At our session at Real World Studios this week we are recording super works for toy piano(s) by composers Monica Pearce and Thomas Kotcheff. Here they answer Adam’s questions about their intimacies with these dinky noise-makers, embracing sonics, tonics and politics …
You are both seasoned ambassadors for the toy piano. Please can you describe your activities to date?
MP: It’s an anniversary year for me and my toy piano – I met this Schoenhut 3-octave number ten years ago in July off an ad on Craigslist. It’s been a wild adventure ever since – I’ve written almost a dozen pieces with toy piano since then. One piece in particular – clangor for toy piano and bicycle bells, written for Queen of the Toy Piano Margaret Leng Tan – has at this point travelled internationally more than I have, making stops in Singapore, Australia, U.S., and Canada! My interest in toy pianos has led me to some very unique projects – last year I wrote a duet for toy piano and tabla (with the remarkable duo of Xenia Pestova and Shawn Mativetsky), and this year I’ll be writing a quartet for two toy pianos and two percussionists for the Atlanta-based ensemble Chamber Cartel. When I’m not tickling the plastics, you can find me writing chamber operas, chamber music or educational music.
TK: I am a founding member of the Los Angeles based piano duo HOCKET and we love to perform music for toy pianos. Our repertoire ranges from toy piano classics by John Cage to newly commissioned works written for our ensemble (including a terrific piece by Riot Ensemble’s artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum). As a piano duo, we love the mobility that performing on toy pianos offers us (performing in art galleries, bars, outdoors, etc.) and both myself and my partner in HOCKET continue to compose, arrange, and commission new works for these instruments.
What initially attracted you to the distinctive sound of the toy piano?
TK: I’ve always seen the toy piano as the quirky combination of a harpsichord and a glockenspiel with the distinct feature that every toy piano has their own unique tuning. The fact that no two toy pianos can be in tune with one another is exploited in death, hocket, and roll by having the two toy pianos trading identically voiced major chords back and forth. Major chords on the toy piano also always reminded me of what an old-fashioned slot machine sounds like when you win and the machine is paying out — I tried to capture this slot-machine sound world throughout death, hocket, and roll and especially so in the coda of the piece.
MP: I loved the sound – the bell-like timbre with its bizarre overtones. I love that its sound exists in some other dimension that mixes an out-of-tune pitch with a very percussive clack. I think it’s an instrument that can be incredibly fruitful for composers to get outside of their comfort zones and really stretch their imaginations, especially if they can get over the mindset of it being a mini-piano or only suitable for writing creepy children’s music.
Riot Ensemble is recording a piece by each of you. To my ears both your pieces seem to mix a transparent sense of tonality with more chromatic flights of fancy. Is this a response to the instrument or a more general theme in your musical language?
MP: I would say this piece certainly fits within my musical language but it’s most directly inspired by Kandinsky. I took a marvellous quote from Wassily Kandinsky which deals with colour as a musical metaphor: “Each colour lives by its mysterious life. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. Everything starts with a dot.” Kandinsky’s artworks are so vibrant and dynamic, and I wanted to try and create a musical environment which was both calculated and completely excitable. The soprano also plays a wine glass drone throughout which gives a somewhat false sense of stability and creates unusual harmonic interactions with the toy piano. I am certainly prone to doing certain gestures on the toy piano, such as fast pointillistic patterns and repeated notes – I adore the resonance created by those types of gestures.
TK: In the music I’ve written in the last few years, juxtaposing vanilla major and minor chords against chromaticism, noise, and harsh dissonance has been a focus of my music. I’ve always been interested in the idea of “bad taste” in music and looking for ways to exploit that as an aesthetic. The idea of blatantly putting major and minor chords up against dissonant material seems like it would be in poor taste, but if a piece becomes oversaturated with poor taste, for me it slowly begins to emerge out the other side to become something new and worth exploring.
Perhaps a little piano is best played with little hands? Would you be happy, for example, for President Trump to give a recital on your toy piano?
TK: It would be fitting for a toy president to perform on a toy piano and he would certainly do less damage that way. However, I fear that President Trump wouldn’t be able to figure out how to play the instrument despite it being originally designed for children.