborate headdresses dance from Utica Avenue to Grand Army Plaza as the parade moves west. The opening event, occurring a day before the parade, is Panorama, a steel pan competition that attracts musicians from across the Western Hemisphere. Hundreds at a time perform in unison at the intersection of Washington Avenue and President Street hoping to be crowned victorious. "You gotta go, man," Andy Akiho would say about the festivities, claiming the event as his own artistic breeding ground in the same way Pierre Boulez might have encouraged his contemporaries to attend Darmstadt in the 1950s. "It's crazy."
This is not the typical training ground for a musician who calls himself a "composer/percussionist" and who spends most of his time in the company of "contemporary classical musicians" (whatever that means in this day and age). Andy has proven through his ingenuity and vision that neither the conservatory practice room nor the bench of a church organ is the only mental and physical space that the members of the classical music world inhabit. Conversely, one would not expect a musician who is so well versed in the music of "De Islands" to spend much of his time absorbing the music Johann Sebastian Bach, Bela Bartok, George Crumb, and Steve Reich. Embodying the mongrel musician, Andy typifies the current trend in American music: bringing it all together—styles, forms, audiences, and histories.
That said, Andy's approach is particularly unique because his omnivorous musicality extends far beyond the music. Take, for example, his method of teaching performers his art: an intense regimen of rote-learning. "Here, just play this -you got it," he might say encouragingly as he teaches a percussionist a rhythmically complex passage in one of his pieces. "Just repeat after me. It's much better if you can get away from the score." This method, which may seem uncouth to most classically-trained musicians, is in fact quite liberating and refreshing, particularly from the perspective of the composer, for the score so often becomes an obsession of its creator. "You have to really absorb the material to give a decent performance, and dealing with the sound directly is much easier, really." As a result, Andy's performances are often memorized and are always engaging.
Like his musical roots, Andy's music is diverse. The backbone of Andy's early work is his Synesthesia Suite, a set of fourteen short pieces, each of which represent his own take on color and sound. "I do not have perfect pitch at all. But, when I compose, improvise, memorize or perform music, especially on steel pan, I associate the pitches with colors." His Murasaki, or Purple, is a wistful reggae ballad in the key of C# minor; Hadairo, or Beige, is a rhythmically driven work in B minor that is strongly influenced by contemporary hip hop and rap artists; Daidai Iro is a simple and direct composition in D major; Kiiro, or Yellow, is a waltz in Bb that emulates the sound of a CD skipping. "I only have synesthesia in a kinesthetic sense, where I associate the colors with the note that I am already aware of striking or writing. This first happened to me late one evening in Trinidad in 2002. We were rehearsing in the Stalift Panyard under Ray Holman for his composition and Panorama arrangement "Dr. Mannette." I had never been a part of any musical experience quite like that before—playing with over 100 steel band members until 2:00 a.m. every morning. One night we were rehearsing an octatonic lick that Ray had just given to the frontline for at least an hour straight. Eventually, I began to close my eyes and just feel the music. The passage began to show up in colors, and was consistent with each repetition. I vividly remember first seeing orange associated with the "D" pitch and it has been the same ever since."
As Andy exhibits in this recording, the steel pan is a unique and sonically flexible instrument. One of the only acoustic instruments invented in the 20th century, its sound is both fresh and unmistakable. The tenor pan is quite literally constructed around the circle of fifths (unlike the piano, for example, which is arranged by minor seconds). This means that particular intervals are easier to play than others (those generally being the third, the fifth, and the octave). Andy's music almost unabashedly indulges in the idiomatic harmonic character of the instrument; very rarely does his music extend beyond the modal to an area of dense chromaticism and dissonance. This allows him to express his timbral and sonic ingenuity in a particularly clear fashion.
In many of his works he will "prepare" his pan—the same way John Cage would prepare his piano—to create different and unusual sounds. In Karakurenai, for example, Andy places magnets on certain notes, which both lowers the pitch a bit less than a half step and curtails the higher frequencies. In 21, he attaches rubber bands to perforations in the instrument; when the rubber bands are snapped against the pan, they create violent percussive strikes mimicking the snap pizzicato technique popularized by Bartok. In to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, he turns the vibraphone into an ostensible trap set by placing rubber bands on the bars of the instrument and calls for the performer to strike the instrument with four different mallets, creating four distinctly different timbres.
A particularly unorthodox and captivating technique Andy uses is not a "preparation" but a choice of beater: the chopsticks. Andy uses this technique in many of his works—perhaps most strikingly in combination with the vibraphone in NO one To kNOW one. "You gotta make sure you go to the right Japanese restaurant for this sound. And you gotta make friends with the owner or else he'll find your taking a handful of eating utensils extremely suspicious."
This record showcases Andy's prodigious talents as a composer and performer. The compositions are interpreted by several seasoned musicians to whom Andy is particularly close. To name a few: Kenneth Salters, a jazz drummer with whom Andy grew up and studied with in South Carolina; Mariel Roberts, a versatile cellist with whom Andy worked closely while studying at the Manhattan School of Music; and Domenic Salerni, a violinist who has championed Andy's work since they met at Yale in 2009.
Samuel Adams - February 2011