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Like the Starship Enterprise, the works of renowned young composer Andy Akiho are taking pan where it has never gone before. If you thought The Last Word, Andy Narell’s piece for Birdsong for Panorama 2013, was far out, you can’t imagine Andy Akiho. He is both a composer and performer but doing things with pan that are exceptional and different.
A doctoral composition student at Princeton University, Andy Akiho is winning awards left and right for his compositions. He is getting commissions from groups like the New York Philharmonic and is on a path to be one of the country’s leading young composers. His work is very adventurous, but simultaneously, as one online critic noted, “is all about melody.” His pieces call for the instruments being played in untraditional manners, which create new and unexpected sounds, but still hold to melodies and rhythms. Right now he has well over a dozen composition commissions that he is working on for a wide variety of instrument groupings. Indeed, many of them will not feature pan, but even so, he says the influence of pan will be there even if not heard directly. “Pan will always influence my writing because I’m always mimicking the sounds of the pan with other instruments, like with piano.” Akiho is currently composing for, among others, a chamber group, string quartet, snare drum and electronics, and marimba and trumpet duet. His piece Speaking Tree for small chamber group was just performed at Carnegie Hall.
Akiho grew up in South Carolina and started playing drums as a kid because his older sister played rock drums. But it wasn’t until he went to college that Akiho started to focus on majoring in percussion. He attended the University of South Carolina (USC) and it was there that he first heard a steelband. He soon decided he wanted to be part of it. As part of an exchange programme with the University of North Texas, Akiho started really focusing on pan learning and transcribing jazz solos for pan. “That’s how I really started learning my way around the instrument...transcribing. The first solo I ever transcribed was St Thomas by Sonny Rollins, and then I would transcribe Miles, Parker, Coltrane, all those cats. I wanted to be a jazz steel pannist after that.”
It was being a panman in the jazz programme at North Texas that led to him becoming a composer.
“I was just getting started but I would practice like ten hours a day. I took it seriously, but I don’t think it was where I belonged. Eventually, after six or seven years of that route, working on jazz improvisations and then those leading to steelpan solos and then me wanting to orchestrate those solos, that was kind of the natural path towards composition.
Akiho started practicing up to 14 hours a day on pan and after he graduated from USC, he taught percussion groups in South Carolina and worked with local high schools. Around the same time, he started making trips to Trinidad. He had good mentors, Prof Jim Hall and Chris Lee, who told him he had to go.
“They were like, ‘Man, you gotta go to Trinidad. You love the pan. Panorama’s where it’s at!’ We played the charts at USC for Pan in A Minor, Misbehave, This Feelin’ Nice. So I booked a ticket down there. I didn’t know anybody, but I happened to stay at Ellie Mannette’s sister’s house in Woodbrook, and it was a block away from Ray Holman’s house.
“Within the first ten minutes of getting there, I met a guy on the street and asked him where I would find a panyard and play. He took me to Ray Holman’s house—I knocked on Ray’s door, and I told him I wanted to play at Panorama. And he was so nice, he was like ‘Yeah, come on,’ and he took me to the Starlift panyard.”
Akiho made four extended trips down to Trinidad, playing at Panorama with both Starlift and Phase II. He also competed at the 2002 World Steelband Music Festival solo competition, where he premiered his own composition, Macqueripe, and took second place.
He moved to New York in 2003, and started getting involved with the Brooklyn pan scene. He and Freddy Harris III jointly arranged Brooklyn Panorama tunes for Sesame Flyers in 2004 and 2005. He also was teaching pan in New York public schools through ArtsConnection in Brooklyn (Crown Heights) and in the Bronx.
Then Baljinder Sekhon, a friend of his from South Carolina, suggested he should go back to graduate school because he really wanted to compose. In 2007, Akiho began his master’s in contemporary performance at the Manhattan School of Music. He was the school’s only student whose primary instrument was pan. At the Manhattan School of Music, he was called on to compose and found both a talent and a love for it.
“I didn’t know anything about classical music or contemporary music. So I came into it backwards, through the contemporary scene, and then I just worked really hard. I would play all day, do all the ensemble stuff, compose at night, and then I’d sleep maybe an hour or two. That resulted in my having a piece played during almost every concert in the contemporary programme.” The quality of those pieces were clear to everyone, and they led to Yale, where Akiho got his second master’s, but this time in composition. Going there was a radical change.
“I definitely grew a lot at Yale. That was my second year really composing and I learned a lot from my colleagues, from my professors, and from the classes I took. I was there as a composer now, not as a performer, and just thinking like that already put me in a different space.”
At Yale, he put together a pan-led quartet to feature his music, which later expanded into a larger group, and they appeared weekly at Miso’s, a Japanese restaurant in New Haven. He also worked with Deborah Teason, who teaches and directs several pan programmes in the New Haven area, and Akiho performed with her groups.
After finishing his master’s, Akiho entered the doctorate programme in music composition at Princeton University, one of the most acclaimed programmes in the country. He is currently working on that degree and madly working on over a dozen commissions.
In the last few years, Akiho’s compositions have engendered enormous acclaim, with favourable reviews in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and other publications. He was also commissioned by the New York Philharmonic last year, and he performed recently with the LA Philharmonic at Walt Disney Hall, and with his own group, The Foundry, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Akiho’s stunning first album No One To Know One, which has many pieces featuring pan, came out in 2011. These pieces grew out of the ones that he would first perform at Miso’s in New Haven with other Yale students. Several are what he calls his “colour” pieces that have Japanese words for colours as titles. The compositions and titles reflect the fact that Akiho experiences musical pitches as colours. These six tracks are part of a larger collection of works, the Synesthesia Suite.
The album also shows how Akiho has taken the techniques for prepared instruments, like John Cage’s techniques for prepared piano, to new places. For example, one of his compositions features prepared pan. His solo piece Karakurenai, on the album, involves a tenor pan that has had notes dampened with magnets and is played with a chopstick in one hand and a dry-cleaner coat hanger cardboard partition in the other.
Much of Akiho’s work can be experienced on the web, where there are a good number of audio and video files available on YouTube, SoundCloud, and other Web sites. The best way to start is to watch the YouTube video of an amazing duet for pan and cello, 21, or Akiho’s Concerto for Steel Pans and Orchestra, which was premiered at Yale. Two hour-long Kennedy Center performances are also available to watch on the Web, which provide a sense of the wide range of Akiho’s compositions. The New York Philharmonic premiere of Oscillate and samples from his album can be found on Akiho’s SoundCloud page.
Akiho’s most unique pan composition is Alloy, a ten-minute piece for small steelband composed for the Bang on a Can Marathon in 2009. He formed The Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble for the premiere in May 2009, and played it during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series in 2011. While in LA, his ensemble filmed a video in a downtown LA warehouse that offers a great experience of this unique composition. The pan players bang on all parts of the drum and use foot pedals on found metal objects. The Alloy video can be found on Akiho’s YouTube page.
The New Haven Register called him, “the composer/performer who drives pan music to new dimensions.” When Steel Talks enthused, “Andy’s compositions and performances are now raising eyebrows, turning heads and moving into areas not previously explored with new colours, perspectives and stories not told like this before—yet holding down the tradition.” There is no doubt that Andy Akiho is taking pan in an exciting new direction.
Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and associate professor of music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.
Selected Links for Andy Akiho
21 (pan and cello duet)
Alloy (small steelband)
Concerto for Steel Pans and Orchestra
Speaking Tree (for chamber ensemble)
Kennedy Center Performance