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Phyllis Chen

Astoria, NY         

Phyllis is a composer, keyboardist and creative force whose work draws from her tactile exploration of objects and sound.  Described by The Washington Post as “a virtuoso of the toy piano, she delights in the delicate sonorities of music boxes and everyday objects, weaving them into strikingly original works of engaging lightness and transparency.(…)Chen is a master of the art of play — serious, serious play.”

Phyllis started playing the piano at the age of five and came across the toy piano as an adult. Immediately she fell in love with it and felt a need to explore its possibilities.  Being an instrument bound to no history or set ideas on how it should be played, the toy piano became her grounds for sonic exploration. Unlike the piano, the unrefined but beautiful tone of the instrument captured an ever-changing quality that has inspired Phyllis to use it in a variety of solo and chamber  works. She has created several original miniature theatre works (The Memoirist, The Slumber Thief and Down The Rabbit-Hole) in collaboration with her partner and video artist, Rob Dietz. One of her latest large-scale solo works, Lighting The Dark, uses a variety of keyboards (two toy pianos, clavichord, accordion, Casio SK1) along with custom-made music boxes and projection. The work was described by the New York Times as “by turns poignant, humorous and virtuosic, Chen’s performance offered a slyly subversive take on issues relating to femininity, technology and power…the looping, spellbinding music…became a fitting tribute to the modest, repetitive, yet quietly heroic work of women.”

She has received commissions by  ensembles and organizations such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE),  A Far Cry, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Claire Chase, Opera Cabal Opera SHOP, Singapore International Festival of the Arts,the Roulette-Jerome and others. She has received grants from New Music USA, Foundation for the Contemporary Arts, NYSCA (via Concert Artists Guild and Look & Listen Festival), Fromm Foundation and  the Pew Heritage Trust via Christ Church of Philadelphia.

In 2009, Phyllis was the solo on-stage musician for the Off-Broadway production of Coraline. Based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s book, the work was composed by Indie band-leader Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields, who scored the musical  for multiple keyboards of various sizes.  As the show’s sole instrumentalist, the Financial Times claims ” Phyllis achieves dazzling effects with pianos both standard-sized and shrunken.” Coraline was staged at the Lucille Lortel Theater in the West Village.

In 2007, Phyllis founded the UnCaged Toy Piano to promote new works for unusual instruments.   In 2011, Phyllis launched the first biennial UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, a three day festival that  has been greeted with great enthusiasm, with audience members  crossing state borders and oceans to attend.

Phyllis is one of the founding members of ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, based in New York City. Her latest album, “On The Nature of Thingness” (Starkland)  a collaborative album with ICE featuring the chamber works of Phyllis and ICE composer/percussionist Nathan Davis, was awarded the 2016 Independent Music Award for Best Contemporary Classical Music Album.

Phyllis has released five albums, three solo albums  on such labels as  Concert Artists Guild, cerumenspoon, New Focus Recordings and a fourth collaborative album with Cuddle Magic on fyo records.  


Written for toy piano, toy piano rods, tuning forks, clarinet, violin and toy glockenspiel. Work inspired by Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and written for the International Contemporary Ensemble. Premiered at Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival 2011.
Josh Rubin, clarinet and tuning forks
Erik Carlson, vln and tuning forks
Eric Lamb, tuning forks
Cory Smythe, toy glockenspiel and tuning forks
Phyllis Chen, composer, toy piano and tuning forks

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for prepared piano, toy piano, music box and bowls
Phyllis Chen, composer, toy piano, bowls, music box
Cory Smythe, piano

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The Slumber Thief

The Slumber Thief is a piece for toy piano, music box, props, lo-fi electronics and visuals. The piece was commissioned by Opera Cabal and co-created with video artist Robert Dietz . Inspired by small object theater, the piece explores objects from fairy tales and bedtime stories through the perspective of a suffering insomniac (eyeball), which only exaggerates the surreal, ridiculous and hallucinated beauty in the middle of the night. For more information, visit www.slumberthief.net

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