Composer and toy pianist Phyllis Chen's third solo recording, Little Things, is a compilation of works written for her which expand the boundaries of this idiosyncatic instrument.
|01||Toy Toccata (in Black and White) for solo toy piano|
Toy Toccata (in Black and White) for solo toy piano
|02||Angélica Negrón: The Little Things for toy instruments and live electronics|
Angélica Negrón: The Little Things for toy instruments and live electronics
|03||Okura for solo toy piano|
Okura for solo toy piano
|04||Mechanics of Escapement for toy piano and clock chimes|
Mechanics of Escapement for toy piano and clock chimes
|05||Pi (Obstruction) for solo toy piano|
Pi (Obstruction) for solo toy piano
|06||Whatever Shall Be for toy piano, dreidel, chopstick, music box, and electronics|
Whatever Shall Be for toy piano, dreidel, chopstick, music box, and electronics
|07||Milliampere for solo toy piano|
Milliampere for solo toy piano
In August 2013, New York-based toy pianist Phyllis Chen released “Little Things,” her third solo toy piano album, on New Focus Recordings. Praised by the LA Times as “a dazzling delight,” Phyllis’s new album features a wide range of works written or dedicated to her in the last few years, as she continues to expand the range of the toy piano in a concert setting. Also an active composer, Ms. Chen's creative sensibility pervades these commissions, as her innovative approach to the instrument emboldened the composers to experiment and imagine new worlds for this under appreciated instrument. From virtuosic solo works such as 2009 UnCaged Toy Piano competition winner Fabian Svenssons’s Toy Toccata to the ambient-loop based title track The Little Things by Angélica Negrón for toy instruments, the diversity of the seven tracks on this recording is tied together by a focus on the toy piano as a central voice in composition. Other gems on this album include Dai Fujikura’s Milliampere, Nathan Davis’s The Mechanics of Escapament for toy piano and clock chimes, Karlheinz Essl’s Whatever Shall Be for toy piano, music box and gadgets and Takuji Kawai’s Okura.
Phyllis is a pianist, toy pianist and composer who’s musical interests have led in numerous directions as a soloist and collaborative artist. Described as “a dazzling performer who wrings novel sounds from the humble toy piano,”(NY Times) and “a bold pianist with an excellent sense of color” (LA Times),Phyllis has performed in a large variety of contexts in the US and abroad.
Phyllis founded the UnCaged Toy Piano, a composition call-for-scores to further expand the repertoire for toy piano. UnCaged welcomes composers of all ages and backgrounds to consider the many artistic possibilities in the toy piano. The Chicago Reader states that Phyllis has “become one of the world’s leading proponents of the toy piano.” The competition has received works from composers all around the world and these compositions become an integral part of her repertoire. In 2013, Phyllis hosted the 2nd three-day UnCaged Toy Piano Festival in New York City, inviting ten different artists in three different venues. To find out more about the call for scores, please visit uncagedtoypiano.org
With a long affection towards miniature theater, Phyllis has created numerous works with her partner /video artist/electronic musician, Rob Dietz. The duo received a NYSCA grant (via Concert Artist Guild) to create the Looking Glass ReWondered that was premiered in 2010 at the Voorhees Theater. They have also created The Memoirist, Pearlessence, Chroma, Carousels, and most recently, The Slumber Thief, a 2012 commissioned work by Opera Cabal’s Opera Shop program.
Phyllis is one of the founding members of ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), a New York-based collective dedicated to the performance and promotion of new works. Phyllis was selected as one of the composer/artist for the inaugural ICElab Series, a model for commissioning and developing new works. Her ICElab chamber pieces were performed at the 2013 Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Atlas Performing Arts, (DC) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Phyllis is also the recipient of numerous other awards including the 2012 Roulette-Intermedium/Jerome Commission where four composer/performers are commissioned to write a new work. She is also one of twelve composers-recipients of the 2012 Fromm Music Foundation. Upcoming commissions include a new solo work by the Baryshnikov Arts Center and a multi-media work for Margaret Leng Tan by the Singapore Arts Festival.
Phyllis attended Oberlin Conservatory (B.M.) Northwestern University (M.M) and currently a doctoral candidate at Indiana University where she studied with André Watts. She currently lives in Astoria.
