Thoughts on “Snow” by composer John Glover

Instrument-maker Ranjit Bahatnagar and Jordan Morley working on the singing garden
Instrument-maker Ranjit Bahatnagar and Jordan Morley working on the singing garden
 Jordan Morley and dancer Mistral Hay filming a sequence for 'Snow' with mask by Nina Barlow
Jordan Morley and dancer Mistral Hay filming a sequence for ‘Snow’ with mask by Nina Barlow
one of the toy pianos modified for 'Snow'
one of the toy pianos modified for ‘Snow’“Anderson’s vision was childlike to the core, as is shown not only by his sympathy with the child’s struggle to survive, believe, be listened to, but also by his empathy with plants, toys, and domestic objects as living things.”  

“Anderson’s vision was childlike to the core, as is shown not only by his sympathy with the child’s struggle to survive, believe, be listened to, but also by his empathy with plants, toys, and domestic objects as living things.” -Jackie Wullschlagger

I first met Phyllis at a concert at the (then temporary home) of Roulette in SoHo five years ago. At the time I was writing a chamber opera with the complication of two pianists built into the ensemble. Uninterested in writing for piano-four-hands, I mused to a friend at the concert that maybe one of them should play toy piano. The opera revolved around a psychotherapist attempting to raise to chimpanzee as his daughter, so the instrumentation seemed enticing. Finding a toy piano, however, seemed daunting: “Where do I even get one?” I asked, “They must be very rare, expensive and difficult to find…” My friend Emily pointed across the room and said “You should talk to Phyllis, she’ll know.” After the show we met, and talked for a bit. I asked where I could find such a rare instrument and Phyllis laughed “Oh, I’ve found them in dumpsters, on eBay… pretty much anywhere!”

The next day I logged onto eBay and that was that. But more than a new sound for the piece at hand, that evening sparked a beautiful friendship. It also started a series of conversations about possible collaborations that never quite stuck. Suddenly it clicked this year when my partner Jordan (a choreographer and puppeteer) and I started creating Snow, a re-interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, with Phyllis as the central performer alongside dance on film, puppetry, costumes and masks. Phyllis’s open-heartedness and playfulness – obvious from that first conversation five years ago – are balanced with a rigor and talent I’ve always found inspiring.

Anderson’s Snow Queen examines the tension between youthful imagination and the pragmatism of experience, and beautifully advocates for keeping a sense of play and the childlike in life. As Jordan and I have been making the work – we’ve aimed for taking all of the rigor and talent in the combined group of artists towards a direct, open, and childlike place. Ordinary objects become infused with magic: a sweatshirt turns a Cunningham dancer into a talking Raven, a twisted piece of wire becomes a barren tree in winter, plastic pieces from Canal Street become a garden of signing flowers.

This winter and spring Snow will come to life at the Invisible Dog Arts Center in Brooklyn NY January 29-30, and then my hometown at the Detroit Institute of Arts March 4. But FIRST a sneak peak will happen at this year’s Toy Piano Festival with an excerpt from one episode of the work: The Raven Suite. The music is a both a nod to the baroque keyboard suite (a dubious Allemande, Courrante, and Sarabande) and a wink to Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (written for his partner Merce Cunningham). The film features former Cunningham dancers Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood as pair of ravens, one of the many creatures who aid the protagonist, youthful Gerda, on her journey to save her brother Kai from the wounds of maturity. Each episode of Snow links performance with visual in a different way, and the silent film inspiration of the Raven Suite seemed just right for the Toy Piano Festival’s first outing at Museum of the Moving Image. Hope to see you there!

From Petit Pepinot’s toy pianist Monika Haar

Post by Petit Pepinot’s toy pianist, Monika Haar

In 2005, I met Margaret Leng Tan during a screening of her film, Sorceress of the New Piano, which documents her close relationship working with John Cage until his passing.  I was especially excited for this event since I was introduced to John Cage at a very young age.  During the 70’s and 80’s, my father lived in Westbeth Artists Housing and Center for the Arts, where John Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, had his contemporary dance studio. I grew up dancing along to Cage’s “Music for Merce Cunningham,” so I felt very familiar with his work, and was intrigued by Margaret’s close relationship with Cage. After the film screening, Margaret generously gave a full solo performance with her various toy pianos.  I was transfixed by the toy piano world that she had brought over from New York City to share with us in Honolulu that night.

