Reflections on “performance”

Yesterday, I met up with an old friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) for an early happy hour drink.  I was surprised to hear that he had taken up the interest of writing jokes. The more I spoke to him about his pursuit in being a comic, the more I found it similar to my world in performance, particularly on the toy piano.

The artistry of being a good comic is obviously one that involves more than just good jokes, but also good performance. I asked him if he would ever consider printing these jokes in a book form ( perhaps something like David Sedaris) or writing for an actor, for example. He said that part of it was about getting up on stage and doing it yourself: You have nothing to hide behind and there is not another person/actor that will bear the pain of embarrassment if the jokes fail. It is the truest form, I suppose, of “putting yourself out there.”

The other thing about jokes ( so I’m told) is that the bottom-line goal is laughter–How a comic is doing on stage should be audible by the sounds of the audience. This particular aspect made me think a lot about music performances. I sometimes feel a connection to the audience that feels very alive, but am unsure how it is actually being received. I have played many concerts where the feedback I get afterwards seems completely surprising and nothing like what I thought I experienced. It has taught me that people hear what they want to hear, regardless of what I am doing. Most of the time, our reactions to performances depend solely on what we have experienced in our life that serves as a point of reference. I sometimes wonder, how open are we really to listening to one another?

I have often felt that my music , in some sense, is just a big “inside joke.” It makes sense to the people who know me that have already accepted me into their hearts for one reason or another. Just as some of the best jokes are the ones that are shared among friends, I feel some of the best concerts are also the ones performed by people  that I already have a relationship/point of reference.

All of this reminds me of a quote by John Cage when he was writing the prepared piano piece, Perilous Night. He said, “I had poured a great deal of emotion writing this piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, and thus only speaking for themselves. The whole musical situation struck me more and more as a Tower of Babel.”

my toy piano story (what really happened…)

Many people have asked me how I came to play the toy piano. Contrary to what it might seem,I started playing classical piano at the age of five and found the toy piano when I was 21. I was always interested in exploring new sounds and unconventional piano techniques, but nothing in my piano-playing history has been quite like my journey with the toy piano.

I gave my first toy piano performance in 2001 at the Chicago Humanities Festival and  later in 2003, I performed my first solo toy piano performance in Toronto. Though the concert was only 23-minutes,it was one of the most engaging and fulfilling performances I had.  While I was studying for my doctorate degree at Indiana University, I slowly became injured with the stress of all of my teaching, performing and general anxiety about grad school. I was completely crushed that I had to stop playing piano for almost two years, but I found that window of time to be a much-needed break and re-assessment of my artistic pursuits. Up until then,I knew that there were many other artistic and musical curiosities/interests of mine that were not being fulfilled by playing classical piano.  It seem really natural for me to play the toy piano at that time–it was my only connection to making music during my recovery and it gave me the great feeling of freedom to compose for the instrument. I also reached out to  many composers that had interested me and started building repertoire for the music. I fell in love with the instrument not only for its sound and quirky characteristics, but also for everything that it symbolized for me at this turning point. I feel that when people ask me how I fell in love with the toy piano, they are caught up in a means and not seeing the end: I truly believe that the toy piano has become a vehicle for me to express many things that I could not express on the standard-sized piano. Though many people see it as an instrument with many limitations, I feel  a lack of inhibition and freedom when playing it.

While I was younger, many of my friends could attest to the number of never-fulfilled multimedia pieces that I wanted to create. It’s hard to know exactly why it seemed so impossible, but after my recovery, it became natural for me to  finally pursue my interests and visions in creating multimedia works with the toy piano as my central voice. With so much untapped potential and no set boundaries on how it should sound or be played, I think that there is still a lot of artistic exploration that can happen on the toy piano.  Now that I am no longer injured and performing a lot on both piano and toy piano, I still find the toy piano to be my instrument of choice!

Busking in NY

A couple of nights ago, I decided to go busking at a couple of NYC subway stations on a Friday evening. Rob had a megaphone that we used as a low-quality amplifier that seem to work perfectly for the occasion. Contrary to the PA systems I use for multimedia shows, the megaphone amplification made the toy piano sound tinnier than usual. We started out at the Grand Central stop and then moved to Union Square. This was my first time taking the NYC subway with the intention of spending time in the station. It is an entirely different experience once you are trying to stay there and listen/observe what other music is going on underground. Some people make eye contact, others seem to just play for themselves. Underground, I shared a “venue” with a jazz fusion guitarist, an African xylophone duo and a classical violinist.

