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Play piano: A night of toy instruments in Boerum Hill

Little sounds: Phyllis Chen, founder of the UnCaged Toy Piano festival, will performing John Cage’s rarely heard “Music for Amplified Toy Pianos” at Roulette on Dec. 13.
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It’s a big show of little keys!

An evening of music created for teeny-tiny pianos will plink its way onto a Boerum Hill stage this month. The Uncaged Toy Piano festival, at Roulette on Dec. 13, will feature five performers tickling the keys of miniature instruments created for kids — and allowing some of the toy pianos to play themselves. The founder of the 10-year-old festival says that this year’s theme “Automotoy,” recognizes how much tinkering the miniature music makers can take.

“They are more like sound objects than musical instruments,” said composer Phyllis Chen. “And I think this year celebrates that idea and really invites the makers and hackers who find toys and decide to turn them into music-making devices.”

An old piano redesigned with robotic elements will take center stage during the night, said Chen.

“One of my longtime collaborators made a robot toy piano out of a smashed one, and refurbished it, and this instrument is going to be featured as a solo instrument alongside other performers playing toy instruments,” she said.

The UnCaged Toy Piano event is named after experimental composer John Cage, who wrote “Suite For Toy Piano” in 1947, the first work for the wee instrument. In addition to several original compositions debuting at the Boerum Place show, Chen and other pianists will perform Cage’s “Music Amplified for Toy Pianos,” as a nod to the composer.

Chen says that people are often drawn to the baby-est of baby grands because of their cute size and association with the pint-sized Beethoven enthusiast from the comic strip “Peanuts,” but she thinks that the toy piano can stand on its own three legs.

“They are very small and when people see it playing, they say ‘Oh it’s like Schroeder,’ ” she said. “But I think its really its own musical instrument. It’s not functional like full piano, so it’s more playful in that way.”

Chen says she owns a wide variety of the tiny toys, and each one has its own character.

“I don’t really bother tuning them because you get what you get and work with that, and that’s why I have so many of them — they’re all different,” she said.

Interest in the festival of small instruments has grown every year, said Chen, because it is an experience people can have nowhere else

“I’m always amazed by all the people who come out and see this festival. I think it’s really unique and unusual, but people do travel internationally and across state borders to attend both as audience members and performers,” said Chen. “With music there’s always so much to ponder and think about and look at, especially with the robotics nature this year, so that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Uncaged Toy Piano “Automotoy” at Roulette [509 Atlantic Ave. at Third Avenue in Boerum Hill, (917) 267–0363, www.roulette.org]. Dec. 13 at 8 pm. $20–$25.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimon@cnglocal.com.
Updated 5:52 pm, July 9, 2018
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