Artist Blog

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!


Rainy Days 2012-Call for scores

Luxembourg Phil is making a toy piano call-for-scores this month! Selected pieces will be performed as part of the John Cage Centennial celebration in December. There were some great scores from our last call, in fact too many for us to perform. Please send your pieces in for another shot at the Toy Piano Summit in December!

Details can be found on at this link.


2012 Commissions A New Piece for Toy Piano

Since I began playing the toy piano,  a tremendous number of people have expressed interest in writing for the instrument but never have the realistic opportunity to do so. This year, I decided to break away from the original UnCaged Toy Piano call-for-scores and invite musicians/composers of all walks of life to propose any idea they might have that incorporates a toy piano. By turning this year into a commissioning project rather than a call-for-scores, I hope that artists who have never written for the toy piano will be equally interested as composers who are already familiar with the toy piano.  I am optimistic of the numerous creative musical ways the toy piano can be used and look forward to hearing your ideas!

Twinkle Damnit! (post by David Wolfson)

At tonight’s Toy Bonanza concert, we will hear the world premiere of a new piece by David Wolfson. Read what he has to say about the evolution of the new piece and the collaborative process! This post is used with permission from David’s blog.

Last summer, on a whim, I wrote a piece for a competition. The competition was for music for “toy piano and other toy instruments:” the 4th Annual UnCaged Toy Piano Competition and Festival. My piece didn’t win, but it drew the attention of one of the judges: Margaret Leng Tan, “the queen of the toy piano.” She decided that the piece, “Twinkle, Dammit! An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song,” was perfect for the new performance direction she’s exploring, which she calls “sit-down comedy.”

That was how I found myself in Margaret’s music room the Monday night before Thanksgiving, along with her two grand pianos, umpteen toy pianos, and one of her many dogs.  The toy piano she’d picked for this piece was sitting on the floor between the two grands, and she sat on a (very) low stool behind it, with the music photocopied to one-quarter size so it could rest on top of the toy piano. She offered me a (full-size) piano bench to sit on, which I tried, but eventually chose the floor.

She had come up with a scenario (which she had told me about in a previous phone conversation). She had substituted a rubber hammer and a squeaky rattle for the rubber duck and train whistle I had specified in the score (which she had asked permission to do when she first contacted me). And, as it turned out, she’d also changed tempos, chopped rhythms in half, and added a left-hand part to a passage I’d written for the right hand alone.

Gulp. Was this still my piece?

Did I care?

Margaret’s vision of the piece is personal, idiosyncratic, and self-consistent. And very funny. Everything she’d done, she’d done for a reason—and by the time we got done rehearsing an hour and a half later, we’d made more changes, some of them her ideas, some of them mine. I’ve had a fair amount of experience collaborating in theatrical situations—and that’s what this was. I did my best to clarify what I thought she was trying to do, some of which involved musical choices and some of which involved physical/visual choices. (It’s not often I feel the lack of puppetry experience in my life, but I did that night.)

There are plenty of composers who have seen, and applauded, radical reinterpretations of their music. (I’ve even had it happen to me before; see Tamra Hayden’s acoustic guitar version of Song for an Accident). (She gets some of the chords wrong, but it’s still pretty cool.) But I haven’t heard any stories about that happening for the first performance!

I don’t know whether I’ll ever hear Twinkle, Dammit! the way I wrote it. (It’s not as though there are a lot of concert toy pianists out there.) I suspect that if I did, at this point…I might find it dull.

The 4th Annual UnCaged Toy Piano Festival is happening THIS WEEK in New York City. My piece is being played on Saturday night December 3rd, 8 pm at the DiMenna Center, 450 W. 37th St. Come if you can! If I can get a video, I’ll post it here as soon as I get it. In the meantime, please check out the edible toy piano (which will be featured at the concert).

Notes on Hard Hard Hard! by Yen-lin Goh

Tomorrow night, Yen-lin Goh will give the New York premiere of Ge Gan-Ru’s Hard, Hard, Hard! a new monodrama for toy piano and toy instruments. Surely not to be missed! Find out more about the piece in her entry below.

