Andy Akiho near the Manhattan Bridge.
Andy Akiho: Inside The Instrument

Andy Akiho: Inside The Instrument

Having a conversation with Andy Akiho is a lot like listening to his music; it’s a high-energy adventure bursting with ideas and full of all sorts of serendipitous synchronicities. The first of these synchronicities is that Andy lives on Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan, which is where we met up with him. This is the same street where John Cage lived when he wrote many of his important compositions for prepared piano and percussion ensembles, idioms that have played a significant role in Andy’s output since Cage is one of his heroes. And perhaps an even more extraordinary coincidence is that Cage wrote those pieces at the same age that Andy is now and that Andy only discovered all of this after he moved to Monroe Street.

Of course, while Andy’s earliest compositions were scored for percussion ensemble and one of his most significant pieces to date is the solo prepared piano tour-de-force Vicki/y, the instrument that has figured in Andy’s music more than any other is the steel drum. As it turns out, around the same time that Cage was creating his landmark prepared piano and percussion ensemble works in the late 1930s and early 1940s, musicians in Trinidad started incorporating struck pieces of metal into their ensembles, eventually tuning discarded industrial oil containers and thus was born the steel drum.

But again, Andy becoming obsessed with steel drums also happened somewhat by accident. He was initially attracted to hip-hop and rock—his older sister played in various bands—when he was growing up in South Carolina. But at college, also in South Carolina, he got exposed to an extremely broad range of approaches to percussion including bebop and West African drumming, and then a couple of his teachers introduced him to steel drums. After he graduated, he went down to Trinidad to immerse himself further and was hooked for life.

Andy eventually found himself in New York City arranging music for weddings in the Caribbean-American community for large ensembles of steel drums. But he wanted to expand his timbral palette and find a way to combine steel drums with other instruments. Another chance encounter, a conversation with his former classmate Baljinder Sekhon, convinced him to audition for the Bang on a Can Summer Residency Program and to apply to Manhattan School of Music to pursue a master’s degree. He was accepted to both and found some formidable mentors in David Cossin and Julia Wolfe, with whom he eventually also studied composition privately.

The rest, as they say, is history. Though not completely. Andy’s story is still being written. He is still trying out new ideas and is open to discovering other approaches. He’s eager to write more vocal music, as well as score a film. But he still usually begins almost every composition he writes—whether it’s a string quartet or a concerto for two ping pong players and orchestra—by tinkering around with ideas on the steel pan. But not always, as he explained:

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan. I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess. At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.


May 10, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Andy Akiho in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Akiho’s apartment in Two Bridges, Manhattan
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  I was thrilled when I learned that you live on Monroe Street because this is where John Cage once lived.

Andy Akiho: A year after I was here I found that out doing a paper at Princeton about his Sonatas and Interludes that he’d lived here. He was the exact age I was when I was doing the paper.  So I felt really connected somehow. He’s one of my heroes. I’ve always felt that way, but especially now. It was like “You’ve got to be kidding me, because [Monroe Street]’s only three blocks long.

FJO:  But sadly, the building where he lived is no longer there.

AA:  I walked over to see.  It’s a school now, I believe.

FJO:  He was forced to move when the building was torn down in 1953.

AA:  Oh, I didn’t realize that.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you didn’t know about this until after you moved here. It’s quite a coincidence, since during the years he lived here he wrote most of his prepared piano pieces and many of his pieces for percussion ensemble—and both the prepared piano and percussion ensembles have figured very prominently in your own music.

AA:  I’ve always been influenced by those pieces, even before I was a composer.

FJO:  I’d like to learn more about the period before you were a composer. I know that you were trained as a percussionist, but how did you become interesting in being a musician in the first place?

AA:  My older sister practically raised me; she’s almost exactly ten years older than me.  And when she was a teenager, she was like kind of a rock star.  She never took it too seriously, but she had a double bass and a drum set and she was playing in bands. I wanted to be like her, so she would teach me drums.  And that’s kind of how I started.  I think I was around nine or something, but then I got a little obsessed with it. So by the time I got in middle school and then high school, I drummed all the time.  I couldn’t read music, but I was trying to drum, starting with drumlines and then I started learning to read notes more in college.

FJO:  And you have a couple of performance degrees as a percussionist.

“I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion.”

AA:  There was such a gap. I never thought I was going back to school. I went to University of South Carolina. That’s where I grew up and I just went to college where I grew up. I was very fortunate to even have an opportunity to go to college back then. I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion. But I got involved in a lot of different ensembles—everything that had to do with drumming: playing West African drums, steel pan, orchestra, band, a little bit of everything.

FJO:  I was wondering about how you first got involved with steel pan because I wouldn’t necessarily associate steel pan with South Carolina.

