Artist Blog

Margaret Leng Tan performs Wrong,Wrong,Wrong! for toy instruments

This week, we hear from the one and only Margaret Leng Tan about the stunning piece Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! by Ge Gan-Ru. Watch a video of the piece from her performance at Present Music… or come see her live at the toy piano festival this year!

(photo by Michael Dames)

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! is a poem of sorrow and anguish by the illustrious Song dynasty poet, Lu You (1125-1210). This renowned poem was written spontaneously on a wall of the Sun garden in 1155 following a chance encounter with his cousin and former wife Tang Wan, whom he was made to divorce on the decree of his tyrannical mother. (The “malevolent East Wind” in the first stanza is but a caustic metaphor for the hateful matriarch!) The girl wasted away from a broken heart while Lu You composed poems of loss and abiding love into his autumnal years. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! speaks of her grief while clearly reflecting the torment of the poet himself.

From my toy arsenal Ge chose the toy piano, a toy table harp (which he could treat as a toy qin or zither), toy glockenspiel, and a percussion battery consisting of two claves, three cup gongs, one beaded gourd rattle, a pitched plastic hammer and a Japanese toy taiko drum. The hammer, plastic flute, and a paper accordion endowed with a two-note compass each cost one dollar in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Electronic frog and cricket boxes, along with a water warbler, completed the ensemble.

Given the limitations and idiosyncrasies of my untrained voice, Gan-ru allowed me free rein to experiment. In offering my own personal take on the Chinese operatic tradition I do not claim authenticity, but I have tried to capture something of the nasal timbre and melismatic flights of fancy so characteristic of the woman’s singing as well as the peculiar guttural texture of the declamatory male voice.

Ge Gan-ru, described in the New Grove Dictionary as ‘China’s first avant-garde composer’, came to the USA in 1983 where he established a reputation for writing music marked by an immediately recognizable individualism and a unique sound. His CD, Fall of Baghdad (Naxos), was chosen as one of the best recordings of 2009 by The New York Times.

Since 1985, Ge Gan-ru has composed for me Gu Yue (Ancient Music), inspired by traditional Chinese instruments and an unusual piano concerto, Wu (Rising to the Heights). Two decades later he created Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, a Peking opera-inspired melodrama for my voice self-accompanied by a toy orchestra of 16 instruments.


by Lu You

Hong su shou,                          Her hand rosy, tender,
Huang teng jiu,                        Pours the yellow t’eng wine,
Man cheng chun se                   Spring hues adorn the city,
Gong qiang liu.                         Willows embrace garden walls.
Dong feng e,                            The East Wind malevolent,
Huan qing bo.                          Conjugal bliss evanescent.
Yi huai chou xu,                        A heart sorrow-laden,
Ji nian li suo.                            Cruel years steeped in loneliness asunder.
Cuo, Cuo, Cuo!                         Oh, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Chun ru jiu,                               Spring as in days of yore,
Ren kong shou,                          So wan and wasted is she,
Lei hen hong yi                          Rivulets of tears
Jiao xiao tou.                             Drench her pink kerchief.
Tao hua luo,                              Peach blossoms falling,
Xian chi ge.                               Stillness pervades pond and pavilion.
Shan meng sui zai,                     Vows immutable as mountains,
Jin shu nan tuo.                         Yet how futile a lovelorn epistle.
Mo, Mo, Mo!                               Ah, Woe, Woe, Woe!

Translation by Margaret Leng Tan and Wan-he Ge ©2006

The Robo- toy piano

This year’s festival will feature instrument-builder/sound artist Ranjit Bhatnagar with his robo-toy piano. We are excited to have a robot performer as part of the festivities!

In Ranjit’s own words, “I bought a toy player piano on ebay.  It arrived all smashed to bits.  I rescued the hammers and chimes and added mechanical actuators to bring it back to life!”

Here, you can read about the 19-hour Satie Vexation marathon the robo-toy piano endured.

…Or watch a short clip of the robo-toy piano playing a small part of Phliip Glass’s Modern Love Waltz originally written for Margaret Leng Tan.

