The Kawai Toy Piano

takujiLast month, Rob and I visited Tokyo during our month-long trip to Asia. We were very lucky to meet Takuji Kawai, a Japanese pianist/toypianist/composer/improviser who arranged two concerts for us at the Flying Teapot. I was really excited about meeting another toy pianist. We decided to split both concerts with a 25-minute solo set from both of us, followed by improvisations on toy pianos. Takuji was inspired by the idea of having two toy pianists on the same concert, so he wrote a piece for two toy pianos entitled “Cromlech.” I was also thrilled when my toy pianist/composer friend David Smooke also agreed to write a brand-new two toy piano piece, “Toy With Me.”

Takuji told me that toy pianos are not so rare in Japanese pop music. I found it quite intriguing to perform for an audience that has some musical association with the toy piano. I was surprised to see his instrument; It is a two-and-a-half octave Kawai toy piano. The keys on his toy piano are slimmer and shorter than the Jaymar and Schoenhuts that I own. The sound of the instrument was quite different too– the rods inside the toy piano are hollow, so the sound is a bit warmer and less brittle. The instrument is also “in tune” so it displayed a celeste-like quality to it. It was the first time I performed on toy piano and felt like my instrument was the biggest one in the room!

The two concerts were a very memorable experience for us. I really loved Takuji’s solo toy piano pieces. I found his point of view to be beautifully introverted, lyrical, and quite conceptual. The live improvisations were extremely engaging for me on both nights, since I do not do this on a regular basis. My next two blog entries will be about this experience and also the new duo toy piano pieces written for the occasion.

Ecole Café in Taipei

I am excited about my upcoming concerts in Taipei and Tokyo this month. I heard about Ecole Café from a Taiwan University student as a potential venue for a toy piano concert while I am visiting. I was surprised to see the quaint venue located close to Daan Park in the middle of Taipei City, right in my parents’ neighborhood. The curator of the venue, Taven, has done a wonderful job bringing unique local musical acts and films to the venue for the last couple of years. She responded to my request for hosting a toy piano show that will take place this coming Monday, March 15 at 4pm.

I am rather ignorant to the contemporary art and music scene going on in Taipei. Taven is so thrilled that there will be a toy piano performance here. I guess it is something that doesn’t exist at all in this country. From a classical music background, it is apparently rare (or unheard of) to see someone that “crosses over” to something less traditional. I was encouraged to hear that there is now a developing art/music scene that has never existed in Taipei city before.

The café is beautifully decorated with interesting antique furniture and a good collection of art magazines, postcards and Asian toys/gadgets. I also have never seen a row of theater seats in a café. We went down a spiraling staircase to see the basement where all of the performances take place. There was a really interesting art exhibit by a Taiwanese artist, Mia Liu. There is also a velvet curtain that drapes over a nice view of a small rock garden. I feel very lucky to be performing in such a unique and eccentric space. Thanks to Taven, I will have the opportunity to present the toy piano to a group of people in Taipei.

The Mechanics of Escapement for toy piano and clock chimes

mechanics_011I heard a lot about  composer/percussionist Nathan Davis before I actually met him a little over a year ago. When Concert Artist Guild informed me that they received funding for the 2007 winners to commission a new work, I thought of Nathan instantly.

The toy piano is often thought of as a percussion instrument. I thought it would be interesting to get a percussionist’s influence on the toy piano. Four months after our initial meeting, Nathan presented me the score of “Mechanics of Escapement.” Just by looking at the score, I was so touched and impressed by what he had written; You can always tell when a composer had been thoughtful in his/her writing.

Nathan had borrowed one of my 2-octave Schoenhut pianos for those months he was composing. The piece was written specifically for that piano. He brought out the mechanical nature of the instrument with the sounds of the plastic keys lifting, and he also highlighted the melodic nature of the instrument with certain notes that have a beautiful ring.

