ICElab presents the toy-piano music of Phyllis Chen | Bleader

ICElab presents the toy-piano music of Phyllis Chen


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Phyllis Chen
  • Phyllis Chen
I've been a fan of keyboardist Phyllis Chen for a couple of years now. Though she also plays conventional piano, in the work that acquainted me with her she uses toy piano—not as a gimmick, but a serious instrument. She's helped develop the literature for it by starting the Uncaged Toy Piano Composition Competition, and she's also a terrific composer in her own right. On her latest recording, a three-inch CD called Mesmers, she presents eight fascinating miniatures. A few works, like "Taroko" and "Passageway," employ music box and electronics, but most of these sweet-toned pieces are built around toy piano.

Chen returns to Chicago for a free concert on Wednesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College. It's part of the International Contemporary Ensemble's ambitious ICElab program, a forward-looking commission series. Chen will lead an excellent ensemble through five original pieces, two of which—"Tablets," written with pianist Cory Smythe, and "Mobius," written with audiovisual artist Rob Dietz—are getting world premieres. The name of the program is Chimers, after a piece Chen premiered in August at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center in New York. As Chen explains in an interview on the ICE website, it was inspired by the chimes in Mozart's Magic Flute:

I remembered that aside from the flute, there are also chimes in the opera that have magical powers to protect Papageno and Tamino. The orchestration in the original score is written for three "keyed" glockenspiels (most likely celeste). This seems to be a great entry point for my toy piano.

Several fellow ICE members will accompany Chen: pianist Smythe, video artist Dietz (Ryan Ingebritsen is the sound engineer), flutist Eric Lamb, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, and violinist David Bowlin. Though the concert is free, the MoCP space is cozy, so reservations are strongly recommended: email Below you can watch the August performance of "Chimers" and listen to one of the pieces from Mesmers.

Phyllis Chen, "Double Helix"

Today's playlist:

Wanda Jackson, The Party Ain't Over (Nonesuch/Third Man)
Daniel Levin Quartet, Bacalhau (Clean Feed)
Hair Police, The Empty Quarter (Harbinger Sound)
5 Stairsteps & Cubie, Love's Happening (Collector’s Choice Music)
Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)