The Accidental Instrument
I did not come to the toy piano deliberately. Instead, while doing research on John Cage, I went down a rather strange rabbit hole, where I stumbled across a wonderful instrument.
The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream. It’s the accidental instrument that was never meant to see anything but oncoming erratic toddler movements; it was never meant to feel anything but the thumping of tiny fists and grubby fingers. It has no musical baggage, no weighty historical performance practice, no standard repertoire. It has nothing to hold you back, to tell you you’re doing it wrong; it exists only in the present and looks to the future. Even now, 70+ years since John Cage’s seminal Suite for Toy Piano from 1948, the toy piano still feels like Duchamp’s upside-down urinal (Fountain): out of place on stage, it elicits giggles and scoffs, is the star of the show, and at least promises a memorable experience, musical and otherwise.
I bought a small Schoenhut 25-key spinet and performed Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 2010 in Lancaster, PA, where I had moved from New York City. It was my first time playing the instrument. In a way, the newness of the experience helped me transition from a city that I loved and had been reluctant to leave, to one I thought was quaint but wouldn’t hold me for long. I subsequently became involved in more Cage events at home and abroad, performing Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, Sonatas and Interludes, and many other works. I thought the mahogany and black toy piano wouldn’t look too out of place as a piece of decoration in my apartment after I was finished with it. I hadn’t planned on using it much after the engagements were over.
Connecting the Dots
Nine years and ten pianos later, I’m preparing a CD release show for Toy, NakedEye Ensemble’s latest album on New Focus Recordings (2019), with music focused on – yes – the toy piano. What’s fascinating to me looking back at the slow, meandering making of this album, is how tenuous yet persistent my interactions with the instrument were. Those years were an on-and-off relationship, with the toy pulling me back each time I thought I was done with it. Like an annoyingly cloying ex, it refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in. At some point, I just had to admit that I was hooked. Not only by the instrument itself, but by the limitless creativity it promised, the untethered freedom of experimentation it allowed, the audience response to it, and a community the toy had woven around itself, ever tighter and wider and richer every year.
The making of this album owes much to that community, to the people and experiences I encountered along the way. This narrative is about exploring those relationships and connecting the dots in this maximalist miniaturist’s field. So here we are.
The “Outside World”
On November 5, 2005, Kyle Gann gave a keynote address at The Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University, Worcester, MA. The rather serious, somber tone of the address makes me uneasy. It’s a puzzling read. His concluding lines, especially, sound almost like an admonition:
After a century of expanding possibilities, we find ourselves in a world of limitations – some of them self-imposed, others imposed against our will. We have more reasons than ever to use the toy piano. We use it because we can … and thanks to Cage, there is precedence for taking it seriously. What we can’t seem to do with it, though, is communicate to the outside world, the world outside our composing circles, that there’s been a repertoire of toy piano music now for 57+ years.
Since Cage’s Suite, repertoire for the instrument has grown tremendously, thanks in large part to festivals like The Annual Toy Piano Festival at UC San Diego (2000-present), UnCaged Toy Piano in NYC (2008-2017), The Florida International Toy Piano Festival (2015-2018), Non-Piano/Toy Piano Weekend in Hamburg, Germany (2014-present), and the recent 100-Note Toy Piano Project (2018-19) that have at their core a call for scores. I think Gann would agree that the little instrument has come a long way in the fourteen years since his address. But have we been able to reach “the outside world,” as he puts it? Or is the community still as insular as it was in 2005? And does it matter?
In the toy’s short history, you don’t have to look far to find inspiration and a way forward. Margaret Leng Tan and Wendy Mae Chambers both have a direct line to John Cage. Both are still active performers, leading by example and, it seems, channeling the creative spirit of Cage. That is uniquely valuable.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chambers appeared on national TV networks (CNN, PBS, Nickelodeon, BBC, CBS) with her toy piano and whimsical creations, and performed extensively in the U.S. In 1984, Alex Ross wrote in a New York Times review, that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” On that program, Chambers performed works by William Schimmel, Jerome Kitzke, Daria Semegen, and Jed Distler, all of whom are still active in New York City. I heard Jerome perform The Animist Child, which he wrote for Chambers, at The DiMenna Center in 2015 on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. He is currently writing a new work for NakedEye Ensemble to be premiered in the Spring of 2020. Although I’ve never met Chambers, I feel a connection with her through Jerome and the toy piano.
