Described by The New York Times as “spellbinding” and “delightfully quirky matched with interpretive sensitivity,” Phyllis (2022 Guggenheim Fellow, 2019 Cage-Cunningham Fellow) is a composer, pianist and sound artist whose music draws from her tactile exploration of object and sound. She has performed her music at Lincoln Center, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Abrons Arts Center, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Los Angeles County Museum, Baryshnikov Arts Center and numerous other places.
Phyllis started playing the piano at the age of five and came across the toy piano as an adult. As a pianist, she immediately fell in love with the instrument’s possibilities. Being bound to no history, the toy piano became her grounds to develop her personal voice, one that reflects her third culture kid experience. The unrefined and raw tone of the instrument inspired Phyllis to create very personal miniature theatre works (The Memoirist, The Slumber Thief and Down The Rabbit-Hole) in collaboration with her partner and video artist, Rob Dietz. One of her interdisciplinary solo works, Lighting The Dark, was described by the New York Times as “by turns poignant, humorous and virtuosic, Chen’s performance offered a slyly subversive take on issues relating to femininity, technology and power…the looping, spellbinding music…became a fitting tribute to the modest, repetitive, yet quietly heroic work of women.”
Phyllis has received commissions by ensembles and organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICEensemble), A Far Cry, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Claire Chase Density Project, Opera Cabal Opera SHOP, Singapore International Festival of the Arts, the Roulette-Jerome, Look & Listen Festival, Jacob Greenberg, and others. She has received grants from New Music USA, Foundation for the Contemporary Arts, NYSCA (via Concert Artists Guild and Look & Listen Festival), Fromm Foundation and the Pew Heritage Trust via Christ Church of Philadelphia. She is working on “Through The Thicket of Stars,” a multi-layered toy piano piece based on an original scroll painting by children’s author/illustrator Grace Lin. The new work will be premiered at Kaufman Center Piano Dialogues in April 2022.
Phyllis is one of the composers for the one-woman play, The Other Mozart about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s forgotten sister Nannerl, performed and written by Sylvia Milo. She and co-composer/sound designer Nathan Davis, received the New York Innovative Theatre Award for “Best Original Music in a Play” in 2015.
In 2009, Phyllis was the solo on-stage musician for the Off-Broadway production of Coraline. Based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s book, the work was composed by Indie band-leader Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields, who scored the musical for multiple keyboards of various sizes. As the show’s sole instrumentalist, the Financial Times claims ” Phyllis achieves dazzling effects with pianos both standard-sized and shrunken.” Coraline was staged at the Lucille Lortel Theater in the West Village.
In 2007, Phyllis founded the UnCaged Toy Piano to promote new works for unusual instruments. Since its inception, she has received over 200 new pieces from composers around the globe. In 2011, Phyllis launched the first biennial UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, a three day festival featuring new works and a variety of toy instrumentalists and sound-makers. Each year the festival Â has been greeted with great enthusiasm, with audience members crossing state borders and oceans to attend. In 2017, UnCaged Toy Piano collaborated with the Conlon Foundation in the Netherlands featuring the Robot Toy Piano. Selected works were presented as part of the Gaudeamus Muziekwiek at the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht and the 4th UnCaged Toy Piano Festival in NYC.
Phyllis is one of the founding members of ICEensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble, based in New York City. “On The Nature of Thingness” (Starkland) a collaborative album with ICE featuring the chamber works of Phyllis and ICE composer/percussionist Nathan Davis, was awarded the 2016 Independent Music Award for Best Contemporary Classical Music Album.
Phyllis has released five albums, three solo albums (Concert Artists Guild, cerumenspoon, New Focus Recordings) and a fourth collaborative album with Indie-band Cuddle Magic on fyo records.
“…she raised the bar for delightful quirkiness matched with interpretive sensitivity.” New York Times
“…dazzling delight…” LA Times
“As a performer, Phyllis is a superb pianist and a brilliant advocate for the instrument’s downscaled toy sibling; as a composer, she regularly wins our unofficial Honorary George Crumb “What the Hell Was That?” Award for sublime instrumental bafflements– and we mean that very much as a compliment.” ”Time Out New York
“By turns poignant, humorous and virtuosic, Chen’s performance offered a slyly subversive take on issues relating to femininity, technology and power…the looping, spellbinding music…became a fitting tribute to the modest, repetitive, yet quietly heroic work of women.” –New York Times (on Lighting The Dark)
“Phyllis Chen, the show’s sole instrumentalist…achieves dazzling effects with pianos both standard-sized and shrunken.” Financial Times
“…her captivating performance was animated by unbridled inventiveness, the kind of joyous creativity that playing with toys is meant to inspire.” The Oregonian
“music world that simultaneously haunts and inspires…handsomely crafted…” Time Out Chicago
“…Chen’s madcap music was just right…” LA Times
“Chen’s combination of playfulness, discipline and an unerring ear in mixing strange sonorities made (it) a captivating work.” Washington Post