AA:  It was a really awesome time when I was in school there.  It was just a lot of new opportunities and a lot of great influences. We had a Professor Chris Lee who was really into West African drumming and steel pan and going to Trinidad.  And my professor down there, Jim Hall, was really into that, too.  So they had a steel pan program. Around the time when my colleagues and I went to school, we were really into different things.  I was the steel pan guy, one guy was the jazz guy, and another guy was more the composer-percussionist.  We were all different, but while we were there, we were into everything.  I was probably even more into West African drumming then; my goals and plans were to go to Guinea like a lot of my friends did.  But for some reason, I really got into pans, and then I went to Trinidad a lot, especially right after undergrad.

FJO:  So you studied with players in Trinidad.

AA:  When I was finishing up, I also did a student exchange program. I went to North Texas for a year and I got really into bebop. I wanted to play steel pans with that.  I think it was the combination of being really inspired by the jazz musicians out there and being inspired to bring something new to steel pan, then going to Trinidad and playing with large orchestras and feeling that energy.  It was like a full orchestra of these things; it was symphonic. I played I guess the equivalent of a violin in the orchestra for the steel pans.  Everything was taught by rote.  I remember one year I learned my part from like basically the “cellist.”  That’s how well they knew everybody’s parts.  And these are like crazy, intricate things. It was almost easier to learn by rote than reading because you feel the rhythms different.  It’s really internal.

Andy Akiho's Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead steel pan

FJO:  So, perhaps a dumb question, is there a consistency from steel pan to steel pan about where the different notes are?

AA:  No, that’s a really good question.  There is, but there’s a lot of differences, too.  There’s a tradition of so many changes. For example, my steel pan is called a tenor pan, but it’s actually soprano range.  It starts from middle C, and it goes to about the F above the treble staff.

FJO:  Is it fully chromatic?

AA:  Fully chromatic.  In Trinidad, they normally start on the D above that, because they can pierce through the orchestra more.  So for range, and to play with 30 others—any of the altos, the “cellos,” the bass—it actually sounds better orchestrationally and acoustically in a different range.  Mine’s called a Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead, so it’s a circle of fifths, upside down from the diagrams you see in schools.  My C is right next to me, and then it goes in fourths and fifths.  But that’s a newer invention.  It’s probably 40-ish years old now, 40 or 50.  Before that, there was an Invader’s lead, and on that the octaves aren’t even next to each other.  It’s incredible how it’s set up. There’s like this random F-sharp right in the middle. But it actually sounds better, because of the way the overtones work.  But it wasn’t as practical as a learning device, because it was just everywhere.  And they have other pans.  I wrote a steel pan concerto for Liam Teague, and his is completely different. So I took a picture of his, and wrote the notes and put it up on the wall to work out something idiomatic.  His is a completely different pan and he’s the only one in the world that plays that one.  But they’re all about the same range.

FJO:  So no one else could play the piece you wrote for him.

AA:  No, I’ve played it.  I always had it in mind that I wanted it to work on both.  So it was more like if I was doing something with four mallets, I just wanted to make sure he could reach it, that it was physically possible.

FJO:  Another thing that’s really fascinating about the placement of the notes on all these steel pans is that they don’t go left to right from low to high like many instruments around the world or even from low in the middle to high on opposite ends like African koras or mbiras.

AA:  Well, if you’re thinking in patterns or shapes or colors, it’s just another platform.  Like with the human language, we might structure a sentence different: you put the verb first or you put the noun first. It’s the same kind of thing.  I feel fortunate that when I was first learning how to read pitches, it was the same time I was learning how to play steel pan. I was quicker at learning pan than I was at marimba or piano, because it just came to me; it was all right there.  With marimba, I got so worried about missing a note that’s a millimeter off.  But with the pan, I just felt like it was all right there, and I just felt really comfortable.  So it made sense to me more.

FJO:  The tactile element of it is very interesting. The other thing I wonder about, too, is that because of the way it’s patterned, it probably gets you to think about different combinations of notes than you would if you were creating from a piano or a marimba.  People always talk about how Chopin’s music is so pianistic; it’s really based on the tactile experience of him sitting at a piano and working through ideas. As a result, certain kinds of figurations emerge in that music which are directly based on how the instrument is designed.  Same with like Paganini on the violin, Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, Ravi Shankar on the sitar, all the great virtuosos who created their own music.  But because steel pan has this other way of setting things up, when you then take those ideas and work them out for other instruments, say, writing for a string quartet, since steel pan is in the DNA of how you think, it creates a different kind of music.

AA:  Exactly. That’s why I feel very fortunate that I can come up with material on the pan for other instruments.  I recently wrote a clarinet quartet piece for David Schifrin and there’s a whole movement that’s a clarinet solo.  I wrote it all on pan.  Then I worked out phrasing and slurs, but it was all on the pan first.  Hand written, then I adapted it to clarinet. But I didn’t change the notes or anything.  So it was really coming from that place. I wrote a saxophone quartet one time, and it was all written on the pan.  All the parts.  As was my first string quartet.