I met Margaret at a Bang on a Can Festival early on when I was still a student. I found myself backstage waiting to turn pages for Tony DeMare, and she was waiting as well. We struck up a conversation, which led to her telling me about her toy pianos and then guiding me to a room where she kept her instruments and the custom-made boxes they traveled in. I was amused, amazed, and profoundly intrigued, both by her stories and her vivacity in telling them. There were boxes of many shapes and sizes, beautifully lined with plush, shiny material, and little pianos that lay in them like precious jewels. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was captivated, at least for the duration of our conversation. I have to admit I didn’t rush out to find a toy piano or look for toy music. I wish I had. Who knows where that journey would have led me then!
However, the encounter stayed with me, and I recall it now with some amusement when students and audience members come up to me after performances to ask questions and touch the pianos. I, too, travel with a case. It is not hand-made, or beautiful like Margaret’s cases, but it is a solid metal box lined with dense foam (originally meant to house a Brompton bicycle) that can be thrown into the cargo of a plane and come out the other side with my instrument intact.
The oldest piece on NakedEye’s Toy album is Chinese composer Ge Ganru’s Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, finished the year after Gann’s keynote, and the rest of the pieces span a decade from there. Ge Ganru—described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “China’s first avant-garde composer”—wrote it for Margaret, “whose creative contributions,” he writes in the dedication, “made this piece possible.” It’s hard not to come across Margaret Leng Tan’s name when looking through the toy piano repertoire. As the first “professional toy pianist,” she has been crucial to the instrument’s repertoire, and NakedEye’s album recognizes her contributions by including two pieces originally written for her.
Margaret recorded Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! for a CD of the composer’s work titled Gan-ru: Lost Style (New Albion, 2009). My recording of it on Toy is the second for this piece, a decade later. Our versions are quite different. But great works accommodate the individuality of performers, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! has been adaptable to mine. I was fortunate to have her interpretation from which to deviate in order to find my own.
Classical and Pop Toy Piano
Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey with Chambers and Tan, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music. In the sixties and seventies, musicians across styles found interesting ways to include the toy’s idiosyncratic sound in their songs and scores. In recent years, the list of NakedEye instruments available for commissions has included the toy piano, along with any and all toy instruments composers may want to experiment with. It’s been a fun and engaging process. Composers Monica Pearce, Stefanie Lubkowski, Randall Woolf, Richard Belcastro, and Rusty Banks have added toy sounds to their NakedEye commissions. Composer/performers like Moritz Eggert have also explored the theatricality the toy can bring to a pianist’s performance. Eggert, in his One-Man Band 2, does so in a refreshing and hilariously over-the-top manner.
Perhaps the most well-known classical example is George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), where he calls for amplified piano and toy piano. In his latest cycle of works for piano, Metamorphoses Book 1 (2015-17), Crumb makes extensive use of the toy piano as well.
Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” a song about his childhood written and recorded in 1967, is arguably the first recorded pop song to use the toy piano (toy piano in the bridge at 2m30s).
And a fun example of, perhaps, the first toy piano solo in pop music is Richard Carpenter’s instrumental version of Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers. In the song, Carpenter features the toy piano in a full 10-second solo as one of five keyboard instruments he can be seen flitting to (toy piano at 1.29s).
An Unlikely Chamber Instrument
In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently. Perhaps because of its oddity, its diminutive size, or the soloistic nature of its practitioners, it seemed to be more at home going it alone, developing a repertoire to fit itself and all that was part of its tiny world. However, in the last decade or so, the miniature piano has been involved in large scale outdoor events and paired with its bigger counterpart and other “grown-up” instruments.
Wendy Mae Chambers has a reputation for taking the listening experience outdoors, and her composition/happening Kun is a perfect example of that. Written for 64 toy grand pianos and structured on I-Ching, it was performed in NYC on June 21, 2012 with 64 toy pianists and 64 toy pianos dispersed in pairs along The East River Waterfront Esplanade between Piers 15 and 16, from 4:30 pm until sunset at 8:31pm.
