5 Questions to Elizabeth A. Baker (Florida International Toy Piano Festival)

Self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker is, among many other things, co-founder and Festival Director of the Florida International Toy Piano Festival. The second annual festival will be presented January 5-8, 2017, in her home town of St. Petersburg, Florida. When toy piano is the subject, we need to know more.

How have you come to refer to yourself as a New Renaissance Artist?

I made the decision to henceforth refer to myself as a New Renaissance Artist because of the freedom it gives me from the sonic and visual expectations that come with the traditional labels of “composer” or “concert pianist” or “engineer.” From a purely utilitarian view it also created a practical way to sum up all the aspects of my present and future practice without a seemingly never-ending list of roles. 

What can we expect from the upcoming Florida International Toy Piano Festival?

2017 will mark the second year for the Florida International Toy Piano Festival. In 2015 when my duo partner and festival co-founder Robert Fleitz first started collaborating with each other, we quickly realized that we were an amazing team. Robert has an incredible talent in the realm of interpreting very difficult and rhythmically advanced repertoire, while I tend to excel with works that incorporate interactive electronics, nonstandard notation, and improvisation. Our combined strengths and understandings of the varied aesthetic landscapes of current composition, makes for a powerhouse team that is able to present a festival which represents an accurate cross-section of how the global musical world is presently approaching this tiny instrument in a big way.

Many of the concerts on the festival will employ fairly traditional presentation, featuring guest performers pianist Amy O’Dell, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Mandy Milliot, Erich Barganier on mandolin and electronics, and dancer/choreographer Helen Hansen French. But my concert on Friday, January 6th at Bloom Art Center, will be a complete feast for the senses. I will be working with local visual artists as well as creating an interactive electronic work with Erich Bargainer’s live coding that will not only produce sounds for an improvised duet with toy piano but, additionally, manipulate government archival film footage projected into the space.

Another huge component of this year’s festival is our community outreach program involving the Pinellas County Schools. K-through-12 students will perform with Robert and me in various ensembles on the first two concerts of the festival at the Pinellas Park Performing Arts Center. This opportunity teaches youngsters how to prepare original compositions  (written by professional composer Olivia Kieffer and University of South Florida students Logan Barrett and Katlyn Lamppert) for performance.

What more is going on with The New Music Conflagration?

The New Music Conflagration, Inc., is the nonprofit organization I co-founded in St. Petersburg with Fofi Panagiotouros to fulfill the need for curated concerts and educational events of contemporary concert music. It is the official presenter of the toy piano festival. The NMC presents works in accessible venues for patrons from the lowest economic sector to the very wealthy. Works are presented in context without pretense, which makes our events welcoming to patrons who have often never set foot in a formal concert hall. Robert, Fofi, and I firmly believe that access to great performances and education about living artists should not be limited to those who can afford it and that cultural exchange is necessary at all levels of our community. In the last year, The NMC has begun a wonderful partnership with the St. Pete Dance Alliance which has afforded us more opportunities to present new music in our community. Most recently the Alliance and the NMC collaborated on a walking dance tour in downtown St. Petersburg, featuring original site-specific works.

What other work are you touring and developing?

My practice is always morphing as I continually grow as an artist. My work with choreographer Helen Hansen French and recent acceptance of a position on the board of directors for Rouge Dance company, inspired me to embrace my formal training as a dancer to hone a new music performance practice that uses multiple layers of expression in sound, visual, and movement to fluidly portrait character stories and ideas. The most important aspect of this new practice is that every movement has physiological follow-through and an intention that encompasses the body and soul. Among my works in development are projects involving extensive mapping of dancers’ bodies to translate their movements into synthesized sound that manipulates video, and creating works for multiple dancers that harken to the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo. Beyond movement work, I have a number of duo projects in the works featuring my setup with toy piano, electronics, and harmonium including works with Thomas Milovac on upright bass, Victor Pons on electronics and percussion, Mandy Millot on cello, and multi-instrumentalist Erich Barganier.

What is the focus of your recent book on toy piano methodology?

Toyager is not just a method book and it provides a lot of valuable information that can be applied to the traditional piano as well as other instruments. When I started crafting the book, I thought a lot about what I felt other method books were missing and sought to combine all the areas that are important to becoming musically proficient. Music history, theory, practice techniques, science, as well as tactics for improvisation are there alongside playing methodology. The book is based a lot on Abby Whiteside’s techniques of fundamental rhythm and the ideas that one has to fully understand the anatomical limitations of the body and the physical limitations of one’s instrument in order to become a true artist or even a hobbyist with a true appreciation for masterful performance.


December 31, 2016: Elizabeth A. Baker – Creating A Toy Piano Method, St. Petersburg, FL

January 5-8, 2017: Florida International Toy Piano Festival , St. Petersburg, FL