Phyllis is a pianist, toy pianist and composer whose musical interests have led in numerous directions as a soloist and collaborative artist. Described as “a dazzling performer who wrings novel sounds from the humble toy piano,”(NY Times) and “a bold pianist with an excellent sense of color” (LA Times), Phyllis has performed in a large variety of contexts in the US and abroad.
As a composer, her music has been described as “spellbinding” (NY Times) and “mesmerizing” (Chicago Reader), focusing on the use of toy pianos and miniature objects. Phyllis started playing the piano at the age of five and came across the toy piano as an adult. Immediately she fell in love with it and felt a need to explore its possibilities. Being an instrument bound to no history or set ideas on how it should be played, the toy piano became her grounds for sonic exploration. Unlike the piano, the unrefined but beautiful tone of the instrument captured an ever-changing quality that has inspired Phyllis to use it in a variety of solo, chamber and multimedia works. She has created several original multimedia works (The Memoirist, The Slumber Thief and Down The Rabbit-Hole) in collaboration with her partner and video artist, Rob Dietz. One of her latest large-scale solo multimedia works, Lighting The Dark, uses a variety of keyboards (two toy pianos, clavichord, accordion, Casio SK1) along with custom-made music boxes and projection. The work was described by the New York Times 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.”
She has received commissions by ensembles and organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), A Far Cry, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Mt. Holyoke Choir, Opera Cabal Opera SHOP, Singapore International Festival of the Arts and the Roulette-Jerome Commission. She has received grants from New Music USA, Foundation for the Contemporary Arts, NYSCA (via Concert Artists Guild and Look & Listen Festival) and Fromm Foundation.
Phyllis is one of the composers for the one-woman play, The Other Mozart about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s forgotten sister Nannerl, performed and written by Sylvia Milo. She and co-composer/sound designer Nathan Davis, received the New York Innovative Theatre Award for “Best Original Music in a Play” in 2015. The play has had several runs in New York and is continuing to be performed around the US and Europe.
In 2007, Phyllis founded the UnCaged Toy Piano to encourage new music for the instrument. Since its inception, she has received over 200 new toy piano pieces from composers around the globe. In 2011, Phyllis launched the first biennial UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, a three day festival featuring new works for toy piano and a variety of toy piano performers. Each year the festival has been greeted with great enthusiasm, with audience members crossing state borders and oceans to attend. For this upcoming season, UnCaged Toy Piano joins forces with the Conlon Foundation (NL) in search of new works for Robot Toy Piano. The winning pieces will be presented as part of Gaudeamus Muziekwiek (September 2017) and the 4th UnCaged Toy Piano Festival in NYC (December 2017.)
Her unusual musical interests gained attention when she won the 2007 Concert Artists Guild Competition and awarded the New Music/New Places Fellow. Since then, she has performed the toy piano in concert halls, museums, public art spaces, theaters and just about anywhere. Phyllis is one of the founding members of ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, based in New York City. Her latest album, “On The Nature of Thingness” (Starkland) a collaborative album with ICE featuring the chamber works of Phyllis and ICE composer/percussionist Nathan Davis, was awarded the 2016 Independent Music Award for Best Contemporary Classical Music Album.
Phyllis has released five albums, three solo albums on such labels as Concert Artists Guild, cerumenspoon, New Focus Recordings and a fourth collaborative album with Cuddle Magic on fyo records. Phyllis went to Oberlin Conservatory (BM), Northwestern University (MM) and Indiana University (DMA) and currently resides in Astoria, New York.
“…she raised the bar for delightful quirkiness matched with interpretive sensitivity.” —New York Times
“…dazzling delight…” —LA Times
“As a performer, Phyllis 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.” —Time Out New York
“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.” –New York Times (on Lighting The Dark)
“Phyllis Chen, the show’s sole instrumentalist…achieves dazzling effects with pianos both standard-sized and shrunken.” —Financial Times
“…her captivating performance was animated by unbridled inventiveness, the kind of joyous creativity that playing with toys is meant to inspire.” —The Oregonian
“music world that simultaneously haunts and inspires…handsomely crafted…” —Time Out Chicago
“…Chen’s madcap music was just right…” —LA Times
“Chen’s combination of playfulness, discipline and an unerring ear in mixing strange sonorities made (it) a captivating work.” —Washington Post