Toy Piano. What more needs to be said? The name itself exudes tremendous cuteness. Phyllis Chen’s piece, Down the Rabbit-Hole (yes! we love this title, too), inspired by Alice in Wonderland, is a multimedia work for toy pianos, music boxes, live-electronics, live and edited video, and amplified objects. Read on to find out more!
When did you fall in love with toy piano? What do you like in particular about the instrument?
I fell in love with the toy piano when I was 21. I saw it as a set piece in the basement of a puppet theatre in Chicago…I have always thought of the toy piano as a found sound/ found instrument for that reason because it wasn’t introduced to me as a music-making device. I was completely charmed by its idiosyncratic nature and its elusive sound. It really is entirely different than a regular piano.
The inspiration for Down the Rabbit-Hole is Alice in Wonderland. Any reason you chose this, or a children’s tale in general?
I have been doing many split concerts on piano and toy piano, mostly because presenters have requested it. I have always found it challenging to switch back and forth between a piano and toy piano during performance; even the technique of playing is different! At some point while I was on stage, it occurred to me that what I was doing was probably the same kind of feeling Alice had growing and shrinking in wonderland. It seems like no matter how much change, I’m never quite the right size. It seem like the perfect place for me to create a piece.
What should we expect from Down the Rabbit Hole? Or rather, what should we not expect?
The piece is inspired by found sounds and objects from the novels. All of the musical material was somehow found from the objects themselves, including the pitch material that the toy piano plays. I really challenged myself to create a coherent piece with these found objects and fell in love with amplifying small imperfect sounds. The piece is very much an exploration of sounds. But there are no characters–so if you are expecting to see the White Rabbit running around, I’d suggest to see the Broadway production instead.
It seems interdisciplinary work is the zeitgeist in classical/new music these days. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s just a trend?
Actually, I think interdisciplinary work has existed for a long time. The whole tradition of opera is interdisciplinary, for example. I do think there are new inventions in this form, mostly due to technology. What we had to hire people for previously can now be operated by a computer. It opens up options of creativity tremendously. But in our work, Rob (video artist) and I are really focused on keeping things live. We aren’t as interested in the “auto-play” idea from computers. Instead, we are trying to figure out how to by making counterparts for one another in the visual-sound axis. Kind of like chamber music, but with another medium.
Do you still get to practice 8 hours a day?
God no. But I do work that much every day, but my work is no longer just practicing.
What piece of clothing should every musician have in their closet?
Black shoes and bright colors. I really think we should move away from the all-black look. period.
Any advice for young/green musicians?
Build community! You don’t have to know what you’re going to do, but surround yourself with people that could help you figure it out.
By Sugar Vendil and Yoobin Whang