In 2011, I attended my first performance by Phyllis Chen at an ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) concert. I was moved by her original works for toys, and followed up with my first attendance of her UnCaged Toy Piano festival with a couple of my bandmates from Le Petit Pépinot.  At the festival, we were introduced to a whole world of music that was devoted to various toy instruments.  Alida, founder of Le Petit Pépinot, mentioned “watching the toy piano festival made me feel strong nostalgic sparks. It ignited the child in me as a musician. I felt dedicated to creating music that involved toy instruments, because their delicacy and high-pitched resonance touched my soul”.  The musicians that I was introduced to in Phyllis’s UnCaged Toy Piano festival are now some of my all-time favorite artists, and I am so happy to have discovered such a friendly and quirky group of musicians in New York City.

A couple years ago, on the same night that Le Petit Pépinot performed at Barbés, Terry Dame presented Margaret Leng Tan and Ranjit Bhatnagar at her monthly “Weird Wednesday” series. Before any music was performed, Margaret enthusiastically asked the audience if she should apply to the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s smallest playable toy pianos that she created out of single NYC metro-cards.  They were in 3-dimensional grand piano form, lined with many keys for her to play.  She used a metal needle to perform her tiny instruments, which conducted electricity from her skin to activate a synthesizer that Ranjit carefully prepared for her.  Margaret demonstrated great skill on her toy piano metro-cards, and she mentioned that they were easier to play than acoustic pianos.  My mind was blown, and I certainly knew that I found musicians that I wanted to explore more fully. Thankfully, Terry Dame and Phyllis Chen have made it easy for me and many others to easily access the minds and sounds of these creative individuals, by providing a regular platform for them to be showcased.

All of these events inspired us in forming and cultivating the identity Le Petit Pépinot has today. Alida mentioned, “When Monika first took me to the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival in 2011, it ignited the child in me and I started collecting toy instruments soon after.  With our percussionist, Dorian, I performed in various ethnic musical groups such as Balinese Gamelan, Afro-Cuban Santeria, and Balkan music at Queens College. This experience felt like the borough Queens: traveling around the globe without even boarding a single plane. Then there’s Ching, our cellist; his positive enthusiasm and wide creativity shines through everything he does. He understands diversity in both music and friends as I do. With that all said, I thank my alma-mater, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, for connecting me with such wonderful musicians who have allowed me to pursue my dream of creating my band, Le Petit Pépinot”.

Le Petit Pépinot is thrilled to be hosting the after-party show for the UnCaged Toy Piano festival this year.  Through our love of music, we are excited to present our personal concoction of various cultures to you.  It is quite fitting that the festival will take place at the Uke Hut in Queens, as the ukulele is one of our primary instruments. We’re proud to perform in the borough we hold dear to our hearts. We believe that our group is a good representation of how we love and embrace the culturally diverse borough that brought us together.  We’re eager to share our latest tunes, and look forward to seeing you at the festival!

Don’t miss Petit Pepinot at the Uke Hut on December 4th at 9:30pm!

2015 UnCaged Fest venues

dsc_2290-270x179Hello world! The UnCaged Fest returns in 2015! This year I’ve decided to bring all the events to Astoria, Queens. There are many reasons why I chose to do this. First,  I think it’s a great neighborhood. It has yummy food, wonderful museums and a growing art scene that is unique to this neighborhood. (I think we’ve all caught wind of this already with all the real-estate reports in the NY Times, making the top ten list everywhere, etc.)  Astoria is where I live and there are plenty of unique places to host a toy piano festival!