“You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.”

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan.  I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess.  At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places.  Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.

FJO:  You mentioned earlier that when you were in school there was a composer-percussion guy and you were the steel pan guy, but you became a composer-percussion guy, too.  When did that happen?

AA:  I looked up my friend Baljinder Sekhon and he was going to Eastman after we were roommates in undergrad. After we finished, I moved to New York eventually, this was within a few years, and he moved to Rochester to study composition.  He started taking that more seriously than percussion.  And while he was up there, I was here playing on the streets and playing in weddings in the Caribbean community.  I was also arranging for these steel orchestras in Brooklyn.  I would arrange stuff for like a hundred players, but it was only steel pans.  I loved it, but I felt like I wanted to experiment a little more with timbres.  I’d love to write for a violin one day, or cello. But I didn’t know anybody. I remember calling him one day in January, and I was like, “Man, it would be kind of cool to write for other instruments.” And he was like: “You got to go back to school, because you don’t know one classical musician in New York.”  I’m like: “No, I only know the Caribbean community.”

So he told me about the contemporary performance program they started in 2007 at Manhattan School [of Music].  I’d been out of school for over six years by then. I hadn’t read a sheet of music in six years.  I was just playing gigs and trying to make it as a steel pan artist in the city.  When he told me about that program, he also told me about [the] Bang on a Can [Summer Residency Program]. I found some old footage of me seven years ago in college playing and I submitted that. I had like two days to submit it and I didn’t know what I was submitting it to.  I just knew it was cool because he did it.  And I got lucky.  I got to do that, and then I went and auditioned at Manhattan School. I had to relearn marimba and relearn percussion. I went and auditioned there and that’s where I met classical musicians. And I was really inspired because I was around a great group of really hungry and inspiring musicians.  So I just started writing for them.  It was just very organic.  It wasn’t like I’m going to try to study composition.  But at that same time, I was fortunate enough to be able to study with Julia Wolfe outside of school.  So I was in school as the contemporary percussion guy, playing with all my friends in that program and then I was able to write for them in a very awesome experimental laboratory in school there.

A view of the

FJO:  Nice.  The earliest piece you list on your website, Phatamachickenlick, predates all of that. I’ve looked at part of the score, but there’s no audio for it. Is that your first piece?

AA:  I guess officially, yeah.  I mean, that was my drumline days.  I used to skip class in high school and just go in the woods with a snare drum and play for hours.  That just came out of me playing with my friends, coming up with rudimentary solos.  It’s not a good piece. I didn’t ever think of it as a composition or anything.  It was just like: “Hey, play this.”  I could write out the rhythms, because I knew rhythms, but I couldn’t read notes back then or anything.

FJO:  But you’ve got a score of it on your website.

AA:  Yes.  It’s fun.  I think literally everything I’ve ever written is available, unless it was like some random assignment like: “Hey, write for your friends in one hour for tomorrow.”  Maybe I should take that down, but I’ve kept it up there.

FJO:  So do people actually order it?

AA:  Yeah, I got two orders yesterday.  But that’s also a coincidence, because not many people do. I always feel bad. I’m like: “Man, I hope they don’t think this is like a real piece.” But it is what it is.  It’s a duet; it’s a rudimentary snare drum duet that I wrote in my hard core drumline years.

FJO:  And then there’s another really early piece for much bigger ensemble called Hip-Hopracy.

AA:  I consider that my first composition.  I definitely didn’t consider myself an aspiring composer or anything.  I just wanted to write a piece for my senior recital at University of South Carolina.  So I wrote it for all my friends I was telling you about.  We were a really tight crew.  And I was like: “I’d love for you all to play on my recital.” So I wrote for the whole percussion department and wrote each individual part based on them.  It was more like Duke Ellington style.  Like you’re the right guy, you’re the right gal.  My girlfriend at the time was in a hip hop dance class.  She was a dancer.  So they choreographed it; it was a kind of collaborative thing.  We were always working with dancers.  It was just a way to end my recital and a fun way to be creative.  What’s funny is that piece is like Cage or Lou Harrison, but I didn’t even know really what that was back then. I knew when I studied it, or when I played in percussion ensemble, getting those influences. It’s written for ceramic bowls. I’m still writing for these same bowls.  I literally have like ten sets right here.  I remember going into stores back then and picking out the right pitches, then I based the piece off of those.  I just found sounds; it was just a natural way to do it.  I could do that before I could write on a piano, for sure.

A group of ceramic bowls in back of a sampling keyboard.

FJO:  So that piece is more like Cage and Harrison than hip hop, even though you titled it Hip-Hopracy.

“I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music.”

AA:  I just called it that because it was for a hip hop class. It wasn’t trying to do anything. But I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music. I never grew up listening to Beethoven or anything. I do now.

