Before heading to the Music as Play Toy Piano Conference and Festival in Como, Italy next month, Brian Inglis caught up with Kate Ryder, who commissioned and premiered his Four Pieces last year.
BI: Can I ask – when did you first encounter the wonderful world of toy pianism?
KR: Back in Sydney in the 1980s I’d been aware of John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano, but I don’t think it was until about 2005/6 I started collecting them.
BI: So the repertoire – the Cage piece – in a sense led you to the instruments?
KR: Yes, I think so. And also performances. I was doing a performance for one of the [BMIC] Cutting Edge series. Roger Redgate wrote me a piece Koan I for toy piano, prepared piano and music box. So it was really for that reason that I started to focus on them, and the first one I ever found was in an antique shop in Crystal Palace.
BI: It was the sound of the instrument that captivated you?
KR: I would say the sound and the individual character of each; they’re all so different. Each one is a piece of visual theatre! It’s not just the sound, though each one does have a distinct sound. A lot of the instruments I’ve bought are slightly disabled, they’ll have one note that doesn’t quite work; for example they’ll have a very flattened 7th, or there’ll be a scale that’s slightly wonky. That to me is very appealing. My attraction has been less to the modern manufactured mini grand pianos, although they’re wonderful. The Schoenhut company sent me a beautiful 3 octave grand, which is a fabulous theatre piece in itself. They’ve made improvements, because they know that it’s out there as a performing instrument; they no longer think of it as just for kids.
BI: That’s interesting. It seems to have emerged as a solo concert instrument quite notably since the 1990s. Why do you think that is?
KR: Maybe the interest composers have in writing for them and the availability of new pieces. There were some seminal pieces already back then, Margaret Leng Tan’s commissions – many of those initial pieces were written for her in the 90s. She and the Austrian pianist Isabel Ettenauer were really the first two pianists who started pushing the instrument, if I can put it like that.
BI: How do you see toy piano performance relating to other areas of keyboard practice – yours specifically, and the field more generally?
KR: In mine specifically I’ve always been interested in extended sounds, working to add things to the piano. Definitely for me the prepared piano, and electronics, came first – particularly the prepared piano. It was always about the sound, and adding instruments to instruments as well.
BI: With the toy piano as an instrument obviously there are weaknesses as well as strengths…
KR: You see I wouldn’t say there are. The tuning can be slightly microtonal, and for me that’s a great attraction. It isn’t exact, but it is stable. Obviously you can’t use pedal. Then there are different ranges. The keys on the modern ones tend to be the same size, smaller than a big piano typically but the more modern Schoenhuts aren’t that much smaller. You can still make subtle dynamics. Glisses and certain trills are actually easier on toy piano. Repetitions, tremolo can be tricky. Anything that’s really robust I tend to do on the bigger, modern instruments. Notes can stick – if you talk about anything being unstable, that’s the biggest issue.
BI: This brings us to performance & composition and the relationship between the two. It seems to me the toy piano, like the prepared piano, problematises the sign-sound relationship – you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, particularly from one instrument to the next. Which is very interesting. Would you say as a composer you have to work very closely with a performer?
KR: I would. I’d say it’s very much part of the experimental genre of instruments. For composers writing specifically for that format, there is – as you know very well – that important interim stage. The first step is to listen to the instruments, and there’s the other major step of trying things out, saying “does this work?” and being delighted when it does work! That’s essential really.
BI: On your website you talk about creating an authentic new keyboard repertoire for toy pianos – it seems in particular vintage toy pianos – as discussed. Could you expand on what this might be, this authenticity, within the context of discussing repertoire more generally?
KR: I suppose authenticity means really that it’s written specifically for these instruments and for me, my personality, how I might stack them together and how I might use them. It doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be played – and many of them have been played – by other performers. But they will have very distinct soundworlds.
For those of us who are working with it as a contemporary instrument – a new instrument – the really fascinating thing is building a new repertoire. In a sense you’re building a unique repertoire, through commissioning and people writing for you, which is very much your own repertoire. It’s not that, in my own case, I’d never play music written for anybody else. Those early pieces for Margaret Leng Tan are little classics. But a lot of other repertoire I’ve had written for me has been specifically for my instruments.
People who write for me know my openness to experiment with different genres, specifically genres, because I’m not ever genre biased as you know. I’ll try lots of things – something with a rock basis like Julia Wolfe’s piece East Broadway, with toy boombox, appeals to my sense of humour!
BI: Yes, that’s something that comes out in toy piano performance isn’t it; humour, quirkiness.
KR: Definitely. But not to be confused with not taking it seriously. I think particularly when you’re working with instruments that are originally toys, you have to have a serious approach, you can’t muck around with them, because the composers I work with have never treated them as some kind of joke, but as an alternate soundworld; that’s the difference.
Talking about repertoire, and pieces I’ve commissioned, pieces seem to roughly fall into two schools. There’s the wind chime/lullaby school of toy piano writing. Pieces called somebody’s lullaby, little waltz for so-and-so, referencing always childhood and the toy. And there’s another, treating it very much as an extended instrument, an extension of the piano as well. There’s a very interesting piece by Walter Zimmerman, The Missing Nail at the River for piano and toy piano which the concert pianist Nicholas Hodges has performed.
Can I just say, there’s an image I wanted to get rid of right away…
BI: You mean the cute image?
