The 2015 UnCaged Toy Piano Festival in Astoria will give listeners a chance to watch adults and children alike make music on an instrument originally created for tots.
Phyllis Chen, the creator of the festival, began playing the piano when she was 5. She became enthralled with the toy piano after she came across it at 21 and said it was a refreshing break from her classical training.
“I am a classically trained musician who went to Oberlin, Northwestern University and Indiana University,” Chen said. “I found the classical route to be a bit too narrow and finding the toy piano gave me the opportunity to partake in something that felt fresh and current.”
In 2007, she put on the first toy piano competition in Manhattan to encourage artists to create new pieces using the instrument as “the central theme.” The competition has received more than 300 submissions from musicians around the world from 2007 to 2010. In 2011, Chen decided to turn the competition into a biennial festival and this year, the Astoria native is bringing it to her neighborhood.
The toy piano was made popular by composer John Cage, who composed the first piece for the instrument, titled “Suite for a Toy Piano,” in 1948. The festival is named after Cage, who was a leading figure in avant-garde music and was hailed by critics as one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century.
The festival, which takes place on Dec. 4 and 5, will feature performances at a number of venues in Astoria. On Dec. 4 at 7 p.m., six groups will gather at the Museum of Moving Image to showcase their original works. On Dec. 5 at 10:30 a.m., Q.E.D. Astoria will host the festival’s first children’s event titled “¡Acopladitos!,” a Spanish immersion sing-along by Brooklyn-based musicians Angelica Negron and Noraliz Ruiz.
Among the performers is Margaret Leng Tan, the first woman to earn a doctorate from Julliard and Cage’s musical partner, who collaborated with him from 1981 until his death in 1992. Queens-based group Petite Pepinot will also perform at the festival’s after-party on Dec. 4 at the Uke Hut, New York City’s first ukelele shop. The performance will take place at 9:30 p.m.
“I think they really reflect the flavor and culture of the Queens neighborhood, while embracing toy instruments like toy piano, ukelele, melodicas and others,” Chen said.
The performers at the festival are usually a mix of experienced toy piano musicians and artists who are open to composing pieces specifically for the instrument.
“The quirky world of the toy piano is so much fun and relentlessly surprising and beautiful,” Chen said. “My goal is really to share this with others and also provide a creative place for artists to experiment with the toy piano.”