FJO:  So you didn’t have a connection to so-called classical music.  But what you wound up doing was finding a way to incorporate the ideas that you had into the medium of writing down music that other people play, which is kind of an odd way of doing music to most of the world.  You said before that you wanted to write for violin.  You thought it would be cool.

AA:  I guess it’s not that straight forward, even though I said that.  It was more that I wanted to experiment with pan, mixing with other timbres, whether it’s a ceramic bowl or a violin. I just wanted to have a bigger playground to work in and different timbres to explore.  It wasn’t just for the sake of doing it or trying to write for strings.  I really enjoy just working with any kind of new timbre combination, so it actually felt very natural and organic.  It didn’t seem that odd to me because at first, it was to write pieces for myself to be able to play with friends.  It was almost like being in a rock band when you’re a teenager: “Let’s come up with some material.  I got these ideas. Hey, you play this on the bass.” That kind of thing.  But I was old enough to know that I need to be pretty clear about it.  I was pretty aware that the notation had to be pretty clear.  So I learned as I was doing it.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would meet with friends, and be like: “Hey, what’s the range of this?  What’s possible?  Can I write a few things down? Can I record a few things?” I would learn how the instruments worked based on having to do it.

FJO:  So some practical things about making these instrument work together—two things immediately come to mind if you’re combining strings and pan. There’s finding the appropriate acoustical balance, getting the volumes right, so there are questions of where to position everyone.  Are there things that work, things that don’t work?  And then there’s the whole question of intonation. How closely do the pans match the pitches of the other players?

AA:  With pan, there are so many overtones that I think it can blend with any family of instruments.  And if it’s tuned really well, I think there’s a lot of potential for that.  It’s funny because I think about these questions more now than I did then.  Then I was just naïve and just going for it.  And I think that was more exciting sometimes.  I didn’t think about intonation.  I didn’t think about balance, or any of that.  I was just like: “Let’s just do this.” I didn’t have anything to lose, either.  It wasn’t like I had a commission deadline.  It was like: “Oh, we’re going to have a concert at school; let’s put something together.”  It was a lot of experimentation without any pressure of it having to work.  And for some reason, sometimes it worked better.  It was not a fatal mistake if you do something wrong.

FJO:  So what would be something wrong?

“I do things wrong all the time.”

AA:  That’s all subjective. I don’t know. I do things wrong all the time.  In the first piece I wrote at Manhattan, I just literally tried to do everything.  There was a huge fan that a trumpet played through.  There was a 16-foot pipe that the trumpet played through and it bounced off the walls.  And a contrabass flute—the first time I wrote for flute, it was for contrabass flute, alto flute, and regular flute—plus trumpet, steel pan, percussion, piano, and bass clarinet.

FJO:  Yeah, that sounds like a real practical piece.

AA:  And we were also shattering glass everywhere.

FJO:  I didn’t notice that piece on your website.  That one’s not up there, is it?

AA:  I’m not sure.

FJO:  So you didn’t put everything up.

AA:  I might have, if I had the parts, then it’s up somewhere.  Or I have to find the parts maybe.

A page from a handwritten score by Andy Akiho.

FJO:  So the next step after writing these pieces to play with friends is that you started writing pieces that you were not playing in.  How did that whole transition happen?

AA:  This was all a very compact year.  This is 2007 and it was all pieces that I played in.  And in 2008, I got into the Bang on a Can [Summer] Festival, as a composer this time.  My first year was as a performer.  I somehow faked my way in.  Got lucky.  Then I wrote all year.  And, I don’t know, for some reason they let me in as a composer in 2008, and the instrumentation they gave me didn’t have myself in it.  It was for the performer fellows. The first time I didn’t write for myself was that piece.  It’s called to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  I don’t even think I started it on the pan.  It was a really interesting exercise for me.

FJO:  So you started composing it in your head.

AA:  No, I played around the piano.  I remember I experimented a lot with the vibraphone, and I was messing around with rubber bands a lot back then.  I put these rubber bands on there.  And I just kind of improvised for hours and hours, then I started to record myself.

FJO:  But you eventually rearranged that piece for percussion ensemble.

AA:  Yeah, that was for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Dave Hall, who runs the percussion department there, asked me to write a new piece. But it was a very short timeline and I wouldn’t have had time to rewrite a brand new piece.  He was really into harlem, so somehow we came up with the idea to just make a new arrangement of it. But I didn’t want it to be just an arrangement. So I was like, “Let’s take the same music, but I’m really going orchestrate it, not just make it work, not just take the clarinet part and put it here.  Just rework the entire piece.” The piano part is pretty much exactly the same, though.  That’s the one thing I kept.  I spent a day with them working out some of the kinks, and then they performed it, and they did that video and I thought it came out really nice.  It was really great.

