Meet Finale Composition Contest Finalist Andy Akiho

Last February, MakeMusic, the American Composer’s Forum, and the Grammy-winning ensemble eighth blackbird announced three finalists in the Finale National Composition Contest. All three were asked to submit final scores by October 1, 2011, and will workshop their pieces with eighth blackbird in Chicago on December 7 and 8. After a concert of all three works on December 8, the judges will select the recipient of the final prize, who will receive an additional cash award and a future public performance by eighth blackbird.

Having earlier met Eric Lindsay and Kurt Rohde, this week we’ll feature finalist Andy Akiho. Andy is an award-winning composer whose interests run from steel pan to traditional classical music.

Scott Yoho: How did you initially discover the steel pan?

Andy Akiho: I didn’t actually know what one was until I was about 18. When I was at the University of South Carolina I did everything I could do as a percussionist. I really tried to learn about everything that was available to me at the time. In addition to playing in orchestra, concert band, and percussion ensemble as a classical percussionist, I joined the local West African percussion ensembles, Brazilian drumming ensembles, and the steel bands. By the time I finished at South Carolina I felt that playing pans was what I loved to do the most, and I subsequently traveled to Trinidad several times. My first visit, I stayed for five weeks and played with a big band called the PCS Starlift Steel Orchestra, led by Ray Holman (a legend in the steel pan community). The following year, I played with another steel orchestra called Phase II, led by Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.

SY: How did you make that connection?

AA: I went to Trinidad without knowing anybody. The first day I got there I immediately began telling the locals I met that I really wanted to play. The place I was staying happened to be a block from where Ray Holman lives, and within a few hours I was knocking on his door. He led me to the Starlift Orchestra pan yard, and I got to play with the band that night. I played and performed with them for the next few weeks.

I returned to Trinidad in 2002, 2003, and in 2006, when I shipped over eighty pans up to New York and started two programs, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn. [Andy has served as a lead teaching artist for ArtsConnection, New York’s most comprehensive artist-in-education non-profit organization.]

SY: Was music composition part of your formal training?

AA: I didn’t formally focus on composition until I was at the Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance Program, when I was there for contemporary percussion. I had been in New York for years teaching and playing steel drums after completing my undergrad at the University of South Carolina.

This year I just completed my master’s degree in composition at Yale, and plan to pursue my doctorate in composition this fall at Princeton.

SY: What composers are influencing or inspiring you these days?

AA: What really got me into the whole composition thing, and gave me the confidence to go in that direction, was doing the Bang on a Can Summer Festivals in 2007 & 2008. I really learned a lot from my colleagues and composers there: David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe especially… And all my teachers at Yale: Martin Bresnick, Christopher Theofanidis, and Ezra Laderman have been extremely influential. I’m constantly excited. I’m at Aspen right now and am really enjoying working with Matthias Pintscher and Christopher Rouse. I’ve also been extremely influenced by the Caribbean community too, including Caribbean guitarists, like Scipio Sargeant who used to teach me in Crown Heights. The pan players in Brooklyn like Freddy Harris III, Kareem Thompson, and Eddie Quarless were a great influence as well. There’s just so much inspiration out there. I feel very fortunate for all that.

I’m really lucky that I came into this at a later stage because at this age I feel like I really know what I want and hence more able to appreciate the instruction from the best composition teachers and performers out there.

SY: Does writing for eighth blackbird’s instrumentation offer some unique challenges or opportunities?

AA: It’s crazy! A big piece that really influenced me right when I began to compose was Jacob Druckman’s “Come Round,” which I performed at the Manhattan School. When I got the score I looked for a recording of it to learn the percussion part really well, and the first one I came across was by eighth blackbird. I didn’t know who they were back then, and I was just blown away.

What I like about the Pierrot ensemble instrumentation is that you have three pairs of instrumental families: piano and percussion, violin and cello, and flute and clarinet. Each pairing offers a unique range, color, and technique. The different composite timbral combinations are truly limitless! I think that’s why so many composers write for this instrumentation.
SY: Can you describe your musical goals?

AA: I want to write music that I feel really confident about artistically and creatively, that all kinds of people can relate to and appreciate. It would be awesome if my colleagues, professors, AND my family could enjoy a piece. I don’t want to create music that only 2% of the population can relate to – I don’t want to be completely academic about it.

I really feel that rhythm is something almost everyone can all relate to. For me it’s the most important musical parameter in terms of what I can manipulate and communicate to others. If the rhythm and rhythmic counterpoint feels right, I’m happy with it, and the music seems to make more sense.

SY: Got any Finale stories or tips?

AA: Just about every piece I’ve written I’ve put in on Finale. I really like the program because I feel like you have a lot more freedom to do funky things with notation that other programs don’t offer. It’s great for clarity and innovation. I’m particularly happy with the prepared piano solo I’ve done that I don’t feel could have been done with any other program. I originally wrote it all out by hand, and was able to make the Finale version look identical to the handwritten version. See an excerpt of Andy’s piano piece.

SY: Anything to add?

AA: I’m extremely excited to be a part of this project and really grateful for this opportunity, and I just want to really max it out!

I’d like to thank Andy for his time and I’m looking forward to hearing more of Andy and the other finalists in Chicago in December.

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