[ICE percussionist and composer Nathan Davis sits down with toy pianist Phyllis Chen to talk concept, process and influence in anticipation of February 16th's MCA program, also featuring ICElab composer Carla Kihlstedt.]
N: It seems to me that until recently, most composers played piano as their primary instrument, and many consider the piano to be a blank slate from which to begin composing for any instrument. What led you not only to play the toy piano but to also champion it and build its repertoire? and how does this point of departure effect the way you approach writing for other instruments?
C: Finding the toy piano as a pianist was like discovering a brand-new instrument that I could instantly play. It really was love at first sound. I've spent all of my life playing traditional repertoire on piano, so the idea of composing for it seem rather intimidating and not so interesting. Composing for the toy piano was just a natural way for me to get to know the instrument. With that said, I compose at the keyboard...and that means mostly the toy piano.
Your use of toys and other ordinary objects, repurposed for your pieces but carrying layered meanings, reminds me of the work of Joseph Cornell. How do you select them - by sound, extra-musical associations, etc.? And which comes first - the discovery and exploration of the object-instrument, or a concept that necessitates the search for the right object?
I'd say most of my process is about discovery; I believe that this translates into the general concept/arc of my pieces when they are finished. Sometimes I have an object in my head that seems to fit the concept of a piece, but when finally realized in sound, it doesn't quite work. I think objects definitely carry extra-musical meanings/associations, but when exploring object-instrument, sometimes I intuit a kind of 'story' behind the sound; Certain sounds seem like they want to move in certain ways. This is usually where the seed of a piece comes for me-- I find a piece when l I find a sound that ignites my imagination.
And do you feel a kinship with Cornell or any other visual artists?
Most definitely. In fact I 'm currently writing a piece based on Cornell's assemblages! I am particularly drawn to collage artists because they have a fundamental instinct to work with found objects/junk. It definitely reflects the intrigue that people have towards the "Wunderkammer" or the Cabinet of Curiosity, which dates all the way back to the Renaissance. Somehow we want to hold on to something (but what?) with a miniature object that is placed in a box to be observed. The objects themselves seem to mean very little, but they often carry symbolic power or gives the person a sense of ownership over something that couldn't be owned (i.e. seashell.)
The work of Janice Lowry is particularly beautiful to me and some of Yoko's installation works earlier in her career. I am also (obviously) attracted to miniatures and the darker connoctations in childhood objects, so the work of the Quay Brothers and Jan Svankmajer are most definitely influential to me.
What guides your use of electronics?
Good question. I'm still figuring that one out. I think there's two uses for me: The first is as a very convenient sketch pad to get some sounds recorded and manipulated. The other is simply to augment a very small sound that I'm working with, giving me a chance to see what else it has the potential to do.
How many toy pianos do you own?
20 at last count....give or take a few.
We're together working on music for Sylvia Milo's play "The Other Mozart". What else can I look forward to hearing - what are you writing, now or next?
I'm working on a collection of prepared music box pieces that will be more of an installation than a performance work.They are re-configured old kid's music box/jewelry boxes...like the ones with the twirling ballerinas (but only they will now become strange monsters instead.) Also a new solo album! This time, none of the works will be performable, but a studio recording of some new pieces made from my collection of objects and field recordings.
That sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for taking the time for this conversation.