FJO:  I think so, too.  What’s interesting is that it’s clearly the same piece, you can hear the melodies and harmonies, but it has a different flavor somehow.

AA:  Yeah, definitely.

FJO:  The timbres really shape what you’re hearing.

AA:  Yeah, it’s so important.  I mean timbre and rhythm are the world I live in.

FJO:  That’s the mindset of a percussionist.

AA:  Yeah, I guess so.

FJO:  Another key ingredient is the tactile element. Of course playing any instrument is a tactile experience but there’s something about percussion that heightens that aspect, I think. And I would venture to say that your sensitivity to this tactile element informs how you write for other instruments. One example that is particularly striking to me is the two-harp piece you wrote for Duo Scorpio, Two Bridges. It’s totally unexpected, because it isn’t what harp music usually sounds like, because you approach the harps like percussion instruments, which is why I think it’s so cool.

AA:  Oh, thanks.  I met with them many times.  The harp or the piano, anything I can touch and feel, even strings, they’re the closest thing to percussion to me.  If I can start to understand it and wrap my head around it, I feel I can work with that instrumentation better, so I was lucky.  I was up at Avaloch Music Institute up in New Hampshire and I was finishing up my piece for Duo Scorpio, and there was a harp duo there, a different harp duo.  They went out to lunch one day, and I was like: “Can I mess around?  I might use some credit cards and stuff.  Is it cool?”  And they were like: “It’s cool.”  They knew I would respect the instruments, and I wrote the whole first movement in like an hour or two.  I videotaped myself just playing on these techniques, messing around with a finger cymbal, a chopstick—I created that first movement just from this experimental place.

It’s also kind of parallel to bridges being built.  We’re in [the] Two Bridges [neighborhood] right now, and that’s what the piece is about.  So the Brooklyn Bridge is those kind of industrial sounds. But then the second movement is all harmonics. I met with them and learned all I could about how that technique worked—the best kind of range for it. And they taught me how the pedals work. And then in the third movement, I just tried to put everything together.

Andy Akiho under the Manhattan Bridge.

FJO:  Now the titles for the first and third movements are numbers.  Are those the years those bridges were built?

AA:  I think the years that they were officially opened.

FJO:  But that one in the middle that’s all harmonics you called “Audio Sun.”

AA:  I just pictured being in the middle of the East River—it would be kind of gross.  But if you were down there, playing these bridges as if they were harps, the reverberations you would hear underneath the water would be very echo-y. I had to try to capture that.

FJO:  There’s a guy named Joseph Bertolozzi who makes music from playing on actual bridges.

AA:  Oh, that’s cool.

FJO:  But you’ve come up with this other idea, using the harps as a metaphor for the bridges. It’s also really effective and just beautiful.

AA:  Aw, thank you.

FJO:  But it’s interesting because I heard the piece way before I saw the video of the performance, so I didn’t know how a lot of those sounds were being made because I couldn’t see it. It still totally worked as abstract music thing.  Another piece of yours along those lines is Vicki/y, the piece you did for Vicky Chow.

AA:  It was inspired by Vicky Chow and Vicki Ray.  When I was at Bang on a Can in 2007 as a performer, Vicki Ray did a masterclass on preparation, and it reminded me of learning about this in undergrad with Cage and stuff.  So it brought all that back.  She was showing us that you could bow the strings and you could pluck them. Then she showed us the dime and I was just blown away with the way the dime sounded woven in between the three strings in the piano.  That stuck with me.  After that, when I started school at Manhattan, I met Vicky Chow.  She’s phenomenal.  I was always inspired by her being able to play in an ensemble and I learned from her and a lot of the other musicians in that program.  And then that next year, I wrote a piece based on those techniques.

FJO:  So you didn’t come up with the dime thing.

AA:  No, I didn’t.  Though, what was crazy is I really couldn’t find examples of that.  I was influenced by Vox Balaenae by George Crumb.  That blew me away, too, but I was trying to find examples. I didn’t really see anything, so I really credit Vicki Ray for showing me that.  And what I tried do is I experimented with exactly where it was. I found out if you pushed [the dime] all the way up the sound board, or whatever the end of where the strings are, it keeps the fundamental, but it has crazy overtones, so it’s basically like a gamelan or like a steel pan.  It’s like a super-saturated steel pan.  So I felt at home writing for that, and then I just based the whole piece on that.  It’s only on eight pitches, but I didn’t want to create it all to be about that.

“A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.”

A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.  It’s not just a cool effect. A lot of people will think it’s like trying to be some kind of gimmick, but it’s really just where I feel at home.  So I did that and I experimented with it.  I created this scale that was like a palindrome, and worked around with that.  I remember finishing the last page—it was all hand written back then—and handing it to Vicky about two hours before the concert at the Stone.  I think it was November 1st, 2008.  I remember handing her that last page and she killed it.

