“The spirit of percussion opens everything,” musician John Cage once declared. He had in mind the way percussion music can open the door to unaccustomed ways of listening — and even of perceiving the environment around us.
That spirit imbues Andy Akiho’s “Seven Pillars.” On Dec. 3 at Emerald City Music in Seattle, the New York-based ensemble Sandbox Percussion will give the live-performance world premiere of this epic creation for drums, woodblocks, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel and a host of other instruments ranging from tuned metal pipes to a cigar box.
Written for the quartet of percussion players comprising Sandbox — Ian Rosenbaum, Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese and Terry Sweeney — the evening-length “Seven Pillars” is Akiho’s biggest instrumental composition to date.
It can actually be experienced in several incarnations: as an album (released in September and nominated for two Grammy Awards for best contemporary classical composition and best chamber music/small ensemble performance), as a sequence of experimental accompanying films (viewable on YouTube) and as a live concert staged with lighting design by the theater director Michael Joseph McQuilken — the version that will be presented at Emerald City Music.
“My goal was to create a concert of different experiences and emotions that are all connected,” Akiho said in a Zoom conversation from his home in Portland. It’s especially fitting that the performance premiere is taking place in Seattle. It was during his early years on the faculty at Cornish College of the Arts (in the late 1930s) that Cage formulated some of his radical ideas. Akiho says that he has “always felt some connection to Cage.”
The 42-year-old composer and percussion performer started the project with a stand-alone piece introduced in 2014, “Pillar IV.” But already at that stage, Akiho could envision the much larger structure that would become the foundation for the nearly-80-minute “Seven Pillars.”
Each pillar refers to a movement scored for all four players. An additional four solo movements for each member of Sandbox function as extensive interludes, making for a total of 11 movements.
The result is a vast palindrome, with the original “Pillar IV,” the longest, positioned at the very center. At the same time, “Seven Pillars” begins with unpitched sounds but builds a progressively increasing palette by incorporating the tuned percussion instruments introduced in the first three solos.
Though Akiho acknowledges that offering a programmatic description might make “Seven Pillars” more “relatable” to an audience, he resists resorting to images like the “seven pillars of wisdom” or the “seven gods of fortune” from Japanese folklore.
“I realized that would be forcing it to have a false narrative and wanted it to be just about the structure of the music itself,” he says. “I’m always intrigued by the backbone of any art, whether it’s martial arts or architecture.”
In fact, the architecture of the Pantheon inspired one of Akiho’s breakthrough works, “Beneath Lighted Coffers,” a concerto for steel pan. While living in Rome as the recipient of a composition prize, he became intrigued by the historical layers of the ancient temple with its extraordinary concrete dome. Akiho combined this fascination with his love of the steel pan, an instrument he began exploring during a period spent in Trinidad. “That’s how I got started as a composer,” Akiho says, “while teaching and arranging for steel bands in Crown Heights and Brooklyn.”
An influential director in the contemporary music scene, McQuilken likewise has a background as a street percussionist. After a stint at the University of Washington around the turn of the century, he performed as a busker at Seattle Center, playing an instrument “basically made out of garbage — things I knew I could beat up and replace for free.” Now based in New Haven, he regards Seattle as “the birthplace of me as an independent artist.”
For the lighting design component of his staging, McQuilken uses seven pillars of Bluetooth-enabled lights that are manipulated by the percussionists. He describes Akiho’s music as ideally suited for translation into visual terms: “It has so much movement, with angles and jagged moments that add this constant element of surprise. The visuals have so much material to respond to.”
Sandbox musician Rosenbaum, like McQuilken a longtime collaborator with Akiho, explains that he and his fellow performers control the lighting with an iPad that gets passed around among the quartet. “It’s like another instrument. We zoom our way through hundreds of lighting cues that we’re able to rhythmically match up with the music in a way we’ve never been able to do with an outside lighting technician.”
That sheer physical virtuosity generates considerable excitement. “We have this ability to reach people who perhaps wouldn’t be normally interested in a contemporary music concert — because there is a visual appeal to what we’re doing,” says Rosenbaum.
But what can seem like spur-of-the-moment gestures are the manifestations of an incredibly disciplined collective musical intelligence: The Sandbox players execute hundreds of thousands of notes from a precisely notated score when they play “Seven Pillars.”
“It’s immensely gratifying to take Andy’s music and analyze it from a very nerdy basis, if you’re interested in that,” Rosenbaum says. “But if you don’t care about that, it’s just fun, beautiful music to listen to. It can really reach everyone.”