Prospects of a Misplaced Year
by Andy Akiho
for string quartet and prepared piano
A note from Friction Quartet on Andy Akiho’s piano quintet:
We met Andy Akiho in Riverside, CA in 2014. Doug and Kevin had seen him at a local third wave coffee shop called Augie’s. Andy was attending Princeton at the time so seeing him in the LA area was surprising. They were too shy, and perhaps a little star struck, to approach him.
Luckily, Andy attended our concert at UC Riverside and he approached Doug afterward to congratulate us. They exchanged contact information and started dreaming up the piano quintet. Later that fall, Doug submitted a grant with Chamber Music America, and in one fell swoop we had received our first grant and a commission for one of the most sought after composers in the US.
Andy lives in New York City and is also composer-in-residence at an artist retreat in nearby New Hampshire, called Avaloch Farm. When we had a few concerts lined up on the East Coast the following year, Andy invited us all to the retreat to work with him on ideas for the piece.
When we first arrived at Avaloch, Andy was mysteriously missing. He arrived two days later than we were expecting. The premiere of his concerto for violin, percussion, and professional ping pong players (colloquially called his “ping-pong concerto”) had just had its premiere in Shanghai. Andy was recovering from the intense pressure of finishing this piece, and then traveling back to NYC to finish another commission for the American Composers' Orchestra. This was the circumstance under which half the quartet met Andy; him having just woken up after lunch, with bewildered eyes, and mumbling in half sentences.
We spent our evenings during this retreat hanging out and got to know each other musically by playing his first string quartet. We fell in love with the piece instantly; so much so that we worked tirelessly to be able to play it three days later. Our first love as a quartet was the John Adams String Quartet No. 1, but Andy’s quartet had replaced it as our new mistress. We talked endlessly about what kinds of sounds excite us and what we enjoyed the most in Andy's works.
Over the next year we met at three more retreats to play chamber music and work on his new piece. We traveled twice to West Point in the California Gold Country and once to Carmel’s Hidden Valley Music Seminar Center. It was through playing music together, and spending time together on each of these retreats, that the quintet took shape.
The composition of the piano quintet is tailor made to Friction and Jenny Q Chai as performers. Many composers talk about wanting to achieve this, but Andy excelled at it. During a break one evening in Carmel, Andy asked us what we liked to play, and we all had little ingredients to share. Taija requested viola prominent lines with rhythmic play, so the piece begins with an extended viola solo with palindromic rhythms and complex macro syncopations. The result is something that grooves within a pulse but has an intoxicating rhythmic dialogue. Doug requested elements of Andy's solo cello piece called "Three Shades, Foreshadows." Andy built that work with only cello sounds, and used a prepared cello to create more percussive sounds. Those sounds are incorporated in the quintet with Doug preparing the cello A string, using a small plastic clothes pin and some sticky tac. The piano is also prepared using the same sticky tac, but the sound is very different. On the cello it sounds like a pitched drum, but the piano sounds like a muted electronic keyboard, or hammond organ. Kevin mentioned that he loved the sound of the lydian mode, and the next day Andy started a movement with one of his trademark ostinatos; a repeating asymmetrical rhythm in the piano with a defining characteristic of the lydian mode, a raised fourth note of the scale. Audience members will be familiar with the sound and have heard it in famous songs such as "Maria" by Leonard Bernstein. Andy quickly surprises the ear by adding chromaticism into the line, creating a feeling of tonal ambiguity. Otis wanted Andy to write what he felt inspired to write, but Otis did mention that he loves ascending chromatic repeating figures, which Andy affectionately notated in the score as (Otis!). Jenny's piano playing is full of drama and evocative color, and the fourth movement highlights those elements in both Jenny's playing and Andy's writing. On a larger scale, the quintet has a relation to Bartok's music, featuring a structure that is Palindromic like Bartok's fourth and fifth quartets. We believe this immensely talented composer has written one of his best pieces yet, and we are proud to present it to the world.
11/12/16 @ Mother Lode Friends of Music
11/13/16 @ Noe Valley Chamber Music
11/18/16 @ Performing Arts Society of Redding
11/19/16 @ Center for New Music & Audio Technologies, UC Berkeley
11/21/16 @ Hidden Valley
This commission is made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Music Commissioning Program, with the generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.