Somewhere You’ve Never Gone
“I love it,” Andy Akiho says, “but I don’t know what it is.”
Andy’s telling me about David Lynch. Or, rather, he’s telling me about stories, the ones he likes best. “There’s some kind of plot going on, maybe,” he says, “but it’s more abstract, coming from the subconscious.” Andy loves telling this sort of story through his music. A Grammy®-and-Pulitzer-nominated classical composer, he’s renowned for lush, polyrhythmic compositions that are as challenging as they are catchy. Sure, he enjoys writing an infectious melody, but as soon as it feels familiar, he can’t help but veer left, yanking the listener with him. He wants everyone—his audience, his collaborators, himself—to feel “like you’re going somewhere no human has ever gone before.”
Andy just finished rehearsing for a show he’s playing later tonight; when I arrived, he was plunking a dozen Tibetan bowls with wooden chopsticks, accompanied by two other percussionists and a video loop of Bruce Lee saying, Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now we’re sitting on a couple of barstools, beside a stage, in the corner of a vast warehouse that used to be an ironworks. Behind us is a colossal metal stamping press. It looks like something Gulliver might’ve used to crack his walnuts. As we walked by, Andy played it like a drum.
Andy tends to play everything like a drum. In college, he became enchanted by the steel pan; after graduating, he spent a year in Trinidad, learning from legends; ever since, he’s been taking the instrument somewhere—many somewheres—no human’s gone before. Whereas I’d once thought of the steel pan as something one half-listened to while wearing boat shoes and sipping watery daiquiris, now, after a few days immersed in Andy’s work, I’m wondering why anyone would ever make music without it. In his hands, and in the hands of the musicians he works with—like Sandbox Percussion, the virtuosic Brooklyn quartet with whom he recorded his seven-movement masterpiece, Seven Pillars—the pans sing and chirp, whisper and boom, set the rhythm(s) and sing the melody and harmony, too. Even compositions that don’t feature pans were, Andy says, likely written on them. In “Amalgamation,” a sax quartet sounds like a demented drum machine. In “Vicki/y,” thanks to a few dimes stuck in the strings, a piano becomes a cymbal. In “Umi,” a dog’s bark turns into a snare, then a siren, then something out of a fever dream. And here, in the corner of a warehouse, Andy’s fingers on the stage become a Dust Brothers breakbeat.
This makes sense, seeing how Andy grew up not on classical music but on Van Halen, Metallica, Run-DMC. He picked up percussion from his sister, a rock drummer, then went on to play in the marching band at college, where he got deep into post-bop jazz. In 2003, he moved to New York, hoping to make a name for himself in the jazz scene, and while studying thereabouts—percussion at Manhattan School of Music, composition at Yale and Princeton—he got into Bach, Bartok, Stravinsky. And while you can hear hip hop, post-bop, and metal influences in Andy’s work, what you hear, even more, is his personality. “The world that I have lived in and can be honest about,” he says, “is my own intuition.” When composing, he just plays and plays, until he comes up with something—“one little cell, a couple of seconds of music”—he can really run with. And then, he runs. “No bar lines,” Andy says, “no sets of rules.”