Piano vs. toy piano…the discourse (yet again)

phyllisAs many of you might know, after spending twenty years on the piano, I found the toy piano much later in life and  it has become my instrument of choice. One thing that frustrates me is the amount of skepticism that I am greeted with in disclosing this passion of mine. I have fallen in love with the world of the toy piano for reasons as hard to describe as why people fall in love with music or another human being. I have often been misunderstood as someone who has picked up the toy piano to “diversify” myself as a classical musician and to boost my “image.” Well, let me tell you something– a toy piano really doesn’t seem like the kind of thing someone ought to do to boost their classical “image.” If anything, it probably makes you look weird and maybe even a little bit creepy. People think “there has to be something that makes you look different.” My advice is buy new clothes. Get a mohawk. Get some unconventional piercings or a tattoo. But why would I dedicate so much of my time developing repertoire for the instrument, writing for it, looking for new music for it if I didn’t sincerely believe in it? I have found the instrument to be truly beautiful and legitimate on its own and the need to prove myself as a classical pianist “first”  takes away from the revelation of the toy piano. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy playing piano anymore, but it does mean that I think the toy piano can stand alone as an instrument and I hope that minds aren’t made until it is seen in concert!

Truthful Enthusiasm

Last month, I was contacted by Matt Cunningham about doing a short video for his blog, Truthful Enthusiasm. He did a great 4-5 minute clip on my work on the toy piano and experimental music. We filmed it at the PianoForte Foundation where I was performing the following evening for the Experimental Piano Series with my friend, Alex Peh. Truthful Enthusiasm  is a great blog covering art events in the Chicago area…definitely worth following!

Sounding Off ends at LPR

sotAfter being on the road for nearly two weeks, Johannes and I finished our tour at Le Poisson Rouge (NYC) last night. The crowd was really amazing and the venue was perfect for the work that we did on Stockhausen’s Tierkreis. For this concert, we incorporated re-conceptualized images of the zodiac signs (made by Rob Dietz) as we performed. While on the road we have tried presenting our rendition of the Tierkreis in a number of different ways. Most of the time we would perform them in either sets of two or three and explain a little bit about them beforehand. I thought yesterday’s take on the piece was the most successful because it allowed us to link together all the signs through images and it saved the interruption of speaking/explaining between signs.  I hope that this provided a live aural experience that transported the audience to many different sound worlds.

While on the road, we got a lot of different feedback for the Tierkreis. Though not all of it was positive, I really appreciated the fact that most people haven’t made up their minds about this music. In playing new music there is always first time listeners and that dynamic makes the performance feel more alive. The idea of fulfilling an expectation is an odd one when it comes to playing new music because hopefully there is less formulaic ideas of what to expect!

Though Stockhausen can hardly be considered new music anymore, the Tierkreis are a very special set of pieces because they are open arrangements for any number of players and instruments. Every production of this piece is different depending on what the performers bring to the piece. It took us awhile to figure out what general aesthetic we wanted to have for our version, but I think we eventually found something that was found sound-based and a lot more improvised. Thanks to these set of pieces, Johannes and I were able to meet somewhere with our odd instrumentation (electric cello and toy piano) and create something that is unique to our musical output. With loose forms for each sign, I felt that we were sculpting sound live in concert. The concert will be streamed on Q2 WQXR so stay tuned!

Workshop for Theatre For One

theatreboothA couple of weeks ago, set designer Christine Jones asked me if I would be interested in experimenting and collaborating on one of her projects, Theatre For One.  Inspired by peepshow booths and confessionals, Christine had the idea of building a unique black box theater for one performer and one audience member. The idea sounded unbelievably fascinating to me and really brought a new way of looking at performance. The closeness of the audience and performer seem like the perfect world for the toy piano. I have often thought that being close to the instrument is the best way to experience it.

Last Thursday, Theatre For One had an Open House at the Voorhees Theater located  at City Tech College (Brooklyn.) Getting into the booth for the first time was absolutely thrilling–the toy piano was just small enough to fit into the stage of the booth  and it has  had theater gear such as house lights, PA, velvet curtains  and everything else that we associate with a full-sized theater. I did not exactly know what to expect performing for one person at a time in such an intimate space. Christine described the first time she saw a magician perform a magic trick for her  one-on-one and how she felt “an instantaneous crush on the magician who had just pulled my nine of hearts out of his mouth. Experiencing the private version of a normally public act was intoxicating.” I found myself having a similar feeling as the performer towards the one audience member in the booth.  I was really drawn to each listener and each performance felt completely unique and different, depending on who was in the booth with me. Unlike the more conventional concert setting, there was always a specific person to play for.

The booth is scheduled to be up in Time Square for 10 days in May 2010 through the NYC Public Arts Fund. I will be one of many artists performing in booths ranging from dancers, poets, musicians, actors to magicians. Please take some time to check out Christine’s site and read up about Theatre For One. It is truly a touching and inspiring  artistic project!

phyllis_booth1 Pictures by John Huntington. This is a picture of looking into the booth through one of the vents.

Toy Piano In a Short Documentary

postcard_front_sm-copy-1I am honored and happy to be in a short documentary film about Chicago-based ensembles that use new media in their performances. In February, I performed a solo toy piano set as part of the ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) series at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. A short clip from this performance is used by filmmakers Mary Mazurek and Zaine Magee at the 2009 Chicago International REEL Shorts Festival playing on September 12 (2:30 PM) at the Film Row Cinema, 1104 South Wabash 8th Floor.