Phyllis Chen Toys Winningly With Novel Instruments

Alex Peh performs the world premiere of Phyllis Chen's 'Columba,'inspired by the collage boxes of artist Joseph Cornell.
Alex Peh gave the world premiere of Phyllis Chen’s ‘Columba,’ inspired by the collage boxes of artist Joseph Cornell.
(Concert photos by David Khorassani)
By James L. Paulk

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Intriguing works by composer Phyllis Chen, an emerging force in the world of experimental music, were featured in a concert on Oct. 27 at SUNY’s Parker Theatre, including the premiere of Columba for “piano and shadow box.” Chinese Central Television (CCTV) filmed portions of the event for a documentary on Chen; the English version will be broadcast in January in New York, Los Angeles, and Beijing as part of the program “Full Frame.”

Composer Phyllis Chen (
Phyllis Chen composes for an array of novel instruments.

Columba was inspired by the collage boxes of artist Joseph Cornell, which bring together disparate objects, often with an aviary theme. A demanding work, it was deftly performed by Alex Peh, a longtime colleague of Chen’s and a SUNY professor. The piano was prepared using magnets that stick on the strings.

The piece opened with Peh at the keyboard, his left hand playing repetitive rhythmic patterns and his right hand busy with dissonant bursts of sound. Somehow, despite the lack of harmony, there was a dreamlike, peaceful quality to this. The magnets on the strings gave the piano the aural effect of an old instrument in need of tuning, like the saloon pianos in old Western movies. And, as on a worn-down piano, some keys were in tune, some were not, and some were just funkier-sounding than others.

In the middle of the piece, Peh stood and reached into the piano, plucking its strings to produce swirls of discord. At the same time, he retrieved bird calls — tiny whistles used to imitate bird sound —  from the box, playing them with his mouth against the manipulated accompaniment of the piano, a clear tribute to the bird calls of Messiaen. The work concluded with a return to the keyboard. The whistles were placed back in their box, and the birds were silent once more.

The magic of the work stems from Chen’s ability to infuse dissonance with an ethereal quality. Despite the reference to the shadow box and birds, the work is abstract in character. Before the concert, Chen told me: “I think music is generally abstract, as it is something that is living only at the moment of performance and doesn’t use words.”

Evan Mason, Phyllis Chen, and Connor Milton perform 'Mobius.'
For ‘Mobius,’ Chen punched holes into a paper strip fed through two music boxes.

Two of Chen’s best known works were featured. In Mobius, a paper loop was taped together (in front of us) between two simple, hand-cranked music boxes. Chen then punched holes into the strip and these produced sounds as they passed through each of the boxes, with Chen’s co-composer, Rob Dietz, manipulating the sounds from a laptop computer. There was, obviously, a strong randomness to the piece, but Dietz slowly changes the sound, like an organist switching registers.

Chen plays toy pianos in 'Lighting the Dark.' (David Khorassani)
Chen’s toy pianos have a role in ‘Lighting the Dark.’

Lighting the Dark, which had its second performance at this concert, was inspired by the feminist photography of Paola Gianturco. Each of its four parts was constructed around a traditional “ballerina” music box with a fixed melody. But the twirling dancers had all been replaced by little constructions inspired by Gianturco’s photos, and each box was set up next to a different instrument, played by Chen. One of these stations featured a pair of toy pianos. Chen has worked extensively with this instrument, which she clearly loves. And this segment, with the pure sound of the small pianos playing against the somewhat similar tones from the music box, was the most mesmerizing of the evening. In each segment, video cameras were used to project the motion from the music box onto a screen.

Experimental music as practiced today by artists like Chen delves into the sound-mind connections that we loosely define as “music.” It tinkers with the human response to all sorts of sounds, often using classical patterns only as a starting point.

Chen at the accordian, with music box, in 'Lighting the Dark.'
Chen at the accordian, with one of her music boxes, in ‘Lighting the Dark.’

But it is also theater, with strong visual elements, and Chen is a consummate performance artist. With her striking array of unusual instruments and video elements, she commands the audience’s attention, bringing the novelty of her format to the question in our minds: “What is this sound and how does it affect me?” She is a thinking person’s artist of the highest order.

The program also included works by two pioneering experimentalists, Alvin Lucier and Pauline Oliveros. Chen is an accomplished pianist and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble. This concert marked the culmination of her month-long residence at the university, something cooked up by Peh, by all accounts the local new music guru.

The discovery that the little town of New Paltz is a veritable hotbed of experimental music has a certain Babette’s Feast quality. In addition, a Through the Looking Glass feature of these concerts is that the audience consists almost entirely of 20-somethings with a tiny scattering of seniors — the inverse of the usual ratio. This is partly the result of a “concert credit” requirement for students in certain SUNY programs, but the students’ attention and enthusiasm is obviously genuine and endearing.

Surely no routine classical audience would have been so uninhibited with Oliveros’ Sounds of Childhood, a participatory project that opened the concert: the audience is instructed to make sounds from their childhood era, “especially the ones that adults admonished you for making.” For the record, the only ring-tone I heard all night appeared to come from a relatively geriatric row in the audience.

James L. Paulk is a freelance music critic based in the Hudson Valley and in New York City. During the past seven years, he wrote regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.