new review for my debut CD

My debut CD, UnCaged Toy Piano, was recently reviewed in the All Music Guide,a comprehensive online music review site. This is the first time my CD was praised for its production sensibility, which I’m proud to say was done in my apartment by my partner, Rob.

I recorded the CD at the Bunker Studio in Brooklyn over the span of 3 half-day sessions. The versatility that Dave Lewis praises in this review is partially the result of the toy pianos I chose to use for the recording.  I used three toy pianos for my CD and one of them was not even mine. On my first recording day, the engineers told me that they found a toy piano (very similar to mine) on the street side in Williamsburg. The toy piano was a 2 and a half octave baby grand piano (one where the lid doesn’t open) and has a really sweet ringing tone for that model.  I recorded The Memoirist part 1 on this piano because I thought the sound would go well with the music box. To record this piece, we had to put saran wrap around the microphone next to the frying pan. Aaron, the recording engineer, wanted to get a close mic on the frying of the egg, but also wanted to protect the microphone. Apparently some engineers use condoms as a protection for their microphones in situations like this.

The other two toy pianos used were my upright Schoenhut and my 3-octave grand that is so beat up now, I use it only as a prepared toy piano. Rob and I spent about 2 days re-mastering the tracks.  It was interesting to ponder what a controlled environment a recording studio has become–it is just an imaginary space for music. There are no music halls that would sound like it and are capable of shifting spaces from piece to piece. For example, I wanted the John Cage suite to sound closely mic-ed, almost as if the listener was inside of the toy piano, but I wanted Mirabella to be heard farther away in a small-sized concert hall.  Now with recording technology, the “hall” is really reflected in a lot of the re-mastering stage and also the quality of your headphones or sound system.

Call for UnCaged Toy Piano Festival

I have recently been contacted by many composers and toy pianists around the world expressing their enthusiasm for the little instrument. It very much reminds me of what I was like many years ago when I realized that there is a small but dedicated toy piano community out there in the world. As many of you know, I host a toy piano composition competition every year called the UnCaged Toy Piano. I am looking to expand this competition into a more involved festival with more performances, workshops and events, composer chats,etc. If anyone is interested in being involved in any way, please email me at phyllis@iceorg.org . Performers, composers, volunteers, music enthusiasts, radio DJ’s, presenters, promoters, are all welcome to contact me if they are interested. I would love to put something together at the Big Apple!

Taipei (now and some years before…)

Rob and I just made our journey back to Taipei for the week. I will be meeting with a Schoenhut toy piano dealer from Taiwan tomorrow! Check out their site here.

I have quite a lot of memories coming back to Taiwan to visit family throughout my childhood. I still remember the long flights I would take with my brother while we excitedly anticipated the great home-cooked meals we would have of our Grandma’s. It was also customary for us to make an additional trip to southern Taiwan to visit my father’s family for several days. Back then, there wasn’t a high-speed train, so it would sometimes mean taking a 14-hour bus ride. Some years later, my father came back to Taiwan while on sabbatical and the entire family came back to live for six months. I attended fifth grade  at Chiang-Kai Shek Middle School right outside of Taipei city. I still remember having a hard time grasping the disciplinary acts of teachers. On Fridays, my brother and I would go to Taiwan University for our traditional chinese bamboo flute lessons. This was probably the only period of time I studied Chinese music whatsoever. Years following, our lives became busier and the visit back to Taiwan became less frequent. When I was younger,  I felt there were so many cultural differences–not just the language, but the way of life, the way people dressed, acted and bought.  The traffic driving behavior was always daunting. There use to be a lot more bicyclists also. I don’t know whether it’s because I have grown more accustomed to some of the differences, or if it’s the result of a rapidly changing country, but Taiwan doesn’t seem so distant or foreign to me any longer. My relationship with the country has changed significantly since my parents moved back here seven years ago. Since then, the eating part of our visits are still highly anticipated, but now I am getting more of a chance to know modern Taiwan.

Just starting last year,  I have started looking for more of the new developments in the music and arts scene from the younger generation. (The web has helped tremendously and also the number of Taipei websites that are in English.) I was pleased when someone contacted me last year through facebook to set up a toy piano concert for me. It was just a chance happening and a kind act of strangers who wanted to bring a toy piano concert some place in Taipei.  It turned out to be a joint effort between a student at National Taiwan University (Timmy Chen) and the curator of a music and movie series (Taven Huang) at a cafe. Though this was just a small glimpse into the younger music-goers, I was touched and excited to see a generation of people curious about experimental music in Taiwan.

Anyone know of good shows happening in Taiwan this week? We are open to suggestions!

A new piece by Karlheinz

I have  recently started working on a new piece written for me by the Austrian composer/performer/improviser/educator Karlheinz Essl.  I first heard of Karlheinz from the Extensible Toy Piano Project in 2005 where I performed one of his pieces, Kalimba, for the festival. Since then, I have played numerous of his works for toy piano including Kalimba, Sequitur and WebernSpielWerk. In fact, at most of my concerts I’m playing one of them. After playing so many of his great pieces, I am so honored and happy to be premiering his new piece , Whatever Shall Be (for toy piano, gadgets, live-electronics and surround sound) at the Look & Listen Festival in May.  Without giving too much away, I am extremely excited to be performing a piece that asks for such unconventional approaches to the instrument.

The festival is a great annual new music event that happens in galleries around the Chelsea area. I am thrilled that Karlheinz will be in town for it!

Hauschka’s small pieces

Rob just gave me Haushka’s most recent miniature CD titled small pieces. Hauschka, also known as Volker Bertlemann, is a German composer/musician who’s music revolves around the world of the prepared piano. Most people think of John Cage when they hear “prepared piano.”  There have been many composers and musicians who have continued to experiment with the idea of the prepared piano and to be honest, I think it’s hard to really “top” or create something new after Cage invented the prepared piano. However, I have really liked Aphex Twin’s album drukqs (that features prepared piano rather prominently) and some works by Hauschka as well. What I like about Hauschka’s work is his judicious use of the prepared piano. Unlike Cage, Hauschka is not trying to manipulate the entire keyboard to sound like a different instrument. It is clear in his music that he does love the natural sound of the piano but with additional textures or colors.( Also, his music has his own particular beat-oriented style that avoids more obvious comparisons to John Cage. )

This 5th CD of his was made for his recent Japanese tour. The pieces are clearly influenced by Erik Satie and the piano preparations are quite subtle. Some of his other CD’s have a more on-going beat track but small pieces has a more introspective sound world.