Phyllis Chen, an Assistant Professor of Theory and Composition at SUNY New Paltz, is among the 2022 Guggenheim fellowship nominees. This year there are 180 fellows in 51 fields, chosen from over 2500 applicants. She has performed her music at places such as Lincoln Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Abrons Arts Center, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Chen and co-composer/sound designer Nathan Davis, received the New York Innovative Theatre Award for “Best Original Music in a Play” in 2015 for their one-woman play, “The Other Mozart,” performed and written by Sylvia Milo. Additionally, Chen has released five albums, three solo albums (Concert Artists Guild, cerumenspoon, New Focus Recordings) and a fourth collaborative album with Indie-band Cuddle Magic on FYO records.
Guggenheim Fellowships are grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.” The application process is very prestigious, and applications for each year open in August.
The Guggenheim Fellowship was created by John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in memory of their late son and young scholar who passed away at 17. Senator Guggenheim stated his goal of the fellowship is to “add to the educational, literary, artistic and scientific power of this country.”
Chen persevered through the rigorous selection process after years of dedication to her craft. “I started playing the piano when I was five and found the toy piano at a puppet theater when I was 21, I played one key and fell in love with the sound of the instrument,” Chen remarked. “I first started composing on toy piano and created a miniature theater work, ‘The Memoirist’ that was deeply personal to me and I knew this was something I wanted to do. One thing led to another and as time passed people started reaching out to me to compose for them.”
When Chen performs, it is a creative and innovative experience. She takes the stage with a small, toy piano and shocks crowds with her sophisticated musicality. “I ended up at Indiana University for my doctorate degree studying with one of today’s most well-known concert pianists, André Watts,” she reflected. “Though our lessons were productive, and we had a good relationship, there was one day he told me ‘you don’t have to play any pieces in particular because of me,’ and I suddenly felt permission to be myself. We then had many lessons on the toy piano and I shared my first compositions with him.”
“I can’t be more thrilled to be named a Guggenheim Fellow this year! It has been wonderful to get the pat on the back, particularly since it is an award that is for mid-career creative artists,” Chen stated. “I have two kids (10 and 7 years-old) and my relationship to my creative practice shifted tremendously when they were born. In their infant years, it was hard to imagine how I could continue being a creative artist while also being a parent.”
Chen plans to use this fellowship to continue working on a sound installation performance work using Isamu Noguchi’s Sounding Stones as musical instruments. “It feels great to be acknowledged for my continuing growth as a musician,” Chen remarked. Her upcoming performances are on May 3, 5 and 6 in New York City at the 20th anniversary of the LOOK + LISTEN Concert Series.