Phyllis Chen
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Phyllis Chen

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE

New York City, New York, United States | INDIE
Band Classical Avant-garde


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"Phyllis Chen's toy piano concert at Doug Fir Loung is Seriously Good"

In the hands of Phyllis Chen, the toy piano is no toy, but "serious" isn't the right word to describe her concert at Doug Fir Lounge on Thursday.

She's a serious musician, a classically trained pianist adept in traditional repertoire, and she's dedicated to bringing high technical standards to the tiny version of the instrument. But her captivating performance was animated by unbridled inventiveness, the kind of joyous creativity that playing with toys is meant to inspire.

Stephen Montague's "Mirabella: A Tarantella" and Fabian Svensson's "Toy Toccata" dispelled any notion the toy piano is unworthy of a virtuoso touch; the latter, a furious play of right hand on white keys and left hand on black, was intended precisely to counter the toy piano's image as cute and innocuous. Chen's fingers were fleet and precise, and she made the most of the instrument's limited dynamic range. By contrast, Takuji Kawai's "Prayer" and John Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano," the seminal toy piano piece, highlighted its quirky sound in music of beguiling simplicity.

Electronic augmentation figured into Andrián Pertout's "Exposiciones," with a CD of sampled gamelan sounds accompanying increasingly convoluted chromatic arabesques, and Alvin Lucier's "Nothing Is Real," for grand piano, tape recorder and amplified teapot. An ingeniously simple sound exploration, the Lucier piece introduced fragments of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" on the piano, then repeated them in a recording on a tiny, tinny speaker in a teapot whose lid Chen manipulated like a wah-wah pedal.

The other portion of the program for grand piano, Leos Janácek's "On an Overgrown Path," was a sometimes haunting evocation of childhood, partly inspired by the memory of the death of the composer's daughter. Unmiked, unlike the toy piano pieces, its quieter moments fared least well against the background hubbub of the bar.

Chen closed with two of her own multimedia pieces, devised in collaboration with her partner Rob Dietz, a video artist and electronic musician. Both included video as well as counterpoint for hand-cranked music box and toy piano, and both hinted at childhood recalled: "Into the Rabbit Hole," with imagery from "Alice in Wonderland," and the poignant "Carousel," with carousel video snippets in hand-held home-movie style.

Borrowing from another tradition of club shows, the recital opened with a warm-up act, appropriately featuring another cousin of the piano that gets too little respect. Courtney Von Drehle opened with an all-accordion set including tunes familiar to fans of his band 3 Leg Torso, affecting melodies drawing on a variety of influences and beautifully played. His droll introductions evoked another aspect of childlike creativity, the gleeful blurring of any distinction between reality and whimsical imagination.

-- James McQuillen

- The Oregonian

"Skillet and Egg,but not the Kitchen Sink"

Young musicians are under enormous pressure to program inventively these days, and many do. But Phyllis Chen’s piano recital on Thursday evening at the Thalia Theater at Symphony Space raised the bar for delightful quirkiness matched with interpretive sensitivity.

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Richard Termine for The New York Times
Phyllis Chen playing a toy piano and clock chimes.
Ms. Chen began her program, “Pianos Big and Small,” with repertory that was as standard as could be: Bach’s Keyboard Partita in D, performed on a concert grand. She later returned to the conventional piano, and to the standard repertory (or at least its periphery) with Janacek’s “On an Overgrown Path,” Book 1. But in between she played three works for toy piano. Or, more accurately, three toy pianos, a set of clock chimes, a CD player, a music box, a frying pan and an egg.

The Bach might have seemed out of place in this context, but it established Ms. Chen’s bona fides. This was stylish, beautifully measured playing, lightly pedaled, crisply articulated and texturally transparent.

The Janacek, an emotionally charged series of reminiscences, let her put a more expansive palette on display: here Ms. Chen moved easily between a graceful, sometimes gauzy introspection and a forcefulness that put Janacek’s pain and regret (about the death of his daughter, for example) into high relief.

The toy piano pieces were less substantial and certainly flightier than the Bach and Janacek works, but their sheer peculiarity commanded attention. The first was “Exposiciones,” a 2005 work by Andrián Pertout for a microtonal toy piano and a CD with recorded bell tones and a steady, hollow percussive sound. It begins slowly, with rhythmic and melodic allusions to gamelan music, but gradually becomes a swirl of thick-textured chromatic scale figures.

