Phyllis is a pianist, toy pianist and composer who’s 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/instruments to distill and express the many (bigger/smaller) things in life.
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. In 2007, Phyllis started the UnCaged Toy Piano to encourage composers to write new music for the instrument. Since its inception, the call has received over 200 toy piano pieces from around the globe. In 2011, Phyllis launched the first Bienniel UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, a three day extravaganza featuring new works for toy piano and a roster of performers. The festival was greeted with enthusiasm, inspiring audience members to cross state borders and oceans to attend. The 2015 festival programming is underway. (Please check the UnCaged Toy Piano website for more details.)
Spending so much time with the instrument, Phyllis naturally started composing, often using it in collaboration with her partner and video artist, Rob Dietz, to create miniature theatrical works such as The Memoirist, The Slumber Thief and Down The Rabbit-Hole. Her pieces gradually gained the attention of others, leading to commissions by ensembles and organizations such as the ICElab Series, the Boston-based string ensemble A Far Cry, Baryshnikov Center, Mt. Holyoke Choir, Opera Cabal 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. She is currently working on a new work for Margaret Leng Tan commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of the Arts and a chamber work for string quartet and toy piano for Jack Quartet, scheduled to be premiered at the Look & Listen Festival in May 2016. She 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. The play has had several runs in New York and is continuing to be performed around the US and Europe.
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. In 2016, Phyllis will be premiering a new work for solo toy piano by the Japanese composer, Jo Kondo as well as a new multimedia piece, Snow, composed by John Glover with puppets and film created by Jordan Morley. The piece will be premiered in January 2016 at the Invisible Dog (Brooklyn) at the end of a one-week residency and brought to the Detroit Institute for the Arts for its Midwest premiere in March.
Phyllis is one of the founding members of ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, based in New York City. The ensemble performed her chamber works for toy piano and small ensemble at the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC. ICE will be releasing a joint recording of Phyllis’s chamber works with ICE composer/percussionist Nathan Davis on Starkland Records.
Phyllis has released four 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