FJO:  Yeah, her performance of that piece is awesome. But before we leave the dime thing, dimes are so thin. I’m curious if you experimented with other coins: quarters, nickels.

AA:  I think I did, but I realized really quickly that even a penny’s too big.  It will touch the other strings.  Even a dime sometimes can be too big.  I did a piece for Anthony de Mare, an adaptation of the prologue of Into the Woods by Sondheim. There are two dimes and a poster tack. I remember we recorded up at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the dime was actually too big.  It was touching the other strings.  I remember going to a car shop when we went on lunch break and they were soldering stuff and welding. I found some washers and I was like, “Hey man, can you take a millimeter off this?”  We just needed a little less than a dime.  Zzzzzhh.  I went back and it worked perfectly, because it was thin enough. It was as thin as a dime, and it worked, and it kept the fundamental without making the other pitches ring, too.

FJO:  I thought you were going to say you went to a convenience store, got some change and tried other dimes, since they’re not all necessarily exactly the same.

AA:  That’s true.  Yeah. But I needed to take off more than just the little nuances.  For some reason, the strings were thin in that model of piano.  I never really had that problem with dimes before.

FJO:  Interesting.  Once again, this is another thing that no one would know if they only experienced it on an audio recording. Now, with Vicki/y, I heard Vicky Chow’s recording of it before I knew how any of those sounds were made and I hadn’t seen a score for it, but then I saw the video for it you posted online which lets everyone in on its secrets. It was really interesting to actually see how the sounds were being created, but the video is actually so much more than that; it’s almost like a pop music video.

AA:  Oh, thank you.  Gabriel Gomez did that video and did a really incredible job.  He’s a friend of Vicky’s, and she really loved the work he did before.  He works in all kinds of mediums.  Definitely not just music.  He did a really cool film with Robert Black, and we were just blown away, and we all kind of hit it off when we first were talking.  We set up a Dropbox folder and put a bunch of videos in that inspired us, just random stuff, not necessarily music videos and photos, and a description of what I was thinking with the piece, and he just came up with this very beautiful narrative.

FJO:  One of the details I love about this is that it’s clearly her performance, but it’s your piece, and the film weaves you into it as the composer; you’re like this like creepy bystander.

AA:  I know.  I’m such a creeper in that film.  It’s hard to watch that, because it’s hard to see me on something like that.  But Vicky’s an incredible artist. She came up with that transfer.  It was just a really beautiful concept. We filmed some of it in New Haven, in East Rock Park, and we saw this blue heron.  And then he incorporated that in the film, too.

The white piano we used in the end of that is the one I found on 131 and Broadway, when I lived in West Harlem.  I lived on 133 and Broadway and found that piano outside of a church; I saw it there for like two days.  So I went and asked.  I was like: “What are you guys doing with this thing?”  And they were like: “You can take it.” I never owned a piano in my life.  I pushed it up the hill, right by the 1 train, on these really crappy wheels that were all rusted.  Luckily my building had an elevator.

Every note had three notes because every string was so out of tune.  A friend of mine was in town from West Virginia that tunes pans.  He tuned the piano; it was the first time he was tuning a piano.  So then I had that piano, that same white piano, and that’s how I wrote Vicki/y.  I wrote it on that primarily.  I was messing with it.  It was a cool piano.  And I would just put the dimes in and everything.  So then we were like: “We got to use this in a video.” It was living in New Haven because I was there for two years and my landlord let me keep it up there in the house that she owned.  I called her to say we’re going to do a video and we want to finish it up here. So we took that piano out of there, did the video at East Rock Park and then we left the piano there.  We left it in the woods.  I don’t know why.  We just thought it would be cool.  But then my friend Sam and his friend Molly wanted to get the piano, so it’s in Brooklyn now, I think.  They got it the very next day.  They got a U-Haul and got it.  So that piano has seen a lot.

FJO:  You don’t have a piano here, except for a Schoenhut toy piano.

AA:  I write with that a lot.

Andy Akiho's Schoenhut toy piano

FJO:  And you also have a big digital keyboard.

AA:  Yeah, there are like seven MIDIs all around.  They just sample.  They get the job done.  I have to picture the orchestra sometimes, the range, like okay, I know the trumpet’s here, I know the trombone, I just kind of picture it and sometimes I work with scales.  Like I have one up there, and it’s got a million stickers with Sharpie notes all over it.  So I can’t even really use it right now.  It’s got duct tape; it’s for me to know where I am.  I was creating on that for one particular piece.

FJO:  Interestingly the thing that those keyboards are probably least good at is working on stuff that’s for an actual piano because you can’t prepare them.

AA:  Oh yeah.

FJO:  You can’t stick dimes in them, or if you do it’ll sound like something else.

AA:  I’ll sample it.  But if I do that, I’ll work at a real piano, and sample each note, and then plug it in there.

