The Kennedy Center

Beneath Lighted Coffers—Concerto for Steel Pan and Orchestra

About the Work

Andy Akiho Composer: Andy Akiho
© Thomas May

When the National Symphony undertook its first international concert tour under Music Director Christoph Eschenbach's leadership in June 2012-playing at venues across the Americas-the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was among its destinations. The NSO performed a concert in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Republic's independence from the United Kingdom, and the following day Music Director Christoph Eschenbach was presented with a steelpan by the Prime Minister in gratitude. A tuned percussion instrument made of sheet metal that was invented in Trinidad and Tobago in the 20th century, the steelpan is a fitting symbol for the Republic's independence from colonial domination. At that occasion Maestro Eschenbach announced that the NSO would commission a concerto for this marvelously versatile instrument.

Enter Andy Akiho, a highly lauded young American composer and performer who has specialized in the steelpan. Born in 1979 in Columbia, South Carolina, and currently based in New York City, Akiho carries forward the American maverick tradition with this innovative perspective. His growing catalogue includes prestigious commissions from the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the American Composers Orchestra, Bang on a Can, Harvard University-and now the NSO Hechinger Fund for new commissions. Most recently, Akiho was named winner of the 2015 Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund. He holds degrees in performance from the University of South Carolina and the Manhattan School of Music and in composition from Yale; he is currently pursuing his PhD in composition at Princeton.

Asked how he gravitated toward the steelpan-"the instrument that led me into composition"-Akiho recalls that his first encounters occurred while he was an undergraduate, after which he began traveling extensively in Trinidad and Tobago. "When I first heard the pan, I was immediately captivated by its extremely unique and mesmerizing timbre, and I felt an immediate connection with the pattern and feel of it." He adds that the steelpan "became home for me-the most natural way for me to communicate. I love the number of overtones the steelpan has and the fact that it blends surprisingly well with all the families of Western Classical instruments, as well as with nonclassical traditional instruments (Japanese Koto, West African Balafon, etc.), while maintaining a distinctive and novel timbre."

After he relocated to New York, Akiho initially used to "hustle every single day and night trying to make it as a steelpan jazz and calypso performer." He describes how he first came to know the steel pan within its usual context, "played alongside other steelpans in a steel orchestra or a stage-side steel band combo. I enjoyed this energetic and homogenous combination but eventually wanted to perform with and especially learn from other musicians and instrumental combinations outside of percussion and the steel band community. I began with jazz, and my improvisations ended up becoming my first compositions. I often intuitively developed musical ideas through improvisations, but because I can be so indecisive, I eventually realized I enjoyed having more time to let these ideas marinate, develop, and mature, allowing me to express my art from a more personal space. This is what ultimately led me to become a composer."

Beneath Lighted Coffers, the title of Aikido's new concerto for the NSO, reflects his experiences in Rome during the 2014-15 season as the recipient of the Luciano Berio Prize. The "coffers" in question refer to those found on the Pantheon's dome. "Having spent the past year in Rome, I explored the city, discovering its layers of history," Akiho explains. "I found the Pantheon in particular to be a fascinating architectural experience that offered endless possibilities, and my inspiration for this concerto is based on these personal encounters." Mesmerized "visually, structurally, and spiritually" by the Pantheon's "complex historic mysteries, along with its simplicities in architectural ratios and enduring nature," Akiho returned to visit more than a hundred times, "finding new musical vistas opening up with each visit."

The NSO's commission enabled Akiho to write for the steel pan virtuoso Liam Teague, whom the composer regards as one of his own "musical idols." He explains: "I have admired Liam's recordings and compositions since I started playing the steelpan almost 20 years ago; I would often perform his music on my recitals."

Akiho has provided the following guide to the five-movement Beneath Lighted Coffers:

"The introductory movement (Portico) is inspired by the Pantheon's portico, the entryway that one sees walking up a once narrow path to the building. The portico is inviting and unassuming, and the grandeur of the dome cannot be seen from afar, creating a somewhat unexpected experience in the rotunda. What captivates me most about the Greek-inspired entrance are the enormous, monolithic, Corinthian granite columns that were shipped from Egypt.

The architecture of the second movement (Twenty-Eight) mirrors the 140 trapezoidal coffers, or sunken panels, geometrically arranged in five concentric circles of twenty-eight in the Pantheon's concrete dome. The coffers create an optical illusion that draws the observer towards the dome's center, and they look different depending on the light of day streaming in through the oculus. Because the coffers are sunken voids within the concrete, they are also a critical part of the architectural structure of the large domed ceiling and evoke history, time, lightness, and possibility. Musically, I derived the melodic material of this movement from a 28-note palindromic scale that spans the entire range of the orchestra, and the structure of the movement is built in five groups of 140 beats, often sub-divided into five groups of twenty-eight.

The many different skies that appear through the oculus continually change the way the Pantheon is experienced. They inspired the central movement (Oculus), whose music comes from a more personal and intuitive place, mimicking the unpredictable clouds and light variances above and through the exposed sky in the oculus. The oculus also acts as an architectural keystone, although it is a purely empty space that has held the entire unreinforced concrete dome together for nearly two thousand years. Like the oculus, this middle movement is central to the structure of the entire composition.

For the brief fourth movement (Corelli), I drew inspiration from the Pantheon's marbled floor patterns and the music of the Italian Baroque composer and violinist Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), who is buried in the Pantheon. I have always been a fan of Corelli's chamber music, and I pay homage to him by alluding to the "Grave" movement from his Concerto Grosso No. 3. The original lays out a melodic line of 45 notes for the violin, which I associated with the 45 circles of the Pantheon's patterned marbled floor, imagining rain falling from the oculus above, shifting these notes and timbres around before disappearing in the drainage system beneath the floor. Writers and historians often use adjectives like "permanence" and "progeny" to describe the Pantheon because it is the best-preserved and most influential building from ancient Rome: it has miraculously endured numerous years, storms, fires, wars, governments, barbarians, and popes. The Pantheon brings together the past and the future, and I am very grateful to have had an opportunity to experience the history of the building and its architectural greatness in writing this piece in the present day. The Concerto therefore concludes with a movement titled Permanence."