Andy Akiho

Composer/Steel Pan

Featured Article*

By Elizabeth Schwartz

 

For Oregon Symphony Composer-in-Residence and Creative Alliance member Andy Akiho, time is a precious commodity. As an in-demand composer who also maintains a busy concert schedule, this soft-spoken unassuming artist has developed an intense focus that allows him to juggle rehearsals and performances with the artistic head space he needs to transform his musical ideas into a finished score.

On April 29–May 1, Andy will perform his 2015 concerto Beneath Lighted Coffers for Steel Pan and Orchestra with the Oregon Symphony. Originally written for the National Symphony Orchestra and steel pan virtuoso Liam Teague, the five movements of Beneath Lighted Coffers delve into Andy’s fascination with the Pantheon in Rome.

In 2014–15, Andy spent a year in Rome as a Composition Fellow with the American Academy. “I would go to the Pantheon every day,” he remembers. “You could just walk in, and I’d go during the night too, because I’d ride a bike or walk around the city at night. I probably went there over 100 times. My favorite espressos in the world are right around the corner from the Pantheon. So I’d go visit the Pantheon and then get an espresso, and I was just in awe. I also learned a lot about the Pantheon because I was in a residency with architects and historians, and they told me about its history and architecture. I was in Rome to write this commission for the NSO and Liam; visiting the Pantheon every day and feeling the energy of the place seeped into my composing, and I decided to structure the concerto on the Pantheon and its unique features.”

In creating this concerto, Andy had an opportunity to work with one of his heroes. “Liam Teague is someone I really looked up to as a steel pan performer in my college years,” Andy explains. “We knew of each other, but we had never met in person. When the NSO asked about this piece I recommended Liam as the soloist, so we got to meet and he premiered it.”

Writing for Teague posed unique challenges, because Teague, hailed as “the Paganini of the steel pan,” plays a style and model of steel pan unlike anyone else in the world, according the Andy. Modern steel pans are physically different from Teague’s instrument, which dates from the 1960s. “The arrangement of the notes inside the pan is entirely different,” Andy explains. “It’s the equivalent of writing for a violin, but the strings are in a different order and the notes are in different places on the neck than on a standard violin. I had diagrams of how his pan was laid out, which I referred to as I wrote.”

Andy composes on his own instrument; its notes are arranged in a circle of fifths pattern. “I had to remember that patterns
I wrote for Liam had to work on his pan, but I wrote for the musician rather than the instrument,” he says. “I was composing in Liam’s style, and living in his world a little bit. Everything worked out, but I had to make sure I wasn’t writing something that was physically impossible to reach on his pan. The music is more horizontally melodic and virtuosic than I would write for myself. It’s a challenge for me to play. When I write for myself, I use a lot of repetition and variations; this is more like a stream of notes.”

On April 28, Andy will join Creative Alliance member and composer/performer Nathalie Joachim, who is curating and hosting this season’s Open Music concerts. She and Andy will talk about his music, his inspirations, and perform some of his solo and chamber works with members of the Oregon Symphony. “We’re still figuring out the specific repertoire I’ll be playing,” says Andy. “We’re trying to mix it up with winds and strings and percussion, so we’ll be playing chamber works that feature a variety of sounds. The format of this concert is different from what I’ve done in Portland before; we want to have an engaging conversation that draws in the audience.”

Although Andy has been composing music for some time, his role as Composer-in-Residence with the Oregon Symphony is a first for him. “I’m just getting started,” he acknowledges. “It will be exciting when I start writing more new pieces specifically for this orchestra. I was fortunate to be able to write my percussion concerto for Colin Currie, which he premiered with us in October 2019. That was my first symphonic writing experience with the Oregon Symphony, and one of the most inspiring events of my life. Everybody in this orchestra cares so much. That was also my first time working with Music Director David Danzmayr and feeling his energy. David really brings it, you know? I’m looking forward to more of those experiences. I feel like I’m really part of the family.”

Andy’s compositions emerge out of his interactions with the musicians he works with. “What being a Composer-in-Residence means for me is the opportunity to be more involved with the orchestra as a team, in collaboration,” he says. “I think it will be great to observe that process and be able to talk about how it goes. I do that all the time with my other pieces. I spend a lot of time getting to know the musicians. I work with them as much as possible to get to know their personalities and also the things they love to play, and things they’re good at, but I also want to write something that takes them somewhere they’ve never been before.”

“I love being involved in the creative process,” Andy continues. “I like to be in the trenches; when I’m actually working with other musicians, I’m just trying to be as creative and innovative as possible with whatever we’re working on. As CIR, I feel like part of the orchestra, even though I also feel very green and new when it comes to writing orchestral music. I haven’t even touched the surface yet. I know I have good ideas, but sometimes I don’t know how to realize them. I want to get better at translating my ideas into realities. I’ll keep going and hitting my head against the wall until I get it right.”

 

 

* This article originally appeared in the Oregon Symphony’s April 2023 program book, pp. 18-20.

 

© 2023 Elizabeth Schwartz