It’s pretty clear from the confident opening track of Phyllis Chen’s latest release that the composer/toy pianist has a point to prove. "Little Things" is an album that expands and contracts, from Fabian Svennson's virtuostic and frantic Toy Toccata that begins the album to the more contemplative moments of repose in later works. Chen’s trick is that somewhere in the process, you forget about the novelty of the instrument and start to focus on its possibilities.
Take, for example, the titular track by Angélica Negrón. Written for toy piano and live electronics, its sparse and innocent opening seems to play on the connotations between the sound of the instrument and its connection to childhood. Yet as the work evolves, layers of percussive ambient noise begin to cloud the purity of the opening material. The piece crescendos into a cacophony of beeps and sputters before returning to its humble beginnings. Reaching the end of the piece, the question is less, “Is this really a toy piano?” and more “Where do we go next?"
In fact, many of the contributing composers seem to relish in the opportunity to stretch the instrument. Karlheinz Essl’s Whatever Shall Be utilizes the toy piano’s sound board to amplify noises made by a chop stick, a dreidel, and a small music box. Nathan Davis’s meditative The Mechanics of Escapement juxtaposes the petite twang of the instrument against large clock chimes which, in performance, surround the audience. One of the more complicated offerings in terms of structure, Andrian Pertout’s Pi (Obstruction) is a densely textured tribute to Conlon Nancarrow.
Takuji Kwai’s Okura and Dai Fujikura’s Milliampere are the more introspective offerings, with similar less-is-more sensibilities letting reflective pauses and simple melodies make subtle but poignant statements.
What is most convincing about the album is the way in which each composer plays with expectation; sometimes emphasizing conventional associations with the sound of a toy piano, sometimes defying them all together. It is a testament to both the composers' respect for the instrument as well as the performer’s talent that the over-arching effect is to appreciate the album as simply an eclectic playlist of intriguing music.
- Tobin Low
As a performer, Phyllis Chen is a superb pianist and a brilliant advocate for the instrument's downscaled toy sibling; as a composer, she regularly wins our unofficial Honorary George Crumb "What the Hell Was That?" Award for sublime instrumental bafflements—and we mean that very much as a compliment. Here, she celebrates the arrival of Little Things, a fresh and striking CD on the New Focus label. That?" Award for sublime instrumental bafflements—and we mean that very much as a compliment. Here, she celebrates the arrival of Little Things, a fresh and striking CD on the New Focus label.
- Steve Smith
At the top of the pile was Little Things featuring the toy piano talents of Phyllis Chen. While of miniaturized stature, the instrument’s impact under Chen’s fingers is full-sized; any misapprehension that this music is simply a novelty exercise on a child’s plaything is quickly curbed. The disc’s seven compositions—some concentrating on the instrument alone, others incorporating electronics, recorded vocals, and/or additional percussive sounds—span a compelling range of sonic worlds that dazzle with their creative use of the toy piano’s unique timbre, the distinctly audible key strokes, and variously employed extended techniques. While often playful, to my ears each piece avoided any coy winks at cuteness that the instrument might encourage. Angélica Negrón’s The Little Things, with its expanded palette of additional instruments and electronics, is a particular disc stand out.
- Molly Sheridan
The first time I heard pianist Phyllis Chen a few years ago, she convinced me of the toy piano's potential as a serious instrument, and with her most recent album, The Little Things (New Focus), she demonstrates just how broad that potential is.
In addition to being a virtuoso on toy piano, Chen has arguably become its most fervent advocate. Since 2007 she's organized the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition (the title is a nod to John Cage, a key early advocate via his 1948 work "Suite for Toy Piano"), and the project has generated an impressively broad and growing literature for the instrument. More recently she's presented annual festivals to perform those works live in New York, where she lives.
The Little Things covers lots of ground, including the collision of toy piano and clock chimes in the somber Nathan Davis piece Mechanics of Escapement and the austere, almost brutal machinations of Karlheiz Essl's "Whatever Shall Be." The work that gives the album its title—today's 12 O'Clock Track—is one of my favorites, a shape-shifting and whimsical work by young New York-based Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón (who made her name as a member of arty electro-pop band Balún). Chen is credited with "toy instruments and live electronics," and I can hear melodica, toy piano, electronic tones, drifting voices, and all manner of electronic processing that smears, pixellates, and stacks prerecorded sounds. It's streaming after the jump.
- Peter Margasak