Drawings from Look & Listen

essl-72dpiThere were a number of artists at the Look & Listen concert last Saturday sketching during the performance. I found a few drawings from Julia Sverchuk and wanted to share them. They are so alive and seem to really capture the feeling of performance! I especially like the picture of Karlheinz sitting and listening/recording the performance. Many of her drawings can be viewed on her blog.

Look& Listen on Saturday with Karlheinz

12Karlheinz Essl and I had our first meeting for his new piece, Whatever Shall Be, for toy piano, quadrophonic surround sound and gadgets today. After a few hours of trouble-shooting technical issues, we are now finally ready to unleash his new work this weekend! I am so honored that he wrote this piece for me and believe that it will be a real favorite among fellow toy pianists. Aside from some of the experimental and playful techniques he uses, the piece also has a richness and fullness to the sound world that really creates a whole new dimension to the toy piano. Concert is at at the Gary Snyder/Project Space (Chelsea) and begins at 7:30 pm. I will be sharing the concert with So Percussion and Merionalis. Laura Pellegrini will be hosting the concert and interviewing composers throughout the evening.  I hope to see you all on Saturday !

Here are some of Karlheinz’s program notes on Whatever Shall Be:

At the beginning of the 3rd millennium, I had a strange encounter with a strange instrument: the toy piano, which – at the first glance – didn’t attract me that much. On the contrary, I didn’t properly estimate its restricted sound possibilities and regarded it quite uninteresting and boring. My immature prejudice changed entirely when I borrowed a toy piano from Isabel Ettenauer who was asking me since years to write a piece for her. And now, after being forced to dedicate myself to this instrument I soon understood that it has nothing to do with the piano as we know it.

When I hit a key on a regular piano, I am not just hearing a note, but also the whole history of this instrument with its repertory from Bach to Boulez that the piano sound transports. This fact always makes it difficult for me to compose for piano as it always reminds me of historical music that I love – and also abhor.

This didn’t seem to happen to me when I was playing on the toy piano because its sound has nothing to do with a conventional piano. Instead of strings this instrument has metal rods which are hit by a hammer, producing sonic qualities that rather remind me of bells or a celesta, Asian gamelan, or even an African kalimba.

After writing my first toy piano piece in 2005 called Kalimba, I became more and more interested in scrutinizing the possibilities of this instrument. A few months later I composed WebernSpielWerk as a tombeau for Anton Webern. Here, the toy piano was utilized as a carillon – a very tiny one -, and in fact the piece was modeled after the generative sound installation WebernUhrWerk which was played at the 60th anniversary of Webern’s death from a loudspeaker hidden inside a roof at the market place of Mittersill where the composer was shot in 1945.

But that was not enough: In 2008, when I started my Sequitur project for various solo instruments with live-electronics, of course a piece for toy piano was on my agenda. But then, after having written already several toy piano pieces, I met Phyllis Chen in New York. It was a hot and humid summer day in 2009 as we sat together in a tiny park in Midtown, exchanging our experiences with this strange and fascinating instrument. That’s when Phyllis suggested to write another piece, for her. And I immediately said Yes!

In my previous toy piano composition, my aim was always to find a new perspective to this instrument. In order to break up the restricted sound world, I was hiding a tiny loudspeaker inside the toy piano for Kalimba which played back pre-produced sounds. WebernUhrWerk, however, is only played on the keys, and Sequitur V uses live-electronics which create a sonic house-of-mirrors solely from the live input of the instrument.

This time I concentrated on the “ugly” parts of the instrument which are commonly not regarded as musical: the guts apart from the keys – the body of the instrument. So I was approaching the toy piano like an innocent child who looks into the belly of the instrument and starts scratching and knocking here and there. In fact, due to the acoustic properties of the sound boards, this produces very rich and fascinating sounds. Then I mounted a contact microphone on the downside of the the sound board which was connected to a special computer program that I had conceived for this composition: a kind of sonic “particle accelerator” (like the ill-fated CERN in Geneva) which creates a maelstrom of sounds, swirling around the audience.

But there is yet another story which I have to mention in the end: When experimenting with the entrails of the toy piano, I realized that its sound board acts as a splendid amplifier for tiny sounds and noises. When putting a small music box inside, its lanky sound becomes strong and mighty, mixing nicely with the key sounds of the toy piano. That happens at the very end of the piece. And in fact everything that is heard before – rhythmical cells, melodic motives, even the harmonic structure – has derived from this little music box melody which arose from the great movie “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by Alfred Hitchcock. And the refrain of the song reads: “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.”

Gilmore Keyboard Festival

phpthumb_generated_thumbnailpng I am on my way back to New York City after my debut at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. I had a fantastic experience at the festival and hope that I will have a chance to return again!  Several months ago, Gilmore reached out to Concert Artist Guild and asked them if I would be interested in performing some works on toy piano and prepared piano. I jumped at the opportunity instantly because most venues try to discourage me from preparing their concert pianos. At the Gilmore Festival, there are numerous Steinway pianos being used for the festival. There is even a Steinway on-site manager that looks after the tuning and condition of the instruments. Since I was performing a prepared piano work, Perilous Night by John Cage, as well as a acoustic piano piece, Nothing is Real by Alvin Lucier, Gilmore provided me with two Steinway Grands models D and O. I will mostly likely never have the opportunity to do this program again unless I find another venue/festival that is as generous with their pianos as the Gilmore Festival.

