Phyllis Chen is a pianist, multimedia artist, and member of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), but she also belongs to the small fraternity of concert artists who explore the resources of the toy piano. Chen has pulled together a little demonstration of her toy piano-related gifts on her debut disc, Concert Artists Guild's UnCaged Toy Piano featuring the Suite for Toy Piano by John Cage -- a monolith in toy piano literature -- and works by Julia Wolfe, Stephen Montague, Andrián Pertout, Karlheinz Essl, and Chen herself. One noticeable thing is the quality of the production; each piece has its own distinctive sound, from the narrow and tinkly Mirabella a tarantella of Montague to the wide stereo spread of Essl's Kalimba to the dry, straightforward "concert" sound employed for the Cage. It is not often one encounters a conscious, pop approach to a classical album production that traditionally tends toward as much unanimity of sound possible, and it is a refreshing change here. One might assert that it is a necessary one given that external sound sources such as a toy beatbox -- in the Wolfe -- or glass bowls, as in Chen's own beautiful The Memoirist Part III, "The Dream."
Extended techniques are nothing new in the toy piano realm; the limited number of octaves involved and the fact that gradations of volume arise almost entirely from the toy pianist's fingers seems to invite a little bit of embellishment. The use of a music box -- which has its own pre-determined course in terms of the music it produces -- is an ingenious one in Chen's The Memoirist Part I, "The Tale," as the sound relation between music box and toy piano is a euphonious one. Chen has a finely developed sense of touch at the toy piano and is easily able to vary her volume in the Cage; she is also able to transfer the speed of her regular piano playing to the smaller keys of the toy piano, resulting in some fantastic, fleeting figures heard throughout the disc. Although it's a relatively short disc, UnCaged Toy Piano certainly never wears out its welcome and well earns an enthusiastic recommendation by virtue of its high level of creativity, boldness, and variety, not to mention its top-drawer production values.