Margaret Leng Tan explored a more concert stage approach to the repertoire. As I researched chamber music that included toy piano, I came across Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings (2013), written for Margaret on toy piano, alongside a small chamber group. The three-movement piece captivated me. It was charming and quirky, but most of all, the writing balanced the chamber group against toy piano perfectly. The “tanginess” of the toy sound gives the piece an unexpected but seductive flavor, in the way a skilled bartender will mix your favorite drink but manage to surprise you with a twist. And in true NakedEye fashion, we added a little twist of our own to the piece. The original instrumentation didn’t quite fit ours, so I suggested to Erik that we substitute the violin and clarinet with electric guitar and saxophone. He immediately took to the idea. The result is a subtle electric jazz vibe married with toy piano and toy drum set for a pretty unique listening experience.
Similar chamber works for toy piano are relatively hard to find. Frank J. Oteri’s wonderfully expressive The Other Side of the Window (1995), based on seven poems by Margaret Atwood (think The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments), and scored for female voice, two flutes, toy piano, guitar, and cello, comes to mind. Richard Belcastro’s Inner Strife (2016), written for NakedEye Ensemble and scored for clarinet, electric guitar, piano, toy piano, and percussion, is another piece in which the toy plays a central ensemble role.
Organizations like The Toy Piano Composers (2008-2018), based in Toronto, with a core group of instrumentalists, curated programs that included the toy as a key ensemble instrument. Among these are works by Elisha Denburg (Rondo and Street Noise) and Chris Thornborrow (This Changing View, which has a similar instrumentation to the original version of Gossamer Wings, without percussion) that are worth exploring.
Phyllis Chen, a Taiwanese-American toy pianist and composer, has written several amazing chamber works for the small instrument. What distinguishes her from Chambers and Tan is the way she seeks both innovative and traditional collaborations with classical and non-classical instruments. I think that’s the real test of the toy piano’s future. Can it exist within the broader environment of instrumental/electronic/collaborative music?
Chen’s Lullabies (2014), for string orchestra and toy piano with music box is a good example of the instrument inserted in a classical chamber setting. Like Griswold’s Gossamer Wings, the balance in this context is critical, and the result here is mesmerizing. Glass Clouds We Have Known (2011), written for ICE, is a more contemporary setting, and includes bowls, bass clarinet, flute, electronics, and video. But the piece that I absolutely love is The Matter Within (2016), written for deconstructed toy piano and the JACK Quartet. Chen writes,
The toy piano was never presented to me as a musical instrument. Instead I stumbled upon it as an unassuming object. For The Matter Within, I decided to return to this original place of entry to examine and distill the toy piano as a found object. By exploring its elements, hearing its raw essences and noises, the bare materials of the toy piano are exposed and brought to light.
Beyond her contributions to new classical music, Phyllis has also explored using the toy piano and toy instruments in a pop/indie context through her collaboration with Cuddle Magic. In the album they made together (Cuddle Magic & Phyllis Chen, FYO Records, 2014), the toy piano imbues the material with sounds of futuristic nostalgia – an oxymoronic dance that is both mesmerizing and disquieting. It’s a departure that is perhaps an opening to other new exciting possibilities for the toy piano.
Experimenting with toy piano, electronics, and ensemble, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl was one of the first composers I came across in my early days of touring solo with the instrument. Kalimba (2005), his first piece for toy piano and soundtrack, has been played all over the world by many, including myself. Since then, Essl has broadened his output and added works pairing the toy piano with harpsichord, computer, live electronics, ensemble, other toys, and ring modulator.
A natural extension of the toy piano as a solo and chamber instrument is the concerto form. Phyllis Chen’s Lullabies isn’t without precedent: Aaron Jay Kernis’s’ Toy Piano Concerto (2002), Matthew McConnell’s Concerto for Toy Piano (2008), and David Smooke’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death Vol. I (2012) for toy piano and chamber orchestra, and a Vol. II (2014) for toy piano and wind ensemble, all put the toy at the center of a very large, very traditional setting where it is customary to see a full-size concert grand: a Steinway, a Yamaha, or a Bösendörfer, perhaps. But a Schönhut?