FJO:  I have two thoughts that grew out of what you were saying about being this creepy bystander in that video.  Composers who write music that other people play usually just sit in the audience.  You are kind of a bystander.  You’re not part of the performance. But you came from this background of playing music, and all of a sudden you’re now this guy who like lurks in the back.  You wrote the piece, but to a lot of people who aren’t knowledgeable about this stuff, it’s difficult to understand what that means.  Who’s that guy?  What did he do?  Oh, he wrote the piece.

AA:  Oh, right.

FJO:  What does that mean?  I thought that video really effectively captured that relationship.  There’s this transference in the video of that tattoo, which seems like a really nice metaphor for what happens when someone interprets music you wrote down.  The music is transferring to somebody else who realizes it and makes it into sound.

“I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.”

AA:  It’s also the importance of the performer bringing the piece to life. I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.  Even more so with pieces where they’re in charge of picking out the timbres.  In that piece, with Vicky and the preparations, the subtlety of moving things a millimeter or two makes a big difference.  There are so many parameters.  I guess you could say that with every piece of music, but I felt that especially with that piece, and working with Vicky, like it was really written for her.

FJO:  We talked about the video being really effective, but you’ve posted extremely well-done videography of performances of many of your compositions.  The video of Duo Scorpio performing Two Bridges is also really tremendous.  And then there’s even a fascinating video for to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem which is this really intense and disturbing silent film about human trafficking.  Overall you’ve really set a high visual standard for how you present your music to the world online, which is unusual in our community I think.

“I can’t sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ without going off key.”

AA:  Well, I grew up on MTV.  I would stay up for anything from Yo!  MTV Raps to Headbangers Ball, back when MTV was videos all day long. Most Wanted, I was so into that.  I think I’m more visual than, than aural.  I learn things visually more.  Even when I’m writing music, it’s visual; it’s synesthetic.  I think in shapes and colors way more than I do the actual pitches.  I’m kind of tone deaf.  I can’t sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without going off key.  It’s pretty rough.

FJO:  We might have to make you sing that now.

AA:  You don’t want me to do that.  That could be dangerous. This is like so masochistic, but I used to take singing lessons just to try to get develop my ear.  I was always the worst in ear training classes and I was super self-conscious about it, so it made it even worse.

FJO:  This might explain why there hasn’t been a ton of vocal music in your output.  There’s that really cool piece for loadbang based on haikus. That’s such an oddball ensemble.  And none of them play an instrument that’s necessarily tactile.  Right?  It’s brass and winds and then a singer.  That’s totally taking you out of your comfort zone.

“I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it.”

AA:  Right, but I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it. I also wrote a piece called NO one To kNOW one, in 2009-2010 and that was one of my only pieces with vocals.  And the piece I was telling you about that I wrote at Manhattan School that had a soprano.

FJO:  Right. And NO one To kNOW one is really interesting because at the end, she’s rapping.

AA:  Yeah, I never thought of it as rap, but I guess maybe I grew up on that a little bit. I was just thinking of a rhythmic way to say these words, but I wasn’t like I was going to try to mimic rap music and then people started calling that a rap.  I just wanted to mimic the rhythm that was going on, and when I wrote the lyrics, it just all fit together naturally.  I messed with the lyrics, and then came up with the rhythm and how that would be set, and then came up with the music, and it just kind of morphed.

I want to write for voice a lot more. I got more of a taste for that doing an opera this past summer.  Writing my first real aria was really great.  It really grounded me.  It was a nice roadmap and a relief to have some kind of structure to write with and to try to interpret words.  The opera is the first time I wrote with somebody else’s words. For loadbang, I wrote the words because I felt uncomfortable writing to somebody else’s words.  Same with NO one To kNOW one and the MSM piece.  Even though I don’t know how to work with words really, I felt more comfortable doing that. I’m not misinterpreting somebody else’s words for them to be upset with me.

FJO:  To take this back to the music videos of your music, it’s fascinating how detailed they are in the way they show how specific sounds are being made, whether it’s the close up of the dime in Vicki/y or the swipe of the credit card against the harp strings in Two Bridges.

“I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from.”

AA:  If I go to a show, I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from, learning and being inspired by that, and not to say: “Hey, this is how to do it.”  But just to share that experience, to get as close to a different experience from going to a live show, a different experience from listening to a record, and a different experience than watching a music video.  What was interesting about the videos you brought up, especially the harlem video is that I was thinking it’s gonna show the rubber bands, but he went in a completely different direction.

