At the beginning of this year, National Sawdust released the second album of original works by composer Andy Akiho, entitled The War Below, currently available for MP3 download from Amazon.com. The album title is also the first title of a five-movement suite, Prospects of a Misplaced Year, which fills most of the album. The remainder of the album is a two-movement septet created for the LA Dance Project in collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Prospects of a Misplaced Year is a piano quartet bringing pianist Jenny Q Chai together with the members of the Friction Quartet, violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Douglas Machiz. Instrumentation for the septet consists of a string quartet of members of The Knights (violinists Colin Jacobsen and Ariana Kim, violist Mario Gotoh, and cellist Caitlin Sullivan) along with Vicky Cho on piano, percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, and Akiho himself playing steel pan.
That last phrase should suggest that Akiho has a playful streak. Most listeners should quickly recognize that streak through the engagingly imaginative approaches to rhythms encountered in both of these pieces. However, there is also a literary side to the composer’s ludic inclinations. The middle movement of Prospects of a Misplaced Year is “(K)in(e)tic (V)ar(i)atio(n)s,” with the parenthesized letters spelling out Rogers’ first name. Similarly, while it is unclear when Akiho began work to fulfill his commission, there is good reason to assume that he was working on the piece after Election Day in 2016, meaning that the reference to a “misplaced year” has to do with a ripped-from-the-headlines context. In that context one might also consider the title of the final movement, “On The tideS of november” has having a political message embodied in the capital letters TS, an acronym that should need no explanation for most readers! Finally, one cannot help but wonder whether or not the Friction violist has something to do with the title of the first movement and the entire album.
Nevertheless, it is the upbeat rhetoric of Akiho’s musical imagination that will draw the attention of the listener and hold on to it through the entire duration of both of the compositions included on the album. That imagination extends to finding his own ways to work with the now accepted technique of preparing a piano to use it as a percussion instrument, bringing an engaging palette of sonorities to Prospects of a Misplaced Year. Akiho is equally comfortable when working with repetitive structures and when developing gradual transformations of such structures over the course of one of his movements. In other words he has taken, as a point of departure, a genre that takes us back to the early work of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and developed a toolbox of techniques to find his own balance between repetition and alteration. The results on this album are two compositions that both are likely to hold up to successive experiences of attentive listening, at least in the opinion of this attentive listener!