More importantly, I’ve noticed that there’s great people around too.  It’s easy to feel anonymous in New York City but it’s still possible to have a   “small town feel”  when we get to know our neighbors. We can do that simply by  investing some time and energy in our direct community. This year’s festival takes place at four awesome venues: The Museum of the Moving Image, The Uke Hut, Q.E.D.Astoria and Hi-Fi Records.

Since this year’s festival is really about Astoria, I skipped the annual composition competition to curate the appropriate groups/pieces at the specific venues. For example, at the Museum of the Moving Image (where our main event is taking place), there was more importance placed on the film or video component so it didn’t feel right to have a musical composition contest for it. The composition contest will return in 2016, but for this year, let’s give Astoria a little love!


Re-Caging UnCaged (with a few unlikely helpers) by Danny Clay

2012 UnCaged runner-up Danny Clay writes about his new audio-video collage and the process of collaborating with elementary schoolers (and me) for this new work.
I’d say the most notable part of my project for the 2013 UnCaged Toy Piano festival is not my unusual instrumentation, but my unusual collaborators: five classrooms of elementary schoolers.
In addition to composing, I teach music at a small school in San Francisco called Zion Lutheran School. Being the proud owner of a pink baby grand toy piano, I jumped at the opportunity to bring it into my classes and share it with the kids. We looked at the first piece of music ever composed for the instrument – John Cage’s suite – and talked about the character that defined each movement. We then discussed how one goes about drawing the sounds we hear, and each kid got a chance to listen to and create their own notation for a movement of the Cage. These graphic scores – ranging from painstakingly calculated figures to hastily scrawled scribbles to amorphous creatures named Dumbo – were then given to toy piano virtuoso (and UnCaged artistic director) Phyllis Chen to interpret. The students also got a chance to interpret and record their drawings, both on the toy piano and as a group using hand chimes.
These collaborations have led to, frankly, more material than I know what to do with. I mean, when you have scores to work with like this:
and verbal descriptions of movements like:
-a blossom floating through the wind
-the sound of chimes exploding
-a pupa turning into a butterfly
…not to mention the slew of brilliant sounds recorded by Phyllis Chen and the creative young minds at Zion – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with possibilities.
As a result, the culmination of this project at UnCaged, “five pieces,” will feature an immense amount of sensory information crammed into a short amount of time — five fixed-format works bursting at the seams with audio and visual responses to each respective movement of John Cage’s suite. Each work consists of a sequence of the kids’ own graphic interpretations of that particular movement as performed by Phyllis, followed by a larger collage incorporating recordings by the kids, translations of their scores to other musical media (music box, GameBoy, and other various small objects) and mangled versions of Phyllis’ own recording of the Cage suite.
Why? It’s a question I’m still asking myself, but I prefer to stay focused on the “why not.” Why not give sixty elementary schoolers a chance to have a mini-world premiere? Why not allow John Cage’s work to serve as a springboard for new creative pathways? And why not toss in a few squiggles and doodles named Dumbo along the way? Although those who see the work on the 14th will only be experiencing the tip of the iceberg, I sincerely hope that it offers as much joy in viewing as it has for me in putting it all together.

Chromotoy Three Sketches for toy piano, tines and soundwheel by Christina Oorebeek

Christina Viola Oorebeek

Chromotoy I.2 Three Sketches for Schoenhut Toy Grand Piano (2013)

Toy Piano Tines, Soundwheel and Elecx

Soundwheel with playing implements






Chromotoy is my word for the many-colored sounds to be made with the 12 tones of our harmonic world on keyboard instruments. Solid sound colors, blended colors, primary and pastel colors unifying what we hear and see in the eye and ear.

“Chromotoy I.2” is the third piece in a trilogy for acoustic and electronic keyboards and small percussion instruments. “Chromotoy II” is written for Yamaha Disklavier, live sampling and improvisation by the performer. “Chromotoy III” is for acoustic grand piano, toy grand piano and a midi toy piano, which uses samples of toy piano or piano harmonics.