That was Michael McQuilken.  We’ve worked together a lot on a lot of videos, and I feel like we’re on the same wavelength on a lot of things.  I’ve always been very inspired working with him.  He’ll just take something and run with it.  It looked like I wrote the music to his film, but it was completely backwards. He sent me a treatment for every second.  I was living in Italy at the time. I remember reading this and I was just blown away.  What’s funny about that piece is it’s my most programmatic piece.  Usually it’s very abstract, and people try to ask me what it’s about, and I have no idea because they all think it sounds programmatic.  But with that piece, literally every sound has a story behind it.  I mean like: that was a siren; that was me running into a taxi; that was the door slamming; that was the emergency room beeps at the hospital.  I even sent him a treatment of what every sound meant when you listen to this CD.  And then he sent me one back, he’s like: “Man, I’ve been talking with my wife and we want to present this story.”  And she starred in the film, Adina. It was incredible what they did with that.

FJO:  It’s amazing. This is what music and film can be when there’s a real synchronicity.  And it’s interesting that the music existed first.  Because obviously most of the time in the film industry, the music gets written later. There are people who are masters at this.  The music fits the film so well and feels completely seamless, but to make the film fit pre-existing music is a whole different process.

AA:  I know.  He deserves so much credit for doing that.  He’s also a really amazing musician, just incredible artist all around.  We’ve taken other pieces like Prospects of a Misplaced Year, The World Below, where you’re super hyper into it, or NO one To kNOW one, where you’re seeing every single technique.  You’re seeing how the sounds are made on the exact opposite spectrum, even the Duo Scorpio piece, he directed that as well.

“The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.”

The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.  That’s something you can’t even get at a live show, unless you invite an audience on stage while you’re playing.  I’ve tried to do that before, too.  I got a little bit of that from being in Trinidad where you have like 50 people right up on you. Some are judging you, but most are really into it.  They’re two inches from you.  They’re almost in your instrument while you’re playing.  There’s just so much energy in that and I enjoy when you can get a little bit of that in a music video.

FJO:  So in a way, is that the ideal way to experience the music?  You have two CDs out.  Obviously, no one can see anything when they hear the CD.

AA:  No I just think it’s another experience. Most of the time if you’re listening to a record or CD, you’re just enjoying the sounds. I like having multiple ways to experience something, whether it’s a narrative or whether it’s just aurally, or a combination of both.

FJO:  Well to get to this idea of narrative, I didn’t know that every sound has a specific story behind it in to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  Music is so abstract. If you’re writing a film score or a score for a ballet, or you have words that someone’s singing or a narrator, you have this other element that gives you the story line.  Music on its own is not going to really do that, most of the time.  Or at least, you might have an idea of what the story is, but someone hearing it is going to come up with something totally different. Ironically that film about human trafficking, which was set to to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, is really the only time so far that you’ve worked with a bonafide story board in film, even though it was created after the piece was. So have you thought of ever doing a more typical kind of film scoring project?

AA:  I definitely want to do that, without a doubt.  I don’t think I necessarily want to be a full-time music movie composer, but I would love to do film.

FJO:  You were involved with a staged production which I only saw little snippets of, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. There are multiple narrative layers to this, Brecht’s play obviously but also the actual life of Galileo, the historical figure, as well as the specifics of that particular production. I imagine that those were all layers that theoretically determined, at least to some extent, what direction your music went in.

AA:  Definitely, and that felt a little bit like composing for film, too.  [The director] Yuval Sharon had a lot of specific ideas; it was his baby.  He really understood what each scene represented and he knew what he wanted for every part, which was a challenge for me, too, because I’m used to coming from a very abstract space, and I had to be disciplined and learn how to really work with somebody who kind of knew what they wanted.  It felt like writing for a movie, but it also inspired me to want to do those kind of collaborations more, because they’re bringing a whole other angle that I would never have thought of.  That piece was interesting because I found out about it while living in Rome, and was sitting in the exact spot where Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the Pope in 1611. I met Yuval on Skype who knows I was sitting in the spot in my studio.  And he was telling me about the project, and I was like: “Wow, this is crazy.”

FJO:  That’s like living on Monroe Street and finding Cage.  It’s trippy.

AA:  Yeah.  I don’t know, man.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix or something.  It’s like too many coincidences right now.  It’s just weird how the world works like that.  Especially in New York.  A friend, Freddie Harris, whom I used to play with down in Trinidad a lot—on the second day I moved to New York, in 2003, I run into him.  And he lived in Miami.  He didn’t even live here at that time.  I run into him.  I hadn’t seen him since Trinidad.  Kendall Williams, do you know him? He’s an excellent composer.  He’s at Princeton now, and he was at NYU.  I hadn’t seen him in probably eight years or something.  We played next to each other in Trinidad, for Phase II, in 2003.  And then I run into him at LPR and he was studying with Julia Wolfe.  Another steel pan composer starting to study with Julia.  Neither one of us grew up in that path to either do classical music or become a composer.  We both played pan next to each other in Trinidad.  There’s like a 160 players in that band and we happened to be the ones.

A traditional Japanese bamboo masu for drinking sake surrounded by small knicknacks depicting cats.

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