Nathan Davis’s “Mechanics of Escapement,” commissioned for the occasion by Concert Artists Guild, is an involved exploration of the ringing timbres produced by both the toy piano and a set of bell chimes that Ms. Chen operated by pulling, striking or using a violin bow on them. At its climax it is almost nightmarishly mechanistic, yet that quality quickly evaporates, leaving only simple, slow-moving chimes at the end.

Ms. Chen’s own “Tale” from “The Memoirist” (2007) was the oddest and most entertaining of these pieces. In one segment Ms. Chen adds a toy piano descant to the repeating tune of a music box. Another involves heating an electric frying pan and scrambling an egg between keyboard passages.

Ms. Chen closed her recital at the grand piano, with Alvin Lucier’s “Nothing Is Real,” a deconstruction of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” first played live, then repeated via a recording of the live performance, heard from a small speaker inside a teapot.

- New York Times

"Sounds Heard-UnCaged Toy Piano"

The toy piano has always struck me less as a "toy" or "piano" than a "poor man's celesta." The fragility of its wonderfully dreamy chime-like sonorities is made ever-so-slightly more volatile by the instrument's inevitably imprecise intonation—there isn't always a Bösendorfer-type exactitude for getting the sizes right for those steel plates that the keys strike to produce sound. So in a way it's the ideal new music instrument—portable, magical, and slightly off-kilter.

So it's a bit baffling that, despite the general availability of modern toy pianos since the Philadelphia-based Albert Schoenhut set up his workshop in the 1870s, the earliest composition created especially for the instrument was John Cage's extraordinarily pretty five-movement Suite for Toy Piano from 1948. Imagine what Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, or even Bartók might have done with the instrument! But perhaps more surprising is that despite a few brief cameos in works like George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children in 1980, new music composers would not start writing for the instrument in droves until the 1980s when, prompted by wanting to present the Cage piece, performers opened the door. German composer/pianist Bernd Wiesemann, conceptualist Wendy Mae Chambers (who has subsequently composed a massive spatial work scored for 64 toy pianos), and piano soloist Margaret Leng Tan began performing recitals on the toy piano in which they premiered lots of original pieces that were created specifically for them. And then some extremely inventive indie bands got into the act as well. Remember Pianosaurus, the first-ever all-toy-instrument rock group?

Anyway, by millennium's end there was a small but distinguished canon of toy piano literature and several notable recordings, including discs by Wiesemann, Tan, and yes, Pianosaurus. And a few years into our present millennium, there was even a two-day toy piano festival with concerts and colloquia at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts—academic respectability no less! And now, a brand new disc has been released featuring yet another star toy piano performer, Phyllis Chen. It's out on the recently launched label of the Concert Artists Guild, a nearly 60-year-old organization devoted to discovering, nurturing, and promoting upcoming young virtuosos. The toy piano has finally arrived!

Chen's debut CD, Uncaged Toy Piano, mixes old and new solo pieces and works featuring toy piano in combination with a CD player, a toy boombox (cute), a music box, a frying pan, and bowls. Not quite the kitchen sink, but close enough. John Cage's Suite in this context sounds like standard repertoire, and it's nice to know it has become that. Mirabella a tarantella by London-based American expatriate Stephen Montague and Julia Wolfe's East Broadway (the piece with the toy boombox), both previously performed splendidly on Margaret Leng Tan's Art of the Toy Piano, get equally exciting accounts from Phyllis Chen here. And two more recent works, Kalimba by Austrian Karlheinz Essl and Australian Andrián Pertout's Exposiciones—both of which were selected for presentation at Clark University's festival based on the results of their composition competition—are well served here in their world premiere recordings.

But the real delights for me are the two selections from Chen's own 2007 composition, The Memoirist. There's something to be said for the idiomatic sensitivity of the composer-performer, even one whose instrument is the toy piano. Particularly entrancing is the very appropriately titled Dream in which toy piano and bowls engage in an almost ritualistic sounding dialogue. Given the barely 30-minute duration of the recording, it's somewhat frustrating that only movements one and three are featured on the current disc, but we toy piano junkies will take whatever we can get.
- New Music Box (American Music Centre)

"Phyllis Chen makes Magical Sounds at Gilmore Keyboard Festival"

Phyllis Chen trapped a Steinway in a teapot, and made other magical and whimsical sound creations for her Gilmore Keyboard Festival set at a packed Wellspring Theater Monday afternoon.