Feeding the Toy Piano
Personal development as a toy pianist is a self-propelled adventure. There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft.” We’re all, to a certain extent, self-taught experimenters. We learn from our peers, our colleagues, other toy pianists, in person, in collaboration, and by observation. That’s what’s exciting in this field, what makes possible an album that was really never meant to be made.
I met toy pianist and composer David Smooke at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore in January 2016. I heard him use the toy piano in a way I’d never seen before, and knew right away that I wanted to collaborate with him. In September of that year, NakedEye organized its first (of two) toy piano events in Lancaster, PA, and I invited David to be our guest. Not only did he come up to do a set, but he pulled NakedEye guitarist Chad Kinsey and me into doing free improv with him. It was a fun, eye-opening afternoon. That encounter with David opened up a new avenue to “inside toy tinkering” and gave me the tools to experiment with modifications that I would later use in future commissions.
The toy piano is a visually fascinating instrument best viewed from a distance but hard to resist getting close enough to poke. Like a carnivorous flower, it draws in its prey with unassuming charm; once hooked, composer and performer have no choice but to feed it the notes it craves. Or so I like to imagine.
In 2016, Richard Belcastro wrote not one, but two toy piano-focused pieces for NakedEye: Inner Strife, for four instruments, and Knock ‘Em Back, recorded on this album, for electric guitar and modified toy piano.
Knock ‘Em Back grew out of Ricky’s desire to write something for electric guitar that wasn’t rock-inspired or loud (like his Smoke ’N Wid and Nepetalactone). Enter the toy piano. The thing about the instrument is, its sonic footprint needs to be respected. It’s actually not as quiet as one would think, and, with generous acoustics, can carry far. It can also be mic’ed or amplified. But its sounds need space to resolve and dissolve, otherwise they can end up like woodpecker drill over radio static. Basically, a bombastic blur. So pairing toy piano with electric guitar was a delicate but exciting dance we were eager to try. Ricky wrote the piece and we experimented with guitar pedals and toy piano hacks to find the sounds he wanted. I think we also found a few sounds he didn’t know he wanted.
Whatever model toy one uses for this piece, the tines (the metal bars that are struck by plastic hammers to produce sound) need to be fully accessible and labeled with stickers or chalk. I’ve used alternately Schoenhut’s Model 3798, a 37-key upright with the front panel removed, or Model 379, the 37-key concert grand with the top music rack and the protective board removed.
The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they see a toy piano is that it’s a tiny acoustic piano. But when they hear it, they realize very quickly, the similarities are only plywood deep. The diminutive instrument has more in common with the celesta or xylophone than its larger older sibling and has been humorously described as “the poor man’s celesta.” But the celesta’s rich, round bell tones are still a far cry from the diminutive toy’s (comparatively) clangy sounds. If you sped up a recording of a celesta, would it sound like a toy piano?
When I asked my friend Jan Feddersen in 2011 if he would write a piece for me on toy piano, he happily agreed and wrote Ujoforyt, which, interestingly enough, he left open “for toy piano or celeste”. It’s a virtuoso perpetual motion in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee but with the grit and rhythmic energy of György Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Hungarian Rock.
Although they aren’t exactly comparable pieces in scope, Hungarian Rock and Ujoforyt are similar in their use of the instruments’ “secondary sounds.” Both works exploit the mechanical actions of their respective instruments, adding a layer of noise on top of the overtone buzzing created by fast, rhythmic articulations. I wasn’t able to play Jan’s piece on celesta until January 2019 at Klub Katarakt. For the celesta to speak, I had to slow down the notes quite a bit. The result was a beautiful tapestry of gentle pearl-like cascades of sounds—quite a different experience.
—Are your cell phones plugged into the speakers?
—Ok, now let’s call each other. Make sure your ringer is on and loud.
—No, really, don’t worry about it; it’s part of the piece.
That’s typically how rehearsals for Rusty Banks’s Babbling Tower to Tower begin. Cell phones are used as transmitters, relayers, and lo-fi sound distortion devices amplified through small, portable speakers disseminated via “stations” throughout the audience. I’ve found the ideal setup to be two or three stations, but I’ve also done it successfully with only one when cell connection was tenuous. In the score’s notes, Rusty writes,
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 cell phone. Actually, I am making use some of the limitations of cell 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.
