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.
Described by The New York Times as “spellbinding” and “delightfully quirky matched with interpretive sensitivity,” Phyllis Chen (2022 Guggenheim Fellow, 2019 Cage-Cunningham Fellow) is a composer, pianist and sound artist whose music draws from her tactile exploration of object and sound.
Phyllis started playing the piano at the age of five and came across the toy piano as an adult. As a pianist, she immediately fell in love with the instrument’s possibilities. Being bound to no history, the toy piano became her grounds to develop her personal voice, one that reflects her third culture kid experience. The unrefined and raw tone of the instrument inspired Phyllis to create very personal miniature theater works (The Memoirist, The Slumber Thief and Down The Rabbit-Hole) in collaboration with her partner and video artist, Rob Dietz. One of her interdisciplinary solo works, Lighting The Dark, was described by NYT as “by turns poignant, humorous and virtuosic, Chen’s performance offered a slyly subversive take on issues relating to femininity, technology and power…the looping, spellbinding music…became a fitting tribute to the modest, repetitive, yet quietly heroic work of women.”
Phyllis has received commissions by ensembles and organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble, A Far Cry, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Claire Chase’s Density 2036, Opera Cabal’s Opera Shop, Singapore International Festival of the Arts, the Roulette-Jerome, Look & Listen Festival, Jacob Greenberg, and others. She has received grants from New Music USA, Foundation for the Contemporary Arts, NYSCA (via Concert Artists Guild and Look & Listen Festival), Fromm Foundation and the Pew Heritage Trust via Christ Church of Philadelphia.
Phyllis has released five albums, three solo albums (Concert Artists Guild, cerumenspoon, New Focus Recordings) and a fourth collaborative album with Indie-band Cuddle Magic on FYO records.
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