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Uncaged Toy Piano

Phyllis Chen, Piano
Release Date: 07/14/2010 
Label:  Concert Artists Guild   Catalog #: 104   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Stephen MontagueAndrián PertoutKarlheinz EsslJohn Cage,   ... 
Performer:  Phyllis Chen
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 0 Hours 35 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

AGED TOY PIANO Phyllis Chen (toy pn) CAG 104 (34:56)

MONTAGUE Mirabella a tarantella. PERTOUT Exposiciones. ESSL Kalimba. CAGE Suite for Toy Piano. WOLFE East Broadway. CHEN The Memoirist: Read more class="ARIALi">The Tale; The Dream

I don’t know if Albert Schoenhut, the designer of the modern form of the toy piano, dreamt that his instrument would ever acquire a concert repertoire of its own, but over the last 62 years that’s precisely what’s happened. Ever since John Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano in 1948, the baby piano’s chiming tones have continued to seduce composers, performers, and audiences. Part of its appeal may extend beyond its timbral charm, given its tendency to stimulate nostalgic fantasies of real or remembered childhoods, but its musical virtues don’t require psychological justification: The toy piano is a more versatile instrument than many might suppose, as this highly entertaining recital proves.

Many of these pieces require great speed and rhythmic precision. Also, the dynamic resources of the miniature piano sometimes seem pushed to the limit by the composers’ indications. None of this poses a problem for Chen, who has, as the cliché puts it, technique to burn and the musicality and perceptive intelligence to go with it. She's also a fine composer: Parts 1 and 3 of her composition The Memoirist skillfully blend the sounds of a music box and various kitchen accessories—frying pan and mixing bowls—with the toy piano’s special voice. To hear how composers’ perceptions of the toy piano have evolved, it’s interesting to compare the perpetual motion of Montague’s Mirabella a tarantella , or the liquid cascades in parts of Essl’s Kalimba to Cage’s suite, which has a rather childlike simplicity. One thing Cage couldn’t do was accompany the toy piano with a CD, although I suppose he could have used an LP. However, it’s easier for today’s “computerized” musicians to burn a custom-made CD than it would have been for Cage to produce a special LP for such a limited purpose. The CD in Pertout’s Exposiciones repeats a single gong-like note, rather like a pedal tone, to punctuate the toy piano’s part. This slow, steady rhythm at first adds a stately, processional air to the proceedings, but the toy piano gradually speeds up, sounding increasingly complex and agitated. Several of these composers seem to have allowed for the sound that the piano makes when the keys are forcefully struck. This “thunk” contributes to the rhythmic force of their works and complements various other “clicking” sounds that Chen produces.

The one piece I don’t care to listen to again is Wolfe’s East Broadway because I don’t relish the sound of the toy boom box that plays a prominent part in the score. I’m afraid I can’t transcend the sense of irritation its electronic buzziness induces. There’s also another “sonic artifact” that reminds me of radio static. Perhaps it’s a personal limitation, but I have a hard time accepting Cage’s dictum that all sounds are music, especially when it comes to noise, electronically generated or not. Other listeners may have a greater tolerance for this than I, so I certainly won’t try to discourage anyone from listening to the piece. As the punning CD title makes clear, Uncaged Toy Piano transports us into the world of today’s post-Cage composers as they put the mini through its paces. Phyllis Chen is a gifted musician who should be heard by anyone with the slightest interest in the toy piano (she’s also a traditional pianist, whose concerts have been well received). The CD is quite short, barely 35 minutes long, and there’s no booklet included, although a biographical sketch of Phyllis Chen may be read on the Concert Artist Guild’s Web site. Recommended as an ear-opening addition to the toy piano’s growing discography.

FANFARE: Robert Schulslaper
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Works on This Recording

Mirabella, a tarantella, for toy piano by Stephen Montague
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1999 
Length: 3 Minutes 1 Secs. 
Exposiciones, for toy piano & CD by Andrián Pertout
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2005 
Length: 7 Minutes 1 Secs. 
Kalimba, for toy piano & CD by Karlheinz Essl
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2005 
Length: 5 Minutes 22 Secs. 
Suite for Toy Piano by John Cage
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; USA 
Length: 6 Minutes 55 Secs. 
East Broadway by Julia Wolfe
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Length: 3 Minutes 29 Secs. 
The Memoirist Part 1 "The Tale", for toy piano, music box & frying pan by Phyllis Chen
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano), Phyllis Chen (Music Box)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2007 
Length: 5 Minutes 11 Secs. 
The Memoirist Part 3 "The Dream", for toy piano & bowls by Phyllis Chen
Performer:  Phyllis Chen (Toy Piano), Phyllis Chen (Bowls)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2007 
Length: 3 Minutes 10 Secs. 

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