I knew that he had been thinking about incorporating  a clock chime(the insides of a grandfather clock), but I had no idea that Nathan was going to commit himself to weeks of sleepless nights inventing a new instrument for me to play along with the toy piano. The clock chime instrument is made of long metal rods, therefore lower in pitch. Most of the rods are struck by a small chime hammer and others are bowed to create the higher harmonics. He had essentially built a bass toy piano. For several weeks, Nathan was ordering parts (such as a variety of springs, bolts and the hammers of a grandfather clock) and building an instrument with the help of his neighbor Jonathan Roche, who does a lot of woodwork. The two of them would start at 1am and work until 10 in the morning, crafting the most playable and beautiful grandfather clock/bass toy piano instrument.

I had been practicing the new piece with my toy piano and clock chimes until two night before the official debut, when Nathan showed up at my apartment with a bag of medium wooden boxes, each with one chime inside of them. All of a sudden he started to set up  these boxes  in the air (with mic stands) all around my apartment. I felt that each of these boxes were their own being inside of my home. He had built an installation with surround-sound chimes. I was stunned, curious and mystified all at the same time.

Just to clarify, the piece is for toy piano, clock chimes, and five wooden single chimes placed around the performance space. The single chimes are played by connecting the hammer mechanism to a piece of string that I am able to pull from the stage. I can honestly say that I gained a new perspective of the toy piano in his writing. I have always been an advocate of the toy piano as a serious musical instrument, but with this new piece, Nathan brought it to a new level. There really are no good words to describe the piece, but you can view it now on my “Look” page.

New lives with Bach

When I got to Symphony Space on Thursday afternoon to set up for my  NY debut concert, I got a text message from my brother telling me that he and his pregnant wife were on their way to the hospital to deliver their second baby! I was overwhelmed with joy and couldn’t help but to feel that I have such strange karma with their children.  I happened to be visiting Chicago when their first son, Timothy, was born 3 and half weeks earlier than expected. Witnessing a live birth was a life-changing experience for me that has deeply changed the way I feel about the mysterious phenomenon.

I remember after Timothy was born, the first thing I played for him on the piano was the Sarabande from Bach’s 4th Partita. I was so inspired; knowing that this would be the first piece of live music his  young ears would ever hear. Ever since then, I have thought of TImothy every time I played the Sarabande.

The 4th Partita has been living in my fingers for over five years. Since it is such a long partita, I have worked on it off and on, shelving it from time to time depending on other projects. A couple years ago, I developed tendinitis and the Partita became a rehabilitative piece for me to play(though there are parts that are very athletic.) It has  a very special place in my life because it is the only piece of music that went through the “recovery” of my injury with me.

Two days ago, when I walked on stage to perform the Bach Partita for my NY debut, I knew this would be the last time for awhile. Right before I played the Sarabande, I thought of TImothy and was overwhelmed with the feeling that there is now yet another life out there that I don’t know yet, but that will soon be a very significant part of my life. Baby Anna was born during my performance on Thursday.

The concert was over all a wonderful experience for me. Nathan’s new toy piano piece, “The Mechanics of Escapement” was absolutely amazing. Please check back in a few days; my next post will be about it.

Nothing Is Real

My NY debut is coming up in less than two weeks. I will be playing a mix of piano and toy piano pieces at the Thalia Symphony Space. The last piece on the program is Alvin Lucier’s “Nothing Is Real” for piano, teapot and miniature sound system. The pianist plays and records melodic fragments from The Beatles’ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever” on stage and then plays back his/her own recording of it on a miniature speaker glued to the inside of a teapot. Lucier has notated/choreographed the raising and lowering of the teapot lid to expose different overtones. It also creates a kind of “wah” pedal effect.

Rob and I spent an entire day this weekend soldering and unsoldering a bunch of miniature speakers that could fit inside of a teapot. Miniature speakers are everywhereold cassette walkmans, computer speakers, projectors… we even took a speaker from one of those greeting cards that plays music when you open it. We also got several teapots. At last, we settled on an old Chinese ceramic teapot I got from Taiwan awhile ago. The material of the teapot changes the sound of the playback recording because the inside of the teapot becomes the environment and resonating chamber. I am looking forward to performing it next week!