Photo by Da Ping Luo.
Despite its dark implications, the title of Andy Akiho’s new album The War Below is actually a pun that pays tribute to one of the recording artists. Each of the five parts of the first piece on the album, Prospects of a Misplaced Year, are sneakily named after the performers who premiere them—and the first part, which gives the album its title, is an homage to violist Taija Warbelow.
It’s fitting that Warbelow is recognized in this way, because she launches the piece as a soloist with a melodic motif. Prospects of a Misplaced Year, recorded in a cathedral, first makes an impression because of Warbelow’s rich tone, luminous against the vast silences that punctuate her phrases.
The piece becomes a tense back-and-forth conversation when the percussion enters. As the other instruments emerge with running lines, trading off and sometimes sounding all at once, the tension builds into a dense whirlwind of sound. It’s almost as though the instruments are fighting, talking, and even yelling at one another without listening—fitting for the piece’s association with war.
There are gentler moments in the piece, too, but everything is rooted in darkness. The quiet sections are eerie and melancholy. As the sound builds, dissonant chords evoke the sense of something sinister, and heavy percussion creates wild, dangerous sensations. The result is a dramatic, hauntingly beautiful work that showcases both Akiho’s trademark percussion writing as well as a deep sensitivity to intricate ensemble writing.
Jenny Q Chai, who plays a piano prepared with a coin and poster tack in the harp of the instrument, is at many times the key to developing the piece’s different moods. Masterfully taking advantage of the unique timbres that emerge in different registers of the piano, Chai creates some of most mesmerizing lines in Prospects.
The other piece on the album, Septet is characterized by variety, ambiguity, and surprise. From the start, the strings provide a static landscape of sustained, dissonant chords, leaving listeners without a clear sense of the piece’s direction. Slowly, piano and percussion join in. The volume and tension rise and then fall, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.
Without warning, quiet serene moments morph into grandiose, hopeful melodic lines and then transform again, becoming creepy and suspenseful. In certain sections, the instruments are at odds with one another. The strings have a murky, mysterious melody over tender, consonant chords, or a gentle motif is abruptly disrupted by a burst of jarring dissonance, creating a complex mood that defies classification.
Because of this, even after multiple listens, Septet remains an exhilarating experience. You can never anticipate what’s coming next and when it comes, sometimes it’s impossible to describe.
Akiho shines on steel pan in Septet, repeating a mystical, chameleon-like motif throughout the piece. The rest of the septet, made up of pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, and members of the orchestral group the Knights rise magnificently to the challenge of coloring the motif with their rhythmic and harmonic support. Working with and against the steel pan and one another, they create a variety of coherent moods at some moments and a clash of divergent ideas at others.
The complex interplay of instruments in Prospects and Septet, designed by Akiho and executed by the works’ talented ensembles, makes each track of The War Below captivating. As tension builds and moods shift, listeners are desperate to discover where the music is taking them and excited to find that it was in a direction they never would have expected.