Famed Pianist Comes to Campus

Music has been composed on the piano for centuries — all types of pianos, from vertical spinets to the concert grand that can fill a music hall with sweet delicate melodies. Perhaps less common is the toy piano.

Phyllis Chen went to visit the puppet theater in Chicago, where she was living at the time, and found a toy piano that was being used as a prop for a puppet show. She has been composing music on it since this discovery over 15 years ago.

“I touched it, heard the sound and immediately fell in love,” the pianist, toy pianist and composer said.

Chen is coming to SUNY New Paltz on three occasions during October that will include two music workshops with performances on Oct. 7 and 14, with a final performance on Oct. 27, at 8 p.m. in Parker Theater, where she will debut her new work Columba to the world. These events are sponsored by the Kenneth Davenport Residency for New American Music and hosted by the music department.

Educated as a classical musician, Chen said she found the traditional route she was on to be “narrow,” too limiting and controlled. She has studied at the Oberlin Conservatory (BM), Northwestern University (MM) and Indiana University (DMA).

“The toy piano for me was really a play space,” Chen said. “A place where I could just experiment. I felt a lot more freedom.”

At first, Chen felt she was not the right person to write music on the toy piano because of her lack of experience and composition education. After writing to several composers, she began to hear back that being the one who has the passion and feels the need for the music to be made, meant she was just the person to make it.

She has since composed 26 works that utilize a wide array of techniques and more importantly instrumental arrangements. Toy pianos and music boxes are accompanied by bowls, pillows, broken cassette players, shadows, tuning forks, bubble wrap and even a fried egg. These exotic tools can be heard, seen and ultimately experienced in and around her music.

“My style is really about reappropriating objects to become musical,” Chen said. “I take things we would otherwise use for something else and use them for making music.”

At the workshops, Chen will work with music students and professors giving anyone who wishes a chance to poke around on their own and explore alternative ways of making music with the help and guidance of an expert.

“What’s really important is the spirit of experimentalism because there is a certain courage that you need and I want the students to get that experience, when they’re out of their comfort zone doing things they normally wouldn’t do,” music professor Alex Peh said.

Peh said some students who attend the workshops will perform what they learned at the Oct. 27 concert. The two workshops will be from 10 a.m. to noon in the Shepard Recital Hall. The first is focused on American avant-garde and the second on experimental American music. At 8 p.m. on Oct. 6 in Studley Hall, the residency will kick off as percussionists Christopher Clarino and Christopher Howard and pianists Wenyin Chan and Alex Peh perform groundbreaking American works by Steve Reich and Mark Applebaum.