5 Question to Phyllis Chen (UnCaged Toy Piano Festival)

Phyllis Chen is a pianist, toy pianist, composer, educator, curator, and founder/director of the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. Chen founded UnCaged Toy Piano in 2007 to encourage new music for the instrument, and since its inception, she has received over 200 new toy piano pieces from composers around the globe. Now in its ninth season, UnCaged Toy Piano 2017 takes place on December 8-14 and has joined forces with the Conlon Foundation (NL) in search of new works for Robot Toy Piano. We last caught up with her about the festival in 2013, so we checked back in with her to see what’s new and what has changed.

This year’s festival features an open participation call for anybody to perform Terry Riley’s In C. Can you talk about how this will work for interested attendees?

I am very excited that the all-inclusive performance of Riley’s In C is kicking off the whole festival.  I feel the times really call for us to stay connected to our communities and also to invite and include others outside of our tightly-knit groups to be a part of what we do. This piece has always created a communal experience for me. For this event, I am working with one of the UnCaged artists, Adam Tendler, to organize the participants. Aside from the online practice clips (courtesy Adam) that folks can use to learn and practice the motifs, all participants are asked to arrive one hour early where we will make bigger decisions in the piece such as stopping/starting, registration possibilities on our toys, and organizing ourselves in the space so that people familiar with the piece will be evenly dispersed. I have quite an arsenal of toy instruments at home, from toy pianos, toy glockenspiels, toy bells and small percussion instruments, so there are also toy instruments provided for those who want to participate but don’t have a toy instrument to use. For those who are not interested in playing the motifs, they are invited to be part of the eighth-note rhythm section, playing small toy percussion instruments to keep the pulse. All of these details are prepared ahead of time depending on the information the participants provide in their answers for the sign-up form.

What are some of the other highlights you’d like to share about the festival this year?

The whole inspiration for this year’s festival came from the Robot Toy Piano that was created by my collaborator Ranjit Bhatnagar. What was once a smashed Piano Lodeon was reconstructed by him as a robot toy piano, and this instrument became the centerpiece for the 2017 competition, therefore the inspiration for this year’s festival. The Robot Toy Piano is featured in numerous pieces throughout the festival, sometimes solo, sometimes in combination with other toy robot instruments. Everything that is programmed outside of In C showcases robot and mechanical toy instruments.

It’s hard to point out highlights as I think everything is really exciting.  On the same night as In C, there will be a mechanical toy instrument installation (in the same building) by Nick Yulman.The closing night of the festival will feature the winning works from the 2017 UnCaged::Conlon Keyboard Prize, Hello World by Anne Veinberg and Felipe Noriega. This work features their “codeklavier” where Anne plays the Disklavier and each note on the piano corresponds with an alphabetical letter, therefore using the piano as a live-coding device. The code is then played by the robot toy piano…pretty wild and fun! And I’m excited that the two of them are traveling from the Netherlands to perform it themselves.

Another highlight from this year is a collaboration with the fifth grade Robotics class of Ethical Culture School in Manhattan. After I launched the program with them, the robotics and music teachers have worked with the students to create a robot music ensemble using Lego Mindstorms. Short works have been composed by several SUNY New Paltz students, so this project has really been a collaboration between UnCaged-Ethical Culture School-SUNY New Paltz. What they’ve created is very whimsical, inventive, and a breath of fresh air.

I also want to mention Dan Jodocy, an instrument-maker in Brooklyn that builds beautiful musical suitcases with automated sound-making machines inside of them. And finally, there will be a performance of Cage’s Amplified Toy Pianos, one of his mysterious graphic scores that will be deciphered by Adam Tender, Tristan McKay, and myself.

The UnCaged Competition is now in its ninth season. Can you share a little about your experiences hosting this annual competition has been like?

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been doing this for nine years! What first started as an initiative to have more toy piano music for me to perform has turned into a much more elaborate festival. Now I am less interested in performing but really interested in collaborations and creating a community from this common interest. I don’t feel that my focus is “the toy piano” so much anymore, but the possibilities that come from using something like the toy piano as an instrument. Each year the theme has changed, inviting composers to think about the toy piano in a different context. This year, UnCaged collaborated with the Conlon Foundation in the Netherlands for a joint call for submissions as they are a collective focused on MIDI instruments. In nine years, I’ve only once put out a call for solo toy piano works, as I find the instrument has a lot of possibilities with other media/instruments.

The last time I CARE IF YOU LISTEN caught up with you about UnCaged was before the 2013 festival. Have you noticed any differences in the way that musicians approach the toy piano since then?

Toy pianos are used all over the place. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a set trend in how the toy piano is being used, but instead I see that people are much more open to exploring the toy piano. In my 15 years performing on the instrument, there are always people who approach me after concerts and tell me other potential ways the toy piano could be used creatively. I think it really sparks peoples’ imagination.

Phyllis Chen

How have the festival and competition affected the way you approach the instrument?

Through the years, there’s been a lot of dialogue with composers, usually starting with the question, “what else can we do with this instrument?” This has led composers to really unique places, including altering the instrument, custom-built devices inside the instrument, extended techniques, or using it alongside other self-fabricated elements (i.e. totem harp by Tony Marasco in 2013, flower garden by John Glover, to name a few.) What I love about the toy piano is that it’s cheap—if it was something precious we’d be much more cautious about hacking away at it. All in all, it is a place of experimentation. What I’ve really taken away from all of these experiences is that the toy piano is made of simple materials—how do you want to use these materials and what are their natural properties?

It has also created more opportunity for collaboration. Aside from the Ethical Culture School, a few years back I collaborated with Danny Clay to create Five Pieces, an audio-visual work he made with his elementary school students. In these collaborations that involve kids, I’ve found that the toy piano becomes a springboard for kids to think about/ hear sound differently. This is really exciting to me and it continues to refresh my perspective on the instrument.