Coraline (the musical) is now showing

Tonight was our first run-through of Coraline the musical at the Lucille Lortel Theater.  I have felt extremely lucky and excited to be part of this incredibly unique project. The music is written by the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt (from the Magnetic Fields) and everything is scored for solo musician. I am playing toy pianos, prepared piano and regular “adult” piano throughout the entire show. This is a project that was apparently in the making for over seven years between Stephin, Neil Gaiman (author),  David Greenspan (bookwright) and Leigh Silverman (director).  I joined the team about a year ago when I came to New York to explore prepared piano sounds with Stephin. I can still remember some of the odd noises we seem to be able to create by cramming a lot of  junk into an upright piano. The “finished” prepared piano has evolved quite a lot since then–in fact, 69 out of the 88 keys of the piano have some sort of preparation on it. The timbre of the piano is altered by using screws, bolts, erasers, rubber bands, playing cards, jingle bells, banana clips, pennies, pipe cleaner, a knitting needle and other found objects. The amount of detail in this show is a bit overwhelming, but I believe it to be a truly magical piece of work. Please come see it at the Lucille Lortel Theater (Bedford/Christopher St.) in the West Village! Previews start tomorrow and our official opening is June 1st.

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.

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.

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!

Chroma part 2

I apologize for the long break in my blogging. The UnCaged Toy Piano concert had such a great first year. Chris Henry is absolutely wonderful for allowing us to use his beautiful space so freely. I felt so happy and satisifed with the new pieces I performed this year.

I apologize for the long break in my blogging. The UnCaged Toy Piano concert had such a great first year. Chris Henry is absolutely wonderful for allowing us to use his beautiful space so freely. I felt so happy and satisifed with the new pieces I performed this year.

I was pretty nervous about premiering “Chroma” for toy piano, projections, sampling keyboard, broken cassette tape player and film dress. A few months ago, I was looking around my home and realized how much clutter I had. I noticed I had a lot of old VHS and cassette tapes of myself playing the piano when I was younger. I decided that I didn’t need these things anymore and felt inspired to make something new with these old materials. Rob and I started experimenting with these materials and we were so amazed by range the of colors that can be found in the metallic VHS tape. I’d say most of the video projection portion of the piece came from our experimentation of the materials.

I decided to use toy piano samples for the electronic portion to accompany an amplified toy piano. I also made a cocoon-like prop that was basically a lot of VHS tape wound into a ball with a broken cassette tape player mounted onto it. I was able to “play” distorted versions of my earlier piano performances on cassette tape by pulling the tape on the tape head manually. As you can imagine, it was a cassette tape mess…with the electronics I added with it, it sounded incredibly “boomy” and angular. Hopefully it came across as a kind of unleashing or birth of the cocoon.

In one of my previous posts I mentioned that I made a garment from a non-fabric material. It took me about two months to make an entire dress woven of VHS film. I liked the idea of wearing my old performances as if I was wrapped or “cocooned” by my history. A video of this premier performance is up on my “Look” page.

Someone in the audience took some great photos: http://flickr.com/photos/j-no/2970130653/in/set-72157608360072531/