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

Motto:

“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:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ranjit/6839413871/in/set-72157629137814083/

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…

Silvia Corda’s piece for Toy piano and Dulcimer

The runner-up this year is Silvia Corda, an Italian pianist, composer, fellow toy pianist and jazz improviser. Based on the links on her website, it seems like she is working on numerous interesting projects, including a new release “The Breath” in August 2013.

She sent in a beautiful piece, Tre Ritratti del Tempo, for toy piano and dulcimer. I have been longing for a piece with this combination for quite a few years and found her recording to be such a beautiful gem.  I will be performing the piece on December 13th at Dimenna Center of Classical Music. My dulcimer? Still in transit! I’m looking forward to discovering its potential.

Here is Silvia’s soundcloud page with her performing it. Enjoy!

The UnConventional Instrument by Anthony Marasco

Hello! I’m Anthony T. Marasco, and I’m this year’s winner of the UnCaged Toy Piano Call for Scores. I’m extremely excited to join forces with Phyllis Chen to create a brand new composition for toy piano for the 2013 festival. Over the next few months, I’ll be popping in and posting updates to this blog so that you can follow along with the development of the piece and watch its evolution from the very beginning stages to its world premiere in New York City at the end of the year.

So, where do we begin?

I think an apropos place to start this series of posts is with the first major decision I made when I sat down to propose this piece to UnCaged judges: which unconventional instrument would I choose to pair with the toy piano. This was a major element of this year’s call for scores, and I knew that if I couldn’t conceive of a piece that utilized a truly “out of the box” instrument in a practical (yet challenging) manner, then I would be missing the entire point of this year’s theme. As someone who experiments with various preparations to traditional instruments and creates homemade instruments from scratch, I had a ton of options swimming around in my head to choose from. Eventually, I decided to narrow down my options by looking for an instrument that met a few basic criteria:

  • The instrument needed to be something that is not traditionally “performed” by human hands, meaning that the initiation of vibration had to come from some other force than physical touch
  • The instrument should be something that would seem out of place in any enclosed area, not specifically a concert hall or performance space
  • The instrument should be controllable in the same manner that a multi-percussionist can access and manipulate multiple sound sources during a performance

As you can imagine, this set of criteria helped me to cut out a couple of early contenders for the role.  With only a few options left, I then began conceiving the extra-musical elements of the piece (more on that in my next post), and finally settled on a hybrid of two instruments that would help me reach my sonic and programmatic goals for the piece: an Aeolian harp/plastorgan, powered by electric fans.

An Aeolian harp is a somewhat “novelty” instrument that is commonly used as an outdoor sound source/lawn ornament; think of it as the less conventional, more complex cousin to your garden variety set of wind chimes. The instrument consists of multiple strings suspended over a hollow, resonating body, similar to a concert harp. When moving air passes over the instrument, the strings vibrate creating a droning, tonal pitch with an airy, ethereal tone color (a quality Henry Cowell emulates in this piece for solo piano). Since Aeolian harps as often meant to serve as a decoration, many of them are built out of elaborately carved wood or metal and can’t be easily tuned. For my purposes, however, a homemade version (using a rain gutter spout for a body!) will be necessary.

Since the Aeolian harp has a somewhat refined and beautiful tone color, I wanted to counter act that with another wind-powered instrument that would utilize an unruly approach to pitch and tone color, and I decided to add a plastorgan choir to my aeolian harp. A plastorgan (known by a variety of other names, depending on who you ask) consists of multiple plastic bottles of various sizes, each with a vertical slit cut into its body and mounted on top of a short wooden pole (an example of the various sounds capable from plastorgans can be found here). When air passes both into and across the slit of each bottle, the resulting vibration creates a resonant sonority distinguished more by register than by pitch. Depending on the size of the bottle, the resulting sonority will fall either in the treble, bass, or middle register. The whistling tone color of the Plastorgan is considerably rougher and unrefined when compared to that of the Aeolian harp and when placed in front of a continuously moving air source (such as an  oscillating fan) can produce an entire range of unspecified pitches in a pattern dictated by the speed of the fan’s movements. Each bottle can be individually turned away from the fan in order to stop it from sounding, and the performer has the ability to control the speed of the oscillating fan in addition to starting and stopping its movement.

In the end, I felt that this unique hybrid-instrument would serve as both a complimentary and contradictory sound source for the toy piano, due to its ability to produce a wide variety of pitches (not limited to equal temperament), static drones, sporadic interjections, and a mixture of sophisticated and unrefined tone colors. As I write this, I’m knee deep in the building process of the harp/plastorgan hybrid, and will be sharing some pictures from the work bench in an upcoming post. Thanks for checking in, and be sure to come back for some more insight into the piece in the near future!

 

The UnConventional Instrument

After performing at the Thingamajigs Festival in San Francisco last October, I started to formulate my idea for the 2013 UnCaged call for scores. This year, the call was for either  pre-existing pieces or new works using  the toy piano and an unconventional instrument. I received a lot of emails asking what I meant by “unconventional” and whether something he/she had in mind would be suitable for this type of pairing. There were some really intriguing and wild ideas out there that I’d venture to say were the first to show up in a toy piano piece….or maybe in any piece for that matter. Some of the highlights of oddities that spring to mind from the call would include a polaroid camera, a raw piece of meat, a bowler hat, a power drill (yes, toy piano and power drill!), a book, a microwave, two ventilators with plastic bags, a hung drum, bicycle bells, pots, bowls, beatboxing, teapots and many more. This year’s call was no doubt a wealth of interesting ideas.

In the judging process, we gave preference to pieces/proposals that seem to have a firm concept on how the unconventional instrument would work and interact in combination with the toy piano.  In a toy piano call for scores, we don’t expect composers to have necessarily written for the instrument before, so the work sample was really important to give us a sense of what the composer’s voice is truly like.

There were quite a few proposals and pre-existing pieces that used live electronics in innovative ways (i.e. game controllers or other synth keyboards.) Many of these proposals and pieces were quite interesting, but I feel that the use of computer-generated music is no longer “unconventional,” particularly with a toy piano. Even with some great pieces using this combo, it just didn’t feel right for a computer to get the benefit in the year we were looking for an unconventional instrument.

This year, Tony Marasco builds an aeolian harp/plastorgan hybrid. I’ll leave the explanation  to the next blog post written by him regarding the new piece and the new instrument. As a performer, it’s kind of thrilling and terrifying to commit oneself to perform an instrument that doesn’t exist yet. But there’s something very exciting about discovering a new sound or new instrument for the first time and figuring it out. Come out to the festival and we can discover it together!