In Alvin Lucier’s “Nothing is Real,” based on the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Chen played halting chunks of the familiar melody on the Steinway.
Courtesy Photo
Phyllis Chen

She then played back a recording of what she’d played. It came from a little speaker inside a ceramic tea pot.

She manipulated the pot, raised and lowered the lid, controlling the muffled and tiny sounds.

It was like an unwritten part of “Alice in Wonderland,” where Dormouse snuck into the Mad Tea Party pot to improv on an old psychedelic classic.

Chen works with controlled imperfections. On her main instrument, the toy piano, she hit the keys hard, causing tinny distortions.

Stephen Montague’s “Mirabella” and Andrian Pertout’s “Exposiciones” sounded like intricate and demented music boxes.

John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano,” which uses only nine notes, was much more minimal.

Chen used a full-size prepared piano for Cage’s “The Perilous Night,” deadened piano wires making a haunting sound of percussive “tanks” and “tunks.”

For “Sequitur V” by Karlheinz Essl, Chen ran a cascade of toy piano notes through a laptop, which looped and warped them into shimmering torrent.

Tying “Nothing is Real” for Most Whimsical Moment of the Gilmore was Julia Wolfe’s “East Broadway for toy piano and toy boombox.”

Chen banged out warped popish rhythms as the box put out a distorted but tiny beat — it sounded as if someone had used a shrink ray on a car blasting hip hop on megawatt speakers.
- Michigan Live


UnCaged Toy Piano (2009)
This CD has been played on WNYC (New York), WFMT(Chicago), WFHB (Bloomington, IN), WUSB (Stonybrook, NY) and WBJC (Baltimore)



Praised by the New York Times for her “delightful quirkiness matched with interpretive sensitivity,” Phyllis is a pianist,toy pianist and multimedia artist that performs original multimedia compositions and works by contemporary composers. The Chicago Reader confirms Phyllis has “become one of the world’s leading proponents of the toy piano.” Her artistic pursuits take her in numerous directions as a toy pianist, pianist, composer and multimedia artist, leading to her selection as a New Music/New Places Fellow at the 2007 Concert Artist Guild International Competition.
Playing an instrument that has no set boundaries or genres, Phyllis has been invited to perform at a large variety of festivals,concerts,clubs and (non)traditional venues. This past Fall, Phyllis made her toy piano debut at several world music festivals, including the Chicago World Music Festival and Lotus World Music Festival. This Spring, she will be making appearances at several distinguished keyboard festivals including the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival and Portland Piano International. Phyllis is currently involved with "Theatre For One," a portable performance space for one performer and one audience member, making public events into private acts. The theatre will be in Time Square from May 14-23rd. Other recent concerts have included King's Place(London), Le Poisson Rouge (NYC), Amnesia Bar (San Francisco) ,Anthropology (San Diego) Flying Teapot (Tokyo), and Ecole (Taipei).

Phyllis founded the UnCaged Toy Piano, a composition competition to further expand the repertoire for toy piano and electronics. The competition has received works from composers all around the world and these compositions become an integral part of her repertoire. As a composer,Phyllis has created several interdisciplinary works in collaboration with video artist and electronic musician Rob Dietz. The duo has created multimedia works such as The Memoirist, Pearlessence, Chroma and Carousel. The two of them are interested in co-creating new works that rethink the idea of live art and performance using music and visuals.

Recently, Phyllis was the featured solo musician for the world premiere of Stephin Merritt’s Off-Broadway production, Coraline in May 2009 at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City. In this unique on-stage performance, Phyllis was the show’s sole instrumentalist. She was praised for her "dazzling" (Financial Times) and "impressive" (New York Times) performance as a multi-keyboardist, big and small. Other recent premieres include a commissioned work by American composer/percussionist Nathan Davis for toy piano and clock chimes premiered at Symphony Space as part of the Concert Artist Guild New Music/New Places Series. In May 2010, Phyllis will be premiering a new work “Whatever Shall Be” for toy piano, MAX/MSP, music box, gadgets and quadrophonic sound set-up by Austrian composer, Karlheinz Essl. The work will be premiered as part of the Look & Listen Festival in New York City.

To find out more about how Phyllis fell in love with the toy piano, please visit her website at