How much are people really listening anyways? Even during concert? We hope that people are coming with open ears but most likely they walk into concerts with their days’ thoughts, worries and varied energy levels. What really makes people stop and listen?

I made my way into the subway system for a video piece that Rob has been making. It’s been really interesting to follow him around with his camera looking for buskers. This piece will be made into a video installation at the Baby Grand opening in mid-April. I will write with more details!

Disaster at the 11th hour…

I am now back in New York after a really great trip to London. Our last gig was part of the Limelight series that happens at the 100 Club in London. It was a really busy and bustling area right on Oxford Street. We knew that we were sharing the concert with Jacaranda, an ensemble of principals from the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra, who sport a range of unusual instruments such as the alpenhorn and the didgeridoo. (They were a really fun group!)

After getting all of our gear in place, setting up instruments and electronics, I needed to re-start my computer to open ableton/live software program. Well…basically my computer never was able to find it’s hard drive again right then and there. I kept re-starting my computer and getting an empty grey screen with a question mark on it. It was basically one hour until show time and Jacaranda hadn’t even sound checked yet. I was using my computer in the hotel just minutes before, why was this happening??? I knew that my computer was getting old and it had survived all sorts of odd technical problems for me, but I had a feeling this was its last breath of life.

The people from Limelight told me that there was an apple store a few blocks away so I walked there hoping that one of the people at the Genius Bar could find some sort of solution for me. Like all apple stores, there is a lot of attention to service but I knew that if this store was anything like the one in New York, there would be long lines. And I was right–I got to the genius bar (where someone in a blue shirt sent me) and I was #24 in line. There was no chance of getting this figured out. Finally, I found a young guy working on the floor and told him my situation. He said even though he’s not one of the geniuses , he would try to take a look. When I told him what happened and showed him the empty grey screen he basically said that my computer was unsalvageable. (I have everything backed up on a hard drive at home, but no chance of getting it in such short notice.)

He was a very punky kid with really positive energy, so he started cracking me up by giving me a ridiculous pep talk. I guess that was my therapy for the moment for losing my computer (essentially my brain.) I was reminded of how much information we keep on our computer. It made me feel like I was about to start over again.

I walked back to the venue and Johannes and I made some adjustments to make some portions of our performance possible by running things off of his computer as well. It was unfortunately additional last-minute work for Johannes to cover my sorry situation, but I’m glad that it was more or less OK.

The venue was really great and the turn out was also very friendly. Johannes and I wrapped it up and went our separate ways afterwards. I’m glad that Johannes and I still managed to have a good time given the situation. It was a last-minute surprise but we still pulled through!

Pollock’s Toy Museum in London

I just spent the morning at the Pollock Toy Museum in London, named after  Benjamin Pollock who was a renowned maker of toy theaters in the late 19th century to 20th century. The museum houses a bunch of puppets, dolls, toy theater sets, tin toys, mechanical toys  from different eras and countries. The museum opened in 1956 and each little room/exhibit is threaded together by narrow winding stairs. To my knowledge, there really isn’t anything like this in the US.

There were no toy instruments in the museum, unfortunately, but many old-styled science toys like a praxinoscope, magic lanterns and other precursors to television and animation. Some of the earlier board games from around the world are  a representation of the culture that invented them. For example, there were a variety of “Snakes and ladders” games that are from the Hindu tradition. You can get ahead on a ladder by doing good deeds while you might also slide down the snake and start at a lower level in your next life.   I particularly loved the toy theater sets. So many of these things are made from paper cut-outs and recycled materials. Another really interesting toy “set” idea was made from small match boxes. Some of these matchboxes would pull out and be a miniature two-story house. I saw a Pop-eye board game that was essentially one of those old-fashioned projectors with 35 mm slides that could be hand-held through the projector, kind of like a flip book. It made me think how some of the vintage toys were so much more clever without the use of modern technology because we could still see and experience the mechanical nature of the toy.

It occurred to me that the idea of “toy” is more about “make-believe.” In a way, it is a just a miniature version of life with a completely “imagined” set of rules to follow. There are toys for everything…toy food, toy tea sets, toy weapons(slingshots,beebee guns), toy science instruments, toy people (dolls/puppets) , toy societies (board games)and I play a toy instrument. When viewed by an adult, all of these things are a representation of what we experience in a more symbolic world.  It was interesting–I had trouble finding the museum, so I asked a man who owned a street vendor in that area. He said that he took his kids there and they really didn’t enjoy it. He said it was a waste of my time. To the contrary, I really loved the museum and while wandering through it, I thought the experience would be more poignant for adults than children. I think toys have a really different meaning to us when revisiting them!