“Chromotoy I.2 – Three Sketches” was first performed at the rainy days festival in Luxemburg in 2012 with Phyllis Chen performing on the Schoenhut Toy Grand Piano,Toy Piano tines and Soundwheel and live electronics performed by the composer. For the 2013 Uncaged Toy Piano Festival, I am working on a new version of the piece, which uses the same instrumentation, but pre-recorded sounds. Composing these sounds is an interesting and challenging process. The live sampling and electronics of the first version gives the performers space for freedom of timing and interaction, but the new version allows for more precision and design, in the sense of form and balance. Wheels spinning new sounds seem to be a sub-category of the unusual instruments used in, the Uncaged Toy Piano Festival 2013. The wheel that I use and have named the Soundwheel, is a unicycle mounted on a stand played with invented implements.

Leaving off the pedals of the unicycle makes it easy to turn the wheel with one hand. Tines are the second instrument in this piece, along with the Toy Grand Piano:

Tines.1 free-standing iron rods which produce the sound of a Toy Piano, whenstruck by plastic hammers. This set was gutted from a 25key Schoenhut Toy piano and mounted on an amplified wooden wine box.

Tines.2 tines functioning normally inside of the 37key Toy Grand Piano. Unifying gestures of “Chromotoy I.2 – Three Sketches” are the glissandi on Tines.1,Tines.2 and the Soundwheel: whirring sounds like fluttering wings, or mechanical water wheels or lathes. Guirlandes of fast notes echo these glissandi. In between, sustained chords and repeated melodic fragments claim their own space. Tempi speed up and slow down within these gestures, creating peaks of excitation and ambient languor.

I am very much looking forward to coming to NYC and being a part of the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival and working with Tristan McKay, to whom I have been mailing notes and making preparations for the performance at Piano’s on December 12th.


Moon Veil by Peter Koeszeghy

The man in the moon


“If a shaman looks at himself in a mirror during full moon light, the same creature is looking back which he has been himself in a former life.“

When I was a little child I lived in a small village in Hungary. Nights were very starry then, thousands of them could be viewed in the sky. And full moon, when it’s time arrived, was very grand and bright. As a child I always thought I only had to jump up vigorously and land there immediately.

I always sleep very badly during full moon time – even today as a grown-up. The magic of full moon light is so energetic and extremely magnetic that my spirit seems to be nearly pulled out of my head.

In the room where I slept as a little child a waver-thin curtain hung in front of the window like a veil above the outside world. And if I couldn’t sleep during full moon times I hummed some self invented melodies for myself to lull me to sleep. At the same time in my imagination I tried to catch the moon shining in my bedroom with this curtain, thinking about putting him on a veil and catapulting him off like a ball in order to let me sleep in the end. This veil I required every month during full moon.

Once I discovered a face in the moon: it smiled at me and at the same time calmed me down. Suddenly the moon appeared as a person locked in heaven unable to move. I felt pity for him. After that I sung my hummed melodies for the moon himself, thinking of freeing the locked person there. The melody played by the melodica still is the same old melody I always tried to hum. The moon melody. And the toy piano creates the atmosphere of a children’s room, the place where I felt so comfortable.

Nowadays I also often look at the full moon through my window and hum the melody.Unfortunately the creature still is locked in the moon.”Moon veil“, the piece for toy piano and melodica, is a new attempt to get the creature out there.

I composed this special piece only at night, during the light of full moon. Now the music shall be the veil instead of the curtain. I don’t want to catapult the moon like a ball anymore – rather cover him so that the creature has it more comfortable inside, in this magical, round, sandy and cold planet companion.

Peter Koeszeghy 14th November 2013


Hatta by James Joslin: Down the Rabbit Hole we go…

James Joslin tells us about his new piece Hatta, for toy piano, chess set & tea set, sending us back to Alice’s nonsensical wonder-world. 

Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

This year’s UnCaged call was for toy piano and unconventional instrument, which left me wondering: Whatconstitutes an unconventional instrument? After much thinking, I decided that ‘unconventional’ means something that can make sound but isn’t considered an instrument at all!