For Ge Gan-Ru’s Hard, Hard, Hard!  Tang Wan’s reply to Lu You’s poem (translated by Xu Yuanzhong)

 The world unfair,

True manhood rare,

Dusk melts away in rain and

blooming trees turn bare.

Morning wind high,

Tear traces dry.

I’ll write to you what’s in my heart,

Leaning on rails, speaking apart,


Hard, hard, hard

Each goes his way,

Gone are our days,

Like ropes of a

swing my sick soul

groans always.

The horn blows cold,

Night has grown old.

Afraid my grief may

be descried,

I try to hide my tears undried.

Hide, hide, hide!

Inspired by Phoenix Haripin, a heartfelt Chinese poem by the famous poet of Song Dynasty, Lu You (1125-1210), Ge Gan-ru wrote a melodrama Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!for Margaret Leng Tan in 2006. This melodrama utilizes not only toy piano, but also other toy instruments that she had collected. Lu You is known as one of the greatest patriotic poets in ancient China. However, this particular poem does not dwell on his political aspirations but has as its subject his own tragic love story. Lu You grew up with his cousin Tang Wang, with whom he was first married. Even though they lived very happily together, Lu You was forced by his tyrannical mother to divorce his wife. They remained deeply in love with each other. Eight years later, in the spring of 1155, Lu You by chance met Tang Wan in the Shen Garden. Both had been remarried. Tang Wan offered Lu You golden teng wine. Lu You’s heart was broken when he saw her in tears and he spontaneously wrote the poem Phoenix Hairpin on the garden wall. This poem, in the Song Dynasty ci form following the ci convention, is in two stanzas. The first stanza ends with the word cuo repeated three times, which is the Chinese word for “wrong”. After Tang Wan read Lu You’s poem, she immediately wrote one back in response, using the same form. She was so sad that she became very sick and died soon after she wrote the poem.

My performance of Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! in 2010 led to the commission of a sequel from Ge Gan-ru based on Tang Wan’s reply to Lu You’s poem. Pianist Genevieve Lee has later agreed to join me as a co-commissioner. This companion piece, Hard, Hard, Hard! uses a similar instrumentation: toy piano, toy harp, toy glockenspiel and paper accordion, as well as other toys I have collected. Like Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, Hard, Hard, Hard! gives “voice” to Tang Wan’s poem, further revealing this unforgettable 800-year-old Chinese romance.

Ge Gan-ru, described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “China’s first avant-garde composer,” is regarded as one of the most original composers of his generation. His music is known for its immediately identifiable individualism and unique sound. Ge has composed music for concerts as well as theater, dance and documentary and feature films. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ge was already known in China as the first composer to employ contemporary and avant-garde techniques, which were prohibited at the time. He was criticized for his individualism, which was directly at odds with the prevailing ideology. His cello piece “Yi Feng,” written in 1982, marked the first avant-garde composition in China’s music history.  Ge Gan-ru’s music reflects his deep interest in amalgamating Eastern and Western musical aesthetics. He writes, “I try to combine contemporary Western compositional techniques with my Chinese experience and Chinese musical characteristics to create a unique and highly individual sound world.”

Have Schoenhut, Will Travel (post by David Smooke)

Have Schoenhut, Will Travel

 LXXIX. Extended Toy Piano

For the past several years, I’ve been spending a large amount of time playing a very small piano. It all began when I was asked to write a short piece for toy piano—played by the amazing Phyllis Chen—and two violas, for the 2004 ICE Toy Piano Zoo. I was enchanted by the evocatively nostalgic sound of the instrument, produced by tiny plastic hammers tapping metal rods. In 2009, Phyllis asked me to write a work for two toy pianos for a concert in Tokyo, the last movement of which is for one toy piano, four hands. Later that year, I incorporated a toy piano solo into a large work for two pianos and percussion.