KR: Sweetly playing the toy piano in a smock. This is one of the reasons that I often stand a little like a rock musician, with keyboards stacked around me. In a way, the freedom of standing and playing is much more liberating than sitting down. I commissioned a piece Syzergy from a jazz musician, Tim Richards, which was for all my pianos, and it used loops; a very complex piece to play. Incidentally I took all the instruments, including the looper, to St Petersburg. I think that was almost the end of my touring with toy pianos, so exhausting doing that!
BI: Let’s talk about the pieces you commissioned from me, the Four Pieces.
KR: In a way you seem to experiment with lots of genres, which I find very appealing.
BI: Yes, also some of the music is quite complex, and some is more simple. So would you say there were any specific sort of challenges and/or pleasures of preparing and performing them?
KR: Well, I enjoy working with my voice and I absolutely loved Laugh, wonderful, because it enabled me to go crazy really within a certain discipline; a delight.
BI: Yes, there are parameters but it allows the performer a lot of interpretation. As you know the text is a poem by [the late artist and sound sculptor] Derek Shiel, itself inspired by Boccioni’s painting La Risata. This piece occurred very spontaneously one day, it was just dashed off. The notes are actually based on the letters, they’re transcriptions using a sort of musical cipher à la Schumann and Messiaen. And I thought, why not speak the text as well – a way of extending the sound palette and also making it fun. Which it is, and I’m looking forward to performing that myself in Italy.
KR: It’s not simple. This is the thing, playing on toy piano isn’t easy – and to get academia to take it seriously! It’s re-inventing something, listening to something differently. We come back to this whole thing about it all – if you’re giving restrictions to a composer, this can force them to be more inventive; it can be quite inspiring.
BI: The fourth piece, ‘Water and Stone’, is notated using a graphic score. Obviously you have experience of interpreting graphic scores, not only on toy piano but in other contexts too. Do you have a specific approach to them, or does this vary from score to score, because there are different types, as we know.
KR: There are many different types. I think something like Water and Stone gives a lot of leeway and yet in some ways is incredibly difficult. And this is one where, absolutely, you would have to work closely with the composer. Unless you had a composer who said, do whatever you wish, interpret it as you will, you can turn it upside down… But in terms of this one; having to play it within a certain timeframe – graphic scores like this are actually quite tough. People wrongly assume that it’s free interpretation, quasi improvisation. I don’t think it’s free at all because here, the timeframe and the fact that there is a physical score limits your interpretative abilities. Because you’re always slightly concerned in a performance with when it’s got to move on, whether or not it’s getting slightly stuck.
BI: I think it’s freeing in some ways, but it’s not a free-for-all, that’s true. And I think most composers of graphic scores don’t want it to be a free-for-all.
KR: Most good composers, yes, serious ones. If I were composing a graphic score I would always bear in mind that somebody far away might be playing it, and we might not have very good internet access! Therefore the composer needs some kind of clear expression of intent.
BI: I guess with this graphic score, you’re right, in a way it’s quite specific, with cluster notation, various types of trill, notes of different durations, and the quite specific timescale. Having practised this myself with the soundtrack, I think it’s best not to count it and just feel it, which is the conclusion you came to when you were performing and recording it.
KR: I did. In a way I gave myself a little leeway and I said look, you know what, it’s better that I go for it.
BI: Yes, and in that sense it is liberating. It’s also quite an efficient way of notating things like clusters, particularly clusters which are expanding and contracting. You get this a little bit in Schumann – not with clusters obviously! – but there are those pieces where you lift each note of a chord. In conventional notation that’s quite clunky and cumbersome, but in graphic notation it’s very easy and visual and direct. You start with one note and you gradually add, diatonically or chromatically. It’s very satisfying to play and notate clusters, and in using them I was trying to get away from that cute thing you talked about, and just explore the instrument as another sound-source.
So, finally – do you have any tips for composers interested in writing for toy piano, and pianists who’d like to acquire and work with them?
KR: For composers, in the first instance you’ve got to be enthusiastic about the instrument; you’ve got to find out the ranges andthen you need to be aware that it doesn’t respond like a piano. I try to think of it as a unique instrument of its own.
For performers, it’s still very appealing to look around junk shops, antique shops and car boot sales. Toy pianos are still out there, and you have to like them as (found) objects. If you want to be more specific and play the Cage Suite for Toy Piano, which is a great place to start, you can buy them in toy shops. Some of them aren’t particularly marvellous – I personally wouldn’t go for anything less than two octaves, C-C. The ultimate, professional toy piano – which so many pieces have been written for – is 3 octaves. They don’t like being moved around very much! To take mine to Sydney I had a flight case made at some expense. In Russia I thought I’d be hauled off by security at the airport, but I knew the Russian words for ‘toy’ and ‘play’ and it was fine! In Hong Kong, getting through security – imagine the cameras – they saw these spindles at the back which looked like knives! And they asked ‘would you mind opening your case?’… and I said all it is, is a musical instrument… I had to demonstrate in the airport! It was a bit of a surreal moment. And of course they were all smiles and thought it was absolutely marvellous.
Kate Ryder has recently made a studio recording of Four Pieces, alongside (with Roger Redgate) Dai Fujikura’s Breathlessfor toy piano and violin.
Brian will talk about and play a selection from Four Pieces at Associazione Carducci in Como, Italy on 6 July 2019.
Music as Play – Toy Piano Conference and Festival
Saturday 6 – Sunday 7 July 2019
Associazione Carducci, Viale Cavallotti 7, Como, Italy