I’ve wanted to write a piece involving a teapot since hearing Alvin Lucier’s Nothing is Real, whereby a pianist records a melody and then plays it back through a speaker hidden inside a teapot. The visual result of havinga pianist playing next to a teapot struck me as surreal and absurd in such an effortless way that I knew Iwanted to create a similar atmosphere in one of my own compositions and this call provided me with the opportunity to do so.

Hatta, for toy piano, tea set and amplified chess board, is a piece influenced by the tea party that takes place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s creation has influenced many artists and I feel that its illogical and childlike nature (which also hides some more grown up themes) is a perfect match for the characteristics of the toy piano.

Chapter VII: A Mad Tea-Party

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!

Up above the world you fly,

Like a tea-tray in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle ―”

“I’d hardly finished the first verse,” said the Hatter, “when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, ‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!’”

The Hatter (along with the March Hare and Dormouse) is forever stuck at 6 o’clock for murdering Time and I felt this musical reference needed to be a main focus in the piece. One of the performer’s tasks is to make a cup of tea and as the kettle is in the process of boiling they become stuck in time as a 4 bar motif is repeated over and over until the water has finished boiling. The musical line is not particularly extravagant, if anything it is monotonous, as if despairing that it will be stuck in this loop forever; forever at 6 o’clock. As if despairing at the madness of the March Hare and as if creating a hypnotic line that could tempt the Dormouse back into slumber. A mechanical alarm clock ticks away in the background, caging the performance as the toy pianist is forced to abide by its metronomic presence.

The solo performer is also instructed to play a game of chess which represents Alice’s movements through Wonderland as detailed in Through the Looking Glass. The chess board is amplified so that the sonic details of the moving pieces are audible to the audience and also passes through a reverb unit to create a detachment from the real (sane) world outside of the rabbit hole. The performer has to move both black and white chessmen meaning that they must frequently swap sides of the board and so mimic the tea party’s insane, constant changing of seats as enforced by the Hatter.

“I want a clean cup,” interrupted the Hatter: “let’s all move one place on.”

And so Hatta presents a bizarre and manic sound world juxtaposed with the calm and the rational; a bizarre visual piece of theatre contrasted with a… well, just bizarre actually. The two worlds of Wonderland and reality tug and pull the audience in both directions, but which is which? I’m not sure. And why is a raven like a writing-desk? I haven’t the slightest idea!

On Toycycle (for toy piano and tricycle) by Yvonne Freckmann

When I first heard of UnCaged Toy Piano’s call for toy piano and unconventional instrument, I felt intrigued. Toy piano had started to come up in conversations with some of my pianist friends in the past couple of months prior, and I was impressed by how composers and players were incorporating this instrument into their music. I met former UnCaged toy pianist Yen-Lin Goh, who wrote her DMA Document about the instrument, and had toy pianos and other musical “toys” filling her apartment. Something about the miniature size and striking sounds made these instruments irresistible – fun and beautiful.

As a composer, I am interested in theatrical and visual aspects of performance (and comedy) to complement the sound. Toycycle is a full-body piece requiring even more coordination than normal from a pianist, a fun challenge for contemporary music virtuoso Kathleen Supové to tackle and premiere! The program note reads the following: Toycycle (pronounced toy-sickle) for Toy Piano and Tricycle exploits the proclivity of toy pianists to play, discover, and explore. The performer riding the tricycle discovers the toy piano and bravely initiates a dialogue.

The image of adults playing these tiny instruments led me to think of a similar juxtaposition: an adult riding a tricycle or child-sized bicycle. Next thing I knew, I was straddling a tricycle in a supermarket, testing out bicycle bells and horns, and researching noise makers for the spokes such as inserted playing cards or the “Spokester Bicycle Noise Maker.” These percussion instruments from our everyday lives became central players in my piece. Friends and colleagues with whom I discussed this project were amused and curious about how I would execute this unconventional instrument pairing.

