Andy Akiho

Princeton-based composer and performer Andy Akiho — who has been receiving commissions for his cutting compositions for orchestras and ensembles — displays one of his attributes when he appears with members of his band, the Foundry, at Small World Coffee on Saturday, February 16, at 8:30 p.m. In a telephone interview the prolific maker of compositions says, “About 95 percent of my time now is heading toward a composer career. So I really cherish the opportunities to perform. That’s where my roots are.”

“We’ll be primarily performing my early compositions in this concert. It’s refreshing to go back to my early stuff and perform with close friends. A coffee shop is more intimate than a concert hall. There’s no wall between the performers and the audience. Listeners can be sitting right next to you. You can interact with friends in the audience.”

Performers at the February 16 gig include Akiho, steel pan; Mariel Roberts, cello; Paul Hofreiter, bass; Mika Godbole, percussion, and Sean Dixon, drums. Three members of the ensemble have Princeton connections. Akiho is a candidate for a doctoral degree in music from Princeton University. Hofreiter grew up in Lawrenceville and teaches at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Godbole earned a doctorate from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick and teaches at the Westminster Conservatory.

At Small World, except for a few solos, all the performers play in all the pieces. “We’re not planning the program in advance,” Akiho says. “Everybody knows the same repertoire. All of the music is memorized.”

The Small World performers are members of the Foundry, a pool of 15 to 20 musicians. Personnel and instruments vary from gig to gig. Among the venues in which the ensemble has appeared is the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. “Sometimes we use a harp, or a violin,” Akiho says. “That way we can play music when the instrumentation varies. Having different combinations of instruments keeps the music fresh.”

“So you’re the star of the ensemble,” I venture. Akiho resists. “I’m not the star,” he says. “I’m the ambassador. I’m the communication link.” Akiho and others from the Foundry perform at Small World again on Saturday, March 30, at 8 p.m.

In the next 18 months, Akiho’s commitments are for composing, rather than performing, with one exception. “In about a year and a half I’ll be performing in a composition I wrote for violin and steel pan,” Akiho says. Violinist Kristin Lee, Naumburg competition winner, who has performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, has commissioned him, and other composer/performers to write music for various combinations with violin. They appear in New York’s home for adventurous music, the Poisson Rouge, in 2014. “That’s 10 commissions from now,” Akiho says.

Akiho considers steel pan his primary instrument. Made originally in the Caribbean of 55-gallon steel drums, their manufacture has now become a separate industry. “I never heard one until I was 18,” he says. “I was in college and I fell in love with the instrument. Pans are like the string family, from soprano to bass. I’ve written for all of them. I primarily play what’s called a ‘tenor pan.’ It’s the soprano voice of the steel orchestra and has the same range as the lower end of the flute.” Akiho has been known to play three steel pans at one time.

“I perform on the steel pan, and I write at the steel pan. My steel pan compositions come a lot from improvisation,” he says.

“My newer commissioned pieces have been written for various sized groups. I’m not performing them. They were written for specific performers, not for me.”

“I write a lot of different styles of music,” Akiho says. “I’m interested in how things sound, and I don’t want to hook up with just one particular style. It makes me free. I grew up on a lot of different styles of music. It’s natural for me to combine all of my influences. I like to combine the vocabulary from contemporary classical music with whatever I add to it.”

“I never know how to put it in words. I’d rather play it than try to explain it. If you explain something people have a preconception of how it’s going to sound. I draw on jazz, western classical music, and calypso music from the Caribbean. It doesn’t classify.”

“I like to invent sounds,” Akiho says. He inserts dimes into piano strings, prescribes using a credit card inside a piano, places rubber bands on a vibraphone, and puts clothespins on a cello — preparations that don’t hurt the instruments.”I like to alter sounds,” he summarizes, “but I don’t want to destroy instruments. I like to manipulate rhythm and timbre. When you do that, pitch becomes less important.”

“Universities such as Princeton don’t try to force you to write in one specific way; they encourage you to do whatever you want as long as it has artistic value.” Akiho’s primary mentors at Princeton have been Paul Lansky and Steve Mackey. He has also worked with Barbara White, Dan Trueman, and Dmitri Tymoczko.

“I like to be surrounded by the instruments I’m writing for,” Akiho says. At the moment he is working on a percussion quartet commissioned by Time Travelers, a band focusing on the rock and roll of the 1950s through the early 1970s. “I’ve set up a percussion studio with 20 percussion instruments in Princeton to write the piece. I’m adding rubber bands to instruments. I’m putting a cymbal on top of the drumhead of a floor tom, the big tom-tom of a drum set. I put a tambourine on top of a vibraphone. And there are woodblocks and bottles on top of some of the marimba bars. When I use the marimba-wood block-bottle combination, I want the player to stand on the wrong side of the marimba to have an unconventional perspective.”

“With every new piece I write I have to develop a different notation,” Akiho says. To accompany each piece, he provides video tutorials, along with what he calls “pages and pages of symbols and explanations of the desired sounds.”

Akiho turned 34 on February 7. His father is Japanese and ran nightclubs and Japanese restaurants; his mother, he says, comes from “the deep south” and worked for Estee Lauder. He grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, with his mother and a hearing aid repairer step father, and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2001. Akiho’s credentials include a master’s degree as a percussionist from Manhattan School of Music’s contemporary music program and a master’s degree in composition from Yale.

His practical musical background includes repeated stays in Trinidad, mecca of the steel pan.

There, he discovered that he had synesthesia; that is, he sees a particular color when he plays a particular note. Rehearsing one night, he closed his eyes. Eyes shut, every time he played a “D” he saw orange.

“It’s a kinesthetic synesthesia,” Akiho says. “I get it when I play steel pan, especially when I’m improvising. In fact, when I improvise, I think more of colors than of pitches. There are splatters of color, something like a Jackson Pollock painting. I see a series of bright lights going off; some days, they’re dimmer; some days they’re stronger. But they’re pretty consistent by hue. With an A minor chord I see red, blue, and green. It makes it easy to memorize.”

Among the pieces likely to be sampled at Small World is Akiho’s “Synesthesia Suite.” He mentions a movement called “Aka” and explains, “Aka means red in Japanese. When I was writing this piece, I was getting in touch with my Japanese roots. I was a sushi chef at the time.”

Akiho’s activity level approaches astronomical. A finished composition requires his intervention before it can be played in public. “When I don’t perform I give workshops,” he says. “There’s a lot of hands-on preparation for my pieces.” When I talked to him in early February, he said, “A lot of my music was played in New York during the past months. There were about 10 New York performances in the past month.”

The crush started in October with Ensemble ACJW’s Carnegie Hall premiere of Akiho’s composition for string quartet, double bass, percussion, horn and trumpets. About two months ago, Eighth Blackbird, the mixed string, wind, and percussion ensemble, played his prize-winning “erase” as part of the concert series Derek Bermel, artist in residence, curates at the Institute for Advanced Study. He won that competition in a field of more than 500 competitors. (U.S. 1, November 21, 2012). Akiho was in the audience. In December Akiho’s “Oscillate” appeared on the New York Philharmonic’s new music series “Contact!” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Symphony Space.

Luckily, Akiho can live without sleep for days in a row.

Andy Akiho & The Foundry, Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, February 16, 8:30 p.m. Free, Small 609-924-4377 ext. 2 or www.smallworldcoffee.com/calendar.