Phyllis Chen Ennobles the Toy Piano in 'Little Things'

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It’s pretty clear from the confident opening track of Phyllis Chen’s latest release that the composer/toy pianist has a point to prove. "Little Things" is an album that expands and contracts, from Fabian Svennson's virtuostic and frantic Toy Toccata that begins the album to the more contemplative moments of repose in later works. Chen’s trick is that somewhere in the process, you forget about the novelty of the instrument and start to focus on its possibilities.

Take, for example, the titular track by Angélica Negrón. Written for toy piano and live electronics, its sparse and innocent opening seems to play on the connotations between the sound of the instrument and its connection to childhood. Yet as the work evolves, layers of percussive ambient noise begin to cloud the purity of the opening material. The piece crescendos into a cacophony of beeps and sputters before returning to its humble beginnings. Reaching the end of the piece, the question is less, “Is this really a toy piano?” and more “Where do we go next?"

In fact, many of the contributing composers seem to relish in the opportunity to stretch the instrument. Karlheinz Essl’s Whatever Shall Be utilizes the toy piano’s sound board to amplify noises made by a chop stick, a dreidel, and a small music box. Nathan Davis’s meditative The Mechanics of Escapement juxtaposes the petite twang of the instrument against large clock chimes which, in performance, surround the audience. One of the more complicated offerings in terms of structure, Andrian Pertout’s Pi (Obstruction) is a densely textured tribute to Conlon Nancarrow. 

Takuji Kwai’s Okura and Dai Fujikura’s Milliampere are the more introspective offerings, with similar less-is-more sensibilities letting reflective pauses and simple melodies make subtle but poignant statements.

What is most convincing about the album is the way in which each composer plays with expectation; sometimes emphasizing conventional associations with the sound of a toy piano, sometimes defying them all together. It is a testament to both the composers' respect for the instrument as well as the performer’s talent that the over-arching effect is to appreciate the album as simply an eclectic playlist of intriguing music.

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