Phyllis Chen and ICE team up for strange and compelling evening

Thu Nov 17, 2011 at 2:56 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Phyllis Chen collaborated with ICE in music featuring toy piano Wednesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Under the searching fingers of pianist Phyllis Chen, the toy piano is anything but an instrument of cheery, childish delight.

True, it looked innocent enough — a squat little, fire-engine red object gleaming in the main gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in the South Loop where Chen and colleagues from the International Contemporary Ensemble performed Wednesday night. Looming over the piano were tables holding an array of stainless steel mixing bowls of all sizes, computers and an electronic console bristling with plugged-in cords. Julia Child’s kitchen wired for sound, perhaps?

But the haunting music Chen and her fellow musicians produced — five short pieces featuring such traditional instruments as flute, clarinets and violin as well as toy piano, electronics, video and sounds from assorted other objects — was both beautiful and unsettling. An otherworldly atmosphere pervaded the museum’s main gallery, whether the sounds filling our ears were short, trembling outbursts from Eric Lamb’s flute or a random set of resonant, metallic notes from Chen’s piano. The mood was reinforced by images from the museum’s disturbing Crime Unseen exhibit. Surrounding the capacity audience and musicians were large, chillingly mundane photos of crime scenes, pictures taken long after the rooms has been scrubbed clean of the blood that had spattered across their walls and floors.

An accomplished pianist, Chen became fascinated with the toy piano ten years ago, and three of the evening’s works, Glass Clouds We Have Known, Tablets and Chimers, featured its surprisingly powerful, chime-like sound.  She wrote all five of the evening’s pieces, though she collaborated with other artists on the program’s two world premieres: with Cory Smythe on Tablets and Rob Dietz on Mobius, a work for music boxes and electronics. The concert opened with Chen’s Beneath a Trace of Vapor for flute, tape and assorted sound effects expertly controlled by the concert’s sound man, Ryan Ingebritsen.

Most of the pieces were deftly structured. We had no idea where violinist David Bowlin, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, Lamb, Smythe and Chen were going to go in Chimers. But we didn’t doubt for a minute that they knew where they were headed. The almost tuneless shivers of Bowlin’s violin and the work’s icy electronic shimmers were punctuated by the pungent gleam of tuning forks and toy piano. Rubin’s smoky, languorous clarinet melody emerged like a welcome friend, a clear, seductive voice to guide us through the dark sonic haze.

Tablets was an intriguing piece for toy piano and mbira, an African thumb piano. Its sections of steady, syncopated rhythms were full of energy and clearly delineated phrasing.

Mobius, however, seemed contrived. The sounds that tumbled from the hand-cranked music boxes were interesting enough—rumbles and juicy murmurs that resembled a large beast licking his chops or the scratchy clatter of a child’s hand-held, whirling rattle. But the piece, which required laborious cranking from four musicians, seemed to have little point.

ICE is ensemble-in-residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art and will be returning to Chicago regularly for more concerts this season. Catch them if you can.

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