Karlheinz Essl’s Whatever Shall Be for toy piano, electronics and gadgets

I am very excited to be recording Karlheinz Essl‘s Whatever Shall Be for toy piano, gadgets and electronics next month for my third toy piano album. After performing his other two popular works for toy piano Kalimba and Sequitur V, I asked him to write me a new piece for the 2010 Look & Listen Festival in New York City. Here are his notes about the piece:

At the beginning of the 3rd millennium, I had a strange encounter with a strange instrument: the toy piano, which – at the first glance – didn’t attract me that much. On the contrary, I didn’t properly estimate its restricted sound possibilities and regarded it quite uninteresting and boring. My immature prejudice changed entirely when I borrowed a toy piano from Isabel Ettenauer who was asking me since years to write a piece for her. And now, after being forced to dedicate myself to this instrument I soon understood that it has nothing to do with the piano as we know it. When I hit a key on a regular piano, I am not just hearing a note, but also the whole history of this instrument with its repertory from Bach to Boulez that the piano sound transports. This fact always makes it difficult for me to compose for piano as it always reminds me of historical music that I love – and also abhor. This didn’t seem to happen to me when I was playing on the toy piano because its sound has nothing to do with a conventional piano. Instead of strings this instrument has metal rods which are hit by a hammer, producing sonic qualities that rather remind me of bells or a celesta, Asian gamelan, or even an African kalimba. After writing my first toy piano piece in 2005 called Kalimba, I became more and more interested in scrutinizing the possibilities of this instrument. A few months later I composed WebernSpielWerk as a tombeau for Anton Webern. Here, the toy piano was utilized as a carillon – a very tiny one -, and in fact the piece was modeled after the generative sound installation WebernUhrWerk which was played at the 60th anniversary of Webern’s death from a loudspeaker hidden inside a roof at the market place of Mittersill where the composer was shot in 1945. But that was not enough: In 2008, when I started my Sequitur project for various solo instruments with live-electronics, of course a piece for toy piano was on my agenda. But then, after having written already several toy piano pieces, I met Phyllis Chen in New York. It was a hot and humid summer day in 2009 as we sat together in a tiny park in Midtown, exchanging our experiences with this strange and fascinating instrument. That’s when Phyllis suggested to write another piece, for her. And I immediately said Yes! In my previous toy piano composition, my aim was always to find a new perspective to this instrument. In order to break up the restricted sound world, I was hiding a tiny loudspeaker inside the toy piano for Kalimba which played back pre-produced sounds. WebernUhrWerk, however, is only played on the keys, and Sequitur V uses live-electronics which create a sonic house-of-mirrors solely from the live input of the instrument. This time I concentrated on the “ugly” parts of the instrument which are commonly not regarded as musical: the guts apart from the keys – the body of the instrument. So I was approaching the toy piano like an innocent child who looks into the belly of the instrument and starts scratching and knocking here and there. In fact, due to the acoustic properties of the sound boards, this produces very rich and fascinating sounds. Then I mounted a contact microphone on the downside of the the sound board which was connected to a special computer program that I had conceived for this composition: a kind of sonic “particle accelerator” (like the ill-fated CERN in Geneva) which creates a maelstrom of sounds, swirling around the audience. But there is yet another story which I have to mention in the end: When experimenting with the entrails of the toy piano, I realized that its sound board acts as a splendid amplifier for tiny sounds and noises. When putting a small music box inside, its lanky sound becomes strong and mighty, mixing nicely with the key sounds of the toy piano. That happens at the very end of the piece. And in fact everything that is heard before – rhythmical cells, melodic motives, even the harmonic structure – has derived from this little music box melody which arose from the great movie “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by Alfred Hitchcock. And the refrain of the song reads: “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.”

Click here to watch a video of the piece.