Thanks to Phyllis Chen and fellow organizers. I am thrilled to be a part of the 2013 UnCaged Toy Piano Festival.


Margaret Leng Tan/Ranjit Batnagar unveil the Speak and Play

On December 12th, Margaret Leng Tan and Ranjit Batnagar team up to premiere the Speak And Play, a hacked-invented keyboard instrument made by Ranjit during his “An Instrument-A-Day” project last February. Read about what we can expect to see at Pianos!

 Ranjit and I are planning for this UNCAGED launch premiere of SPEAK AND PLAY is to use selections from John Cage’s INDETERMINACY as the basis for our performance. Indeterminacy consists of  99 anecdotes each of which have to be performed within the span of one minute. Some have a lot of words, some are very sparse so this determines the speed of execution.

We have selected 14 stories that we like and I have asked Ranjit to reduce that to 8, based on his preference. Ideally we will prepare 8 and on the evening perform 5 selected randomly (by someone in the audience?). If we don’t have enuf time we will just prepare 5.

After Ranjit has programmed the words into SPEAK AND PLAY, I will proceed to translate the stories into a playable musical experience. For variety’s sake I think I will share the speaking role with the computer’s robot voice. Cage’s Indeterminacy also calls for auxiliary sounds/noises so Ranjit will provide these live, using various toys from his and my arsenal! He’ll have a field day!

This will be a unique rendition of Indeterminacy for sure!

There is a nice video of us realizing SPEAK AND PLAY at:

Post my Monica Pearce

Monica Pearce (Toronto, Canada)

My not-so-secret love affair with toy pianos began about five years ago, when I picked up a used 37-key Schoenhut off Craigslist. Soon after, I formed the Toronto-based composer collective the Toy Piano Composers, with the toy piano as a symbol for the group, and often a featured instrument. Since then, the toy piano has been quite intertwined in many of my creative projects, and has been the inspiration for pieces like the two toy piano duet Chess Suite, a central character in the chamber work Girl before a Mirror, part of the electronics in it plays (because it plays), and now as part of this project for toy piano and bicycle bells.

Having followed the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival (from afar) for several years, my interest was piqued this year when I saw the call for “music for toy piano and unconventional instrument”.  When I started formulating my ideas, I kept circling around the idea of bicycle bells, and the kind of crazy timbral palette they could create in combination with the toy piano. But, are they unconventional? Debatable – they have certainly been used amply in new music. What attracted me to the bicycle bells, in addition to the vibrant timbral possibilities, was the “everyday” aspect: for many people, including myself as a biker, the sound of bicycle bells is part of their everyday sound world.

Currently still in “rough draft” mode, I can let you in a bit on the process so far. My first step was to search for the right combination of bicycle bells, as I had decided early on I wanted to have set pitches for the piece (though I was flexible on what those set pitches would be). I also wanted to find a combination of ring bells (the classic bicycle bells with multiple rings – “ring-ring”), and ding bells (one high-pitched “ding”). I must have auditioned about twenty bells at various bike stores, toy stores, and department stores. I found three winners: two ring bells pitched at Ab and B (respectively), and one ding bell pitched at G.

The next and biggest issue was somewhat logistical: how could I affix these bells onto something so that they could be played by one hand only? I did not want a situation where both hands needed to be used to pick up the bell and play, because there was going to be quite a bit of back-and-forth between the toy piano and the bells. To make the physicality work, I decided the optimal way would be to have them on some kind of stand that could be positioned horizontally, to be on the same axis as the toy piano. Though it’s still to be determined how it will work for the performance, for the writing of the piece, I have affixed the bells to a mike stand, which is working very well. It could also easily work on a percussion stand. Once the piece is completed, I will ship these lovely bells off to Margaret and she’ll begin the next adventure – learning the piece.

As for the musical material, I’m right in the middle of it, and it’s ornate, weird, unpredictable, rich in overtones, suspenseful, and sometimes mechanical…and the rest you’ll have to wait for…