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Andy Akiho continues to create for Steelpan & Orchestra

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Steelpanist and composer Andy Akiho and the Yale Philharmonia
Steelpanist and composer Andy Akiho and the Yale Philharmonia

Connecticut, USA - In his latest work, featured as one of four composers premiering their music at Yale School of Music’s Sprague Hall earlier this month, Andy Akiho took those within earshot on a journey that was limited potentially by only the listener’s own ability, to comprehend the daring freedom of Akiho’s vision.

Andy Akiho practices before his premiere with the Yale Philharmonia
Andy Akiho practices before his premiere with the Yale Philharmonia

Whenever this visionary young man puts music down, the listener can be certain that there will be movements and combinations that challenge one’s concept of music, and the role of steelpan within same.  Akiho retains his devotion to the steelpan as his primary instrument, even as he continues to proudly showcase its evolution as it journeys along with him as he musically chronicles his life experiences - resulting in scintillating and evocative music works.

Andy Akiho brings out extra percussive elements of the Steelpan instrument in his concerto
Andy Akiho leans forward and over, and brings out extra percussive elements of the steelpan instrument for his concerto

The last time When Steel Talks (WST) had the privilege of witnessing live, Akiho at work and ‘play,’ was at the Manhattan School of Music with his Synesthesia Suite which showcased Andy and Friends with steelpans, a jazz combo and chamber orchestra.

Andy is a gradate student at the Yale School of Music.  The graduate studies program facilitates student composers in their second year as they present their works, usually supported by the full Yale chamber orchestra.  This year was a bit different, where about half the orchestra - some forty musicians - worked with the composers.

Andy primarily plays with four steelpan sticks/mallets, and always by his side is a variety of them, including ‘chop sticks’ which he switches to for extra textures.  “I use them to try to create different timbre combinations; I do that with everything I write.... [I] would have the steelpan play with chop sticks because it really brings out the articulation and attack more, just in the overtone or the sound that pan normally gets.  It really sharpens the attack and I just like that effect.  You can play hyper rhythms and they are a lot more clear when you use chop sticks.  So it sounds like a completely different instrument too, to me - especially when you mix it with other instruments at the same time,” Andy says by way of explanation. 

Steelpan instruments and sticks at the ready for steelpanist and composer Andy Akiho
Birch steelpan instruments and sticks (left of double second) at the ready for steelpanist and composer Andy Akiho.  The additional tenor to the top is for percussions only

Andy is currently using an interesting combination of the double seconds and tenor when he performs.  The double seconds are positioned to the right and left, with the tenor in the middle of both.  And through using a thinner rubber on his sticks, Andy has found a way to use just a single set of sticks (instead of two types) for both the double seconds and tenor simultaneously.   Says Andy “....Primarily I use pretty hard rubber mallets; on the regular sticks, I use a much thinner type rubber.  That way on the higher octaves, it really brings out the note more. And it makes it a little bit harder [sound-wise] on the lower octaves, in the way I have it set up, with the double seconds and the tenor.”   With the thinner mallet overall, and knowing how to play the bigger, lower notes of the double seconds with a lighter “touch,” while bringing out the higher notes more on the tenor, Andy elicits just the right timbres from both voices of the steelpan instrument family with a single set of uniform steelpan sticks.

As to his steelpan double seconds-tenor configuration:  that was originally dictated by his desire to master Bach’s Violin Sonata Fugue in G Minor.  “I wanted to learn it note for note, with the exact voicing of the chords that he [Bach] wrote,” explains Andy.  “The violin goes down to a low G and below middle C, and with the extended range of the double seconds, I can get that.”  With the tenor included, he reaches the high F, and so had access to the full range of Bach’s violin sonata.  That experience inspired Andy to start writing more pieces with the extended range allowed within the double seconds-tenor configuration.

World-renowned and highly coveted ‘Birch Pans’ are steelpan instruments made by one of the best steelpan manufacturers and tuners in the world, master Bertram “Birch” Kelman, and his are the instruments of choice for Andy Akiho.   The musician’s tone changes to one of reverence when describing what it is like for him to own and perform his works on ‘Birch Pans.’

The steel pan concerto performed at Sprague Hall is based on ideas Andy had for the better part of a year.  The main body of work was completed during the last semester in time for the December concert. 

The audience in the balcony of Sprague Hall takes in the New Music for Orchestra concert
The audience in the balcony of Sprague Hall takes in the New Music for Orchestra concert

In years past, Yale’s second-year graduate music students’ works for orchestra premiered in the significantly larger Woolsey Hall, just about a block away from Sprague Hall.  In Woolsey the full Philharmonia orchestra circa eighty musicians would be utilized, but unless the venue is full, clarity and acoustics are not necessarily at their zenith. 

The smaller setting in Sprague enabled clarity and allowed for warmer acoustics with a smaller audience.  The trade-off was the reduction in size of the Philharmonia by half.  That did not phase Andy, however, as his concerto was also suited for a chamber orchestra.

Hindustani vocalist Meena Shivaram performing in  Reena Esmail's Aria at the New Music for Orchestra concert
Hindustani vocalist Meena Shivaram performing in Reena Esmail’s Aria at the New Music for Orchestra concert

But, Andy Akiho will still get a taste of Woolsey Hall.  Because of its premiere at the New Music for Orchestra concert, his Steel Pan Concerto will be heard in Woolsey, as his piece has been chosen to be performed at Yale’s next Philharmonia concert January 21, 2011 - an opportunity he is extremely excited about.

Flutists Ransom Wilson and Dariya Nikolenko performing in Martin Bresnick's Pan Pensero
Flutists Ransom Wilson and Dariya Nikolenko performing in Martin Bresnick’s Pan Pensero

On that chilly New Haven, Connecticut evening at Yale’s Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, Akiho shared the evening’s two-hour card with other talented musical composers, such as Reena Esmail whose Aria featured accomplished Hindustani vocalist Meena Shivaram, Adrian Knight’s Comblé,  and Omar Surillo who painted a musical tapestry with Partner in Crime that allowed the different voices of conventional instruments to operate and achieve fulfillment outside of what could be perceived to be their ‘norms’ within the orchestral format.  The privilege of closing the evening’s performances belonged to music instructor Martin Bresnick, whose three-segment Pan Pensero featuring flutists Ransom Wilson & Dariya Nikolenko, pleased many present for the evening.

Sprague Hall, Yale Campus -  New Haven, Connecticut
Sprague Hall, Yale Campus - New Haven, Connecticut

After the two-hour concert music patrons were filing out of the auditorium, but not without first taking time to chat with and further compliment the composers whose music had been showcased for the evening.  In one case WST witnessed an ever-modest Andy Akiho being asked to autograph a copy of the event program.  Afterward it was a quick ride from the Yale Campus in New Haven (where WST had journeyed to catch Andy live) via the Metro North, back to New York.  For those unable to be present for the live event, the New Music for Orchestra concert was streamed live online by the Yale School of Music.

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Andy Akiho takes the steelpan to the Yale School of Music


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