Norfolk in Summer (for toy piano + melodica) by Naftali Schindler

This week, we hear from Naftali Schindler about his new piece, Norfolk In Summer:
I sketched the themes for this piece while staying at the Chamber Music Festival in Norfolk, CT. The atmosphere was idyllic and the setting ideal for composing. I was working on a piece for standard piano which I was dedicating to my first piano teacher, Shlomo Schnall. Since he is a big fan of the music of Alexander Scriabin, I played around at the piano with Scriabin’s “mystic” chord. The estate on which we were had a bell tower which rang every fifteen minutes, putting bell sounds into my head. These sources inspired the main theme of the piece which consists of repeated chords which eventually find their way to the “mystic” chord.
The bell tower, together with my long-standing interest in sounds derived from the overtone series, also inspired the tolling theme that begins the piece which traces the overtone series. The chirping of the birds in the local woods inspired the twittering, nervous second subsidiary theme that intertwines the chirping lines of both hands.
When I read that Phyllis was searching for toy piano pieces, I immediately thought of these sketches since they seem to really have a toy piano sound to them. I used the melodica for the sounds that needed more of a sustain to them. I put the sketched themes together in a rondo-esque arch form, in which each section is based on the ending chord of the preceding section.
Naftali Schindler is a graduate of the Master of Musical Arts program at the Yale School of Music where he studied with Aaron Jay Kernis, Martin Bresnick, Ezra Laderman, and David Lang.
Naftali studied composition and music theory at Boston University, graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Music degree. His teachers at BU included Martin Amlin and Theodore Antoniou. He presented his work in master-classes given by Lukas Foss, Samuel Adler, and David Liptak, among others.
Naftali’s music has been performed internationally, including performances by Alea III, Yale Philharmonia, Pykka Quintet, and the BU Symphony Orchestra (who included his Petrarch Sonnets on the 2006 honors concert) and at venues such as Bang on a Can Festival, Woolsey Hall and the Felicja Blumenthal Center in Tel Aviv. He has been commissioned by Alea III, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and Steve Parker, among others. He is a member of Pi Kappa Lambda and Eliezer Society, and is a recipient of the John Day Jackson and the Rena Greenwald Memorial Prizes. Naftali is also an aspiring throat-singer in the Tuvan manner.

Dante De Silva’s “Scratch Record” for toy instruments

This week we hear from Dante De Silva about his piece Scratch Record for toy piano, muted toy piano, toy glock and toy percussion.

  Thrift stores around my hometown would sell used vinyl records really cheap—20 for $2 wasn’t too uncommon. I amassed a large collection quite quickly, but these records were of questionable quality both in content and physically—most of the records were ridiculously scratched. One record, titled something similar to “Piano Moods,” consisted of track after track of arpeggiated chords within a key moving in a very predictable way with bells and drums added on some of the tracks. But because the record was scratched up, the rhythms became much more interesting than steady eighth or sixteenth notes in 4/4. Time signatures seemed to be changing constantly, but only because of the serendipitous nature of the scratches. All this chaos resulted in something more interesting than just a piano mood.
Scratch Record, scored for toy piano, muted toy piano, toy glockenspiel, toy tambourine, and toy drum, is an attempted recreation of that record using instruments similar to those used. As for the disc itself, it was used in a Rube Goldberg machine made for my physics class—it was hurled like a Frisbee across the classroom to hit something that hit something that hit the snooze button on an alarm clock. Needless to say, it, and many of its friends, died a horrible death in the name of science and a C+ grade.
This piece calls for toy piano, muted toy piano, toy glockenspiel, toy tambourine, and toy drum. Ever since the birth of my son, I have been collecting these instruments. He currently doesn’t have the glockenspiel, but I’m sure that will be remedied soon enough. I tell people who are giving these instruments as gifts that they are for my son, but now they’re going to know what their real purpose is.Slight bio:
Dante De Silva (b. 1978), a southern California native, studied composition at Humboldt State University (B.A.), UC Santa Cruz (M.A.), and UCLA (Ph. D.), where his principal teachers were David Lefkowitz, Paul Reale, David Cope, Paul Nauert.  He also studied piano with Deborah Clasquin and percussion with Eugene Novotney at Humboldt State University.
His compositions have been performed by such wonderful performers as Gloria Cheng, Talea Ensemble, Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, Santa Monica Symphony Woodwind Quintet, Composer’s Inc., as well many others.  He was the composer-in-residence with the Definiens Project (2005-2007) and the Tonoi Ensemble (2006-2007).
He is currently working on the second book of Drive-Thru Etudes for pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, Mr. Distinguished – based on a section from Emily Post’s Etiquette, the comically dark ballet Mad, Mad Science for live electronics and percussion, and Castle Gesualdo, an opera written for the San Francisco-based Ensemble Parallèle to be premiered in early 2013.  He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son, and two cats.