The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival has established itself as one of the most prestigious keyboard awards and festivals. Every four years they award a pianist of any age and nationality for their promising career as a concert pianist. This year, the award went to Kirill Gerstein who performed last night. Given the kind of classical piano festival this is, I was really honored that they were willing to incorporate me as a toy pianist, recognizing it’s unique place in the keyboard world. I found the audience members to be curious, knowledgeable of keyboard music and aware of contemporary arts/music. It was the first time several people after the concert mentioned to me that they thought my concert was inappropriate for young kids and found it amusing that people decided to bring their kids to a toy piano concert. I think because of the nature of the festival, audience members seem to “get it” a lot more than other venues where people automatically think the toy piano is for kids.  I wouldn’t say that the toy piano concert is not for kids, but I would say it is as kid-friendly ( or non-kid-friendly,for that matter) as any other classical music concert.

Tomorrow I begin my rehearsals for the world premiere of Karlheinz Essl’s new toy piano piece, Whatever Shall Be that will be premiered this weekend at the Look &Listen Festival. Read more later this week to keep up!

The Memoirist at the Temporary Toy Theater Museum

dsc_3264 I was recently cleaning out my apartment and was trying to decide on what to do with objects related to my projects/work that are not crucial to performance. I spent about 2 months creating a toy theater set that is the grounds for movie-making in The Memoirist part 2. I wasn’t sure what to do with this toy theater set in my cluttered NY apartment.

I decided to clean it up and take a few pictures before I was going to throw it out. As I was straightening up the set, I remembered how cumbersome it was to bring a fragile cardboard box-house to New York when moving here two years ago. I had to pack up the objects in the cardboard house as if it was going through a house move like I was. I kept wavering between keeping it and throwing it away…on one hand it is part of an artistic project that I made, on the other hand it is completely useless to every day life. I thought of the Temporary Toy Theater Museum that is part of the International Toy Theater Festival and decided to submit these materials to them as one last “hoorah” before it left my home. And to my great surprise and delight, they accepted it!

Hosted by Great Small Works, the Toy Theater Festival is one of the most interesting theater movements of our time. This is what they say…


Toy Theater (also called Paper Theater) was the rage in parlors across Europe and the Americas in the 19th century, a popular means of staging dramatic spectacles at home. But, just as revolutions in print technology had brought toy theater into 19th-century homes, 20th-century advances in electronic media and mass culture led to the virtual extinction of this inexpensive family entertainment. The small box used to stage sumptuous dances, battles and stories in the parlor was replaced by an all-too-familiar box in the modern living room. Fantastic in scope, easily affordable and open to any imaginable content, toy theater begs to be rescued from obscurity and re- invented in a wide variety of contemporary styles. Join Great Small Works in this exciting revival!

What’s funny about the house from The Memoirist is that I didn’t even know of toy theater when I was making it. I was simply making a miniature set from the things I had laying around my apartment at that time. You can only imagine how strangely re-affirming it was to see a full-blown sold out festival of toy theater 2 years later in New York. I really can’t dream of a better place for this small set piece to be before it becomes recycled to the earth once again. The set design and the video featuring the movie from The Memoirist will be on view from May 30-June 14 at St. Ann’s Warehouse. We open on May 28th so come out and celebrate with me! I’m sure the entire festival and museum will be an absolute delight!

my toy piano story (what really happened…)

Many people have asked me how I came to play the toy piano. Contrary to what it might seem,I started playing classical piano at the age of five and found the toy piano when I was 21. I was always interested in exploring new sounds and unconventional piano techniques, but nothing in my piano-playing history has been quite like my journey with the toy piano.

I gave my first toy piano performance in 2001 at the Chicago Humanities Festival and  later in 2003, I performed my first solo toy piano performance in Toronto. Though the concert was only 23-minutes,it was one of the most engaging and fulfilling performances I had.  While I was studying for my doctorate degree at Indiana University, I slowly became injured with the stress of all of my teaching, performing and general anxiety about grad school. I was completely crushed that I had to stop playing piano for almost two years, but I found that window of time to be a much-needed break and re-assessment of my artistic pursuits. Up until then,I knew that there were many other artistic and musical curiosities/interests of mine that were not being fulfilled by playing classical piano.  It seem really natural for me to play the toy piano at that time–it was my only connection to making music during my recovery and it gave me the great feeling of freedom to compose for the instrument. I also reached out to  many composers that had interested me and started building repertoire for the music. I fell in love with the instrument not only for its sound and quirky characteristics, but also for everything that it symbolized for me at this turning point. I feel that when people ask me how I fell in love with the toy piano, they are caught up in a means and not seeing the end: I truly believe that the toy piano has become a vehicle for me to express many things that I could not express on the standard-sized piano. Though many people see it as an instrument with many limitations, I feel  a lack of inhibition and freedom when playing it.

While I was younger, many of my friends could attest to the number of never-fulfilled multimedia pieces that I wanted to create. It’s hard to know exactly why it seemed so impossible, but after my recovery, it became natural for me to  finally pursue my interests and visions in creating multimedia works with the toy piano as my central voice. With so much untapped potential and no set boundaries on how it should sound or be played, I think that there is still a lot of artistic exploration that can happen on the toy piano.  Now that I am no longer injured and performing a lot on both piano and toy piano, I still find the toy piano to be my instrument of choice!