12 O'Clock Track: Phyllis Chen transcends the toyness of her instruments on "The Little Things"

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Phyllis Chen
  • courtesy of Harvestworks
  • Phyllis Chen
The first time I heard pianist Phyllis Chen a few years ago, she convinced me of the toy piano's potential as a serious instrument, and with her most recent album, The Little Things (New Focus), she demonstrates just how broad that potential is.

In addition to being a virtuoso on toy piano, Chen has arguably become its most fervent advocate. Since 2007 she's organized the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition (the title is a nod to John Cage, a key early advocate via his 1948 work "Suite for Toy Piano"), and the project has generated an impressively broad and growing literature for the instrument. More recently she's presented annual festivals to perform those works live in New York, where she lives.

The Little Things covers lots of ground, including the collision of toy piano and clock chimes in the somber Nathan Davis piece Mechanics of Escapement and the austere, almost brutal machinations of Karlheiz Essl's "Whatever Shall Be." The work that gives the album its title—today's 12 O'Clock Track—is one of my favorites, a shape-shifting and whimsical work by young New York-based Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón (who made her name as a member of arty electro-pop band Balún). Chen is credited with "toy instruments and live electronics," and I can hear melodica, toy piano, electronic tones, drifting voices, and all manner of electronic processing that smears, pixellates, and stacks prerecorded sounds. It's streaming after the jump.

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