During the writing of Babbling, we tested all the different ways one could make cell phone calls, including over cellular data, WiFi, and via apps like Skype, looking for the least efficient calling method – the most buggy, delayed, and distorted. Basically the opposite of what you’d want in a phone. We found that calls over WiFi were too clean and didn’t have enough delay to suit our needs, whereas calls over cellular were less reliable and had distinctive sound distortion and delay we could work with. Back in 2010, we were still on 3G networks. With the introduction of 5G and faster, more efficient connections coming soon, we may need to go back and “update” (or downgrade?) Babbling.
In 2011, Babbling Tower to Tower won the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition with the theme “Music for Toy Piano and Toy Instrument(s)”. Cell phones fit perfectly in the “toy” category. Recognition at UnCaged gave Babbling a good platform from which, for the next few years, it launched itself through people’s cell phones in many different countries.
Both Ujoforyt and Babbling Tower to Tower have had performances by other toy pianists all over the world. I’ve performed them in Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the U.S. They’ve also reached audiences in Canada, Amsterdam, Croatia, and France, thanks to toy pianists Terizija Cukrov, Justin Badgerow, Adam Marks, Phyllis Chen, Jennifer Hymer, Bernhard Fograscher, Ninon Gloger, and others. The toy piano community is global, and it’s gratifying to see new work travel and reach people far and wide.
In an interview with Nick Galvin for The Sydney Morning Herald on August 27, 2019, Margaret Leng Tan acknowledges that “everything goes back to John Cage,” and affirms that “we are all spiritual children of John Cage, whether we know it or not.”
Who are the “spiritual children” of Cage’s toy piano legacy after Chambers and Tan?
Several younger toy pianists/composers, having dedicated most of their creativity to the toy piano, are performing/composing really exciting works for the instrument, developing the field in interesting directions. Among them, Xenia Pestova, Isabel Ettenauer, Alexa Dexa, Scott Paulson (Toy Piano Festival at UCSD, the longest-running of its kind, organized each year since 2000 around John Cage’s birthday), Elizabeth Baker (Florida International Toy Piano Festival), Jennifer Hymer (Toy Piano/Non-Piano), and Phyllis Chen (UnCaged Toy Piano) help establish a regenerative environment through organizations, festivals, events, and performances aimed at expanding the toy repertoire and reaching a wider audience.
In fact, everyone contributing to the field is in some significant way part of the lineage and I’m of course leaving out many names that deserve to be mentioned here. But there are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.
Inside the Rabbit Hole
I didn’t come to the toy piano deliberately, but it’s become an important instrument in my repertoire. It’s part of the family now. Through it, I feel connected to a small but global community. The quality of the compositions is astounding and matched only by their inventiveness. The toy piano, unlike most other instruments, is not an end in itself, but an invitation to something else. And that something else is anything you want to happen. Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano during a period when he was writing quieter music – works for muted string piano (a.k.a. prepared piano) and his notoriously silent/unsilent 4’33”, for example. He went small, he says in Lecture on Nothing, because “when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society.”
For Cage, finding the toy piano was a protest against world events and a turning inward. But he unwittingly (or did he know all along?) started a movement that has grown and matured, reaching far across the globe (Tokyo held its first toy piano concert in 2007, featuring Cage, Tan, Arai, Nakamizo, Amemiya, and Kawai). It is responsible for some of the most visually and sonically beautiful music ever created. I don’t know if, fourteen years after Kyle Gann’s address, the toy music community has been able to “communicate to the outside world” in the way he seemed to think it should. The number of festivals, events, organizations, and performances devoted worldwide to the toy piano since then make me think that it has. But to me, it doesn’t matter.
What I know is this: I went down a rabbit hole ten years ago and accidentally discovered a surprising instrument. I encountered strange and amazing people who taught me things I needed to learn, toy-related and otherwise. I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real. This album holds the story of my unexpected evolution as a toy pianist. The collection of recorded pieces in Toy exists because of some mysterious alchemy that brought them all together. Who knows where the toy piano will lead me next? I’m excited to find out. If I stay in this rabbit hole long enough, I’ll be ready for it.