While I was composing the latter piece at an artists’ colony, I performed my first toy piano improvisations as part of a multi-media presentation by an interdisciplinary artist who was in residence with me at the time. Further collaborative pieces followed, as did free improvisations with some amazing musicians. In attempting to blend with other instruments, I found myself playing the metal tines directly in order to produce a greater variety of sounds at volumes other than the mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte range typical of the toy piano itself. Schoenhut Toy Pianos, the premiere contemporary manufacturer of these instruments created an instrument specifically for me in order to allow me greater access to the working innards.

Probably the greatest advantage of performing on this instrument is that it’s significantly easier to transport a toy piano than a regular piano. I’ve been focusing more and more of my attention on this small box, including composing a concerto for myself to play along with a chamber orchestra. In preparation for a performance on the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival this December, I’ve been working on solo improvisations. I want to share with you some of the extended techniques possible on the toy piano, some of the available sounds beyond its typical bell-tone. I recorded myself improvising on an amplified instrument, using a Kaoss pad in order to record and play back for a more layered sound. All the noises you will hear were originally produced by the toy piano itself within the improvisation, without any sound processing, even though you will hear some only as recorded and reproduced electronically.


My biggest frustration when performing on toy piano along with other instruments has been the inability to create a sustained tone. In order to transcend this difficulty, I’ve been working with several different techniques for bowing the toy piano itself, as you will see in the video below. As I continue, I bring in knitting needles in order to create a truer bell sound than that created by the instrument’s plastic hammers.

Watch video here.

In this second excerpt, I strum the metal tines to produce a gentler attack than the typical toy piano sound. In the background you can hear some other bowed toy piano sounds being played by the Kaoss pad.

Watch video here.

In addition to the difficulties creating a sustained tone on the toy piano, I also get jealous when I’m performing with other instrumentalists who play glissandos. While it’s not as clean as a swooping tone on a violin, I have created a technique for glissandos and microtonal inflections, as you can here in this next excerpt. As in the second excerpt, the background will include some sounds from earlier in the improvisation that have been recorded without further manipulation.

Watch video here.

For me, the biggest draw of the toy piano is paradoxically found within its limitations. I enjoy the creative problem solving needed in order to match the tone and musicality of other instruments, and I believe that it’s an excellent exercise towards creating new compositions. The same process that has forced me to rethink the possible performance techniques for this toy instrument can be applied to the piano itself or to any instrument for which I’m composing, and has allowed me to re-consider my basic approach to sound itself.

This article originally appeared on NewMusicBox. Join the discussion here.



Fabian Svensson’s Toy Toccata

Many people have asked me about previous UnCaged winners’ compositions. Fabian’s Toy Toccata was the winner of the 2nd UnCaged Toy Piano call, Virtuosity. Here are some notes on this piece:

Toy Toccata (in Black and White) is a short but intense piece for toy piano. Technically, the basic concept of the piece is the rapid alternation between white and black keys. On another level, the piece can be seen as a toy piano’s (attempted) rebellion against its own inherent cuteness and innocence.

The piece was not only the winner of the 2nd UnCaged Toy Piano, but it was also shortlisted for the 2010 Gaudeamus Prize. To view a preview of the score, check out Fabian’s website.

Wendy Mae Chambers “For The Birds”

Wendy Mae Chambers begins her new bird-inspired pieces!

For the Birds – by Wendy Mae Chambers

Oliver Messiaen is one of my favorite composers and I was inspired to also use birdsong as a point of departure especially since I am currently living in a ‘bird rich’ environment in Key Largo.  I also volunteer at the Key Largo Wild Bird Center and the songbird room is my bailiwick.

When Phyllis Chen commissioned me to compose a piece for toy piano I was very excited as I felt that birdsong is much better suited to the toy piano as opposed to the ‘real’ piano.  Bird songs are articulate and percussive yet dainty and so is the toy piano.  Plans are to continue on with an entire catalog of toy piano pieces based on birdsong.

The wonderful thing about the toy piano is that it’s portable and space friendly.  The Schoenhut 37 keyed instrument is an instrument of high quality and the sound and action is wonderful.  I suppose I like the limitations too when I’m composing.  It’s kind of nice to only have 37 keys and it’s not such a ‘big deal’ to write for the instrument, but, most of all, I just love the sound.