James Joslin’s Fur Enola

This week we are hearing from James Joslin about his piece Für Enola!
About the composition:
Für Enola for toy piano and jack-in-the-box was conceived as an attempt to bridge the gap between the inherent childlike nature of the toy piano and it’s more recent status as a ‘serious’ instrument.  Chance operations were used in an effort to construct the piece in a manner mimicking that of a child playing the toy piano; seemingly random strikes with no regard for key or motif, just individual events happening through time.  The score notates the part of the toy piano and also declares when the jack-in-the-box handle should be turned.  Eventually the jack will pop out of the box, whereby the performer is asked to spin a spinning top in silence.  When it falls the piece may continue to the end.
Far from just being an aural piece, Für Enola is also visual theatre as the audience (and performer) anticipates the jump of the jack-in-the-box and feels the awkwardness of the silence whilst waiting for the spinning top to fall.  The performer is encouraged to react to these events and to not feel ashamed if the jack makes them jump!  This spectacle and humour is intended as a nod to the man who first saw the potential of the toy piano as a concert instrument; John Cage.
About the composer:
James Joslin (b.1987) is an English composer and performer based between Brighton and Leicester where he is currently studying Music, Technology and Innovation at De Montfort University.  James’ recent works are varied and include pieces for instruments such as the toy piano, soundscapes involving contact recordings of landmark structures, and compositions constructed by using chance operations.  Most recently James has been interested in creating works by using acoustic instruments as an input for live electronics either by using analog technologies or the coding environment MaxMSP.  He is exploring ways to create a relationship between instrumentalist and live electronics using only an input instrument and avoiding the likes of MIDI controllers.  Working particularly with guitar, piano and toy piano, James is always keen to find new avenues to explore, particularly in regard to extended playing techniques and the notational problems that arise from them.

Rusty Bank’s Babbling Tower-to-Tower

Babbling Tower-to-Tower is a work for toy piano and that other toy that has been a defining part of the aughts, the cel phone.  For this piece I decided to eschew the many capabilities of the cel phone and use what might be the most neglected feature or “app” available on these devices– the actual ‘phone’ part of the cel phone.  Actually, I am making use some of the limitations of cel phones, namely their low fidelity and that amount of delay it takes for sound to enter the phone, be transmitted to a tower, relayed to another tower, then back to another phone.  While this low sound quality and lack of immediacy are probably things phone makers and service providers are working to remedy, there are some lovely sonic possibilities in these defects.

This piece begins with phone 1 (on mute) inside the toy grand piano with the lid up. That phone is in a call with phone 2 (connected to a small speaker) that is behind and to the side of the audience.  Near that speaker is phone 3 in a call to phone 4 on the other side of the room.  Phone 4 is also connected to a small speaker.  The pianist plays for a minute or so, then un-mutes phone 1 (measure 57), and closes the piano lid.  With phone 1 un-muted, every sound the pianist makes is delayed around the audience in a grainy echo.  Depending on the size and layout of the performance space, more pairs of phones can be added to this chain to get more echoes and cover more space.
On one hand, this set-up represents the world’s least expensive live sound processing. Cel phones are everywhere and with a few friends (even non-musicians!) the gear for this work is easy to find.  On the other hand, this set-up is one of the most expensive sound processors ever in that it uses phone towers, relay networks, and possibly even satellites to generate the desired results.
About Rusty:

Recently listed by NPR as one of the top 100 composers under 40 “shaping our contemporary musical scene and defining what it actually means to be a composer in the 21st century,” Rusty Banks (b.1974) is a composer/guitarist born in Jasper, AL and living in Mountville, PA. His compositions have been performed in China, Italy, Canada, and throughout the United States. Besides writing concert music for ballet, orchestra, wind ensemble and other acoustic ensembles, Rusty “designs” pieces that use traditional performers, boomboxes, and video within dynamic audio/video installations. His music is thoroughly modern with an emphasis on beauty and invention.

Projects for 2011/12 include a concerto for clarinet and wind ensemble to be premiered by Christy Banks and the UNOmaha Symphonic Wind Ensemble, an installation work with visual artist Karen Graffeo to exhibit in Florence, Italy and Brooklyn, NY, as well as a number of commissions for chamber pieces.

His music is available for download on iTunes, and can be streamed on Rhapsody.

Once or twice a week, we will be hearing from other toy pianists, composers, musicians who have contributed a great deal to the instrument’s development and musical output. Our first entry will be posted by our 4th UnCaged Toy Piano winner.