Impressions from Row G
by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)
“From the time I started with piano as a child, it’s been all about the tactile experience for me; the auditory element of the music is really secondary.” So said ICE member Phyllis Chen at a “talk back” session at Museum of Contemporary Art during the second of two Chicago concerts celebrating her composing and performing artistry. Staying with the childhood theme, we say “Phyllis plays extremely well . . . alone, and with others.”
Phyllis first charmed us with her playful approach to music-making in a solo toy piano performance at Corbett v. Dempsey art gallery on Friday, February 15, 2013, amidst the architecture- and couture-inspired sculpture of Diane Simpson.
Phyllis played three of her compositions plus one by David Lang and one by Fabian Svensson, 2009 winner of Phyllis’ Uncaged Toy Piano Composition Competition which encourages composers to write for the toy piano and other unconventional instruments. She opened with her own works Colure and Double Helix for toy piano with her right hand while striking kitchen bowls with her left. Colure began with the piano echoing sounds from strikes on the bowls and gradually to the toy piano carrying the melody with the bowls acting as jazz rhythm accompaniment.
Phyllis turned the bowls over for Double Helix, a much faster piece with complex toy piano runs, a stunning feat with only 30 keys to work with. The final piece with bowls was David Lang’s Miracle Ear, about his father’s hearing aids. Although they can be very helpful, they also present challenges by expanding the sounds one hears. The bowls represent those extraneous sounds, often grating and high-pitched.
As a special bonus, ICE flutist Eric Lamb played Beneath A Trace of Vapor, a piece written for him by Phyllis, for solo flute and electronics. Phyllis produced the electronic stream from recordings Eric made creating various sounds with his flute. Eric began with sweet melodic tones while the tape provided whistling high notes. The piece built in intensity, then climaxed in a cat fight between Eric live and Eric on the tape, slowed down, and galumphed to a close like an elephant slogging through mud.
At Saturday’s ICElab duo concert, also featuring the music of Carla Kihlstedt, Phyllis presented three works for small ensembles – Glass Clouds We Have Known, Hush and Chimers, and Mobius. The most amazing of these was Mobius, a performance-process piece for two music boxes, a blank punch tape roll, scissors, hole punch, and live electronics. Nathan Davis and Eric Lamb each held one music box as Phyllis fed the blank roll through one box, then the other, and created a Mobius strip by twisting it and taping the ends together. She then punched holes in the paper as they continuously cranked the music boxes until she was satisfied with the result. They cranked another minute or so, then Phyllis cut the tape and when the roll was cranked through the final box, the piece was finished.￼
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼In these two nights of concerts Phyllis demonstrated that playing with toys and other noise makers can produce stunningly original music, resulting in a playful evening for the musicians and audience alike.
Watch a DigitICE video of the world premiere of Chimers at the 2011 Mostly Mozart Festival.