Music Monday: Akiho: Concerto for Steel Pans

Andy Akiho (born 1979) is not your run-of-the mill composer. After graduating with a BA in performance (on steel pans) from the University of South Carolina, he moved to New York City with no contacts and no money hoping to make a career as a Jazz performer. He drove around Brooklyn until he heard another player, and within a few months had managed to establish himself as a widely respected player in the scene there. He gradually started to lengthen and intensify his solos, and soon started improvising original pieces from scratch. At a certain point, he enrolled in the contemporary performance techniques Master's program at the Manhattan School of Music, and also began to explore composition in a more systematic fashion. (In the middle of all this, in 2006, he went to Washington DC to help out in his father's sushi restaurant, but juggling performing, composing, and restauranteering proved to be too much even for him.)

Keeping on with his transition to composition (or, really, his addition of compositional activities to the rest of his life — he's still very active as a performer), he earned a Master's of composition at the Yale School of Music, which is where I first encountered his work (tho I don't think our paths ever crossed in person). After graduating, he moved back to NYC, where he is currently based, and is working towards a doctoral degree from Princeton. A semi-recent profile talks about him sometimes going 90 hours without sleep there, which is a little concerning — it would be a great loss if his dazzling career were cut short due to burnout from overwork.

Immediately, right from the opening volley, his concerto for steel pans (2011; link goes to YouTube because it hasn't been recorded on an album yet!) announces itself as a tight, propulsive work. Dark, brooding lyrical fragments hover over a tense, percussive ground, with not-quite-regular ostinati crunching in and out of synch. While the steel pans are more typically treated as purely melodic instruments, Akiho takes advantage of the full range of sounds they can produce, throwing in pitchless, percussive clicks in with virtuosic displays of intricate melodic passagework. Gradually, the background condenses into a series of blunt punctuations to a small cadenza, and the music relaxes into a quiet central section.

Haunting gestures ring out quietly from the solo pans, obsessively repeated, but never quite the same. Eerie knockings continue, but there is still a sense of opening out into greater light. Still, a queasy melancholy clings to the edges, eventually erupting into a frantic whirlwind of activity. A dark, uneven dance ensues, followed by a pensive stasis once more punctuated by glowering interjections from the low brass. This, in turn, leads to an extensive cadenza that covers the full range of both the instruments and the music's expressive power. An intense, insistent tutti drives the piece to its inexorable close.