Tunes for toy piano

Phyllis Chen

Phyllis Chen

Radical composer & pianist Phyllis Chen at SUNY-New Paltz

The Kenneth Davenport Residency at SUNY-New Paltz was established by William Davenport in 2007 with the aim of promoting the performance and study of new serious music at New Paltz, an institution that already enjoyed the enduring legacy of a significant late-20th-century composer, the late Gundaris Poné, and the durable new music ensemble that bears his name. But in serious music, “new” needs all the help it can get.

“New” is a problematic term in the “classical” music world, a milieu in which the masters, from J. S. Bach (died 1750) through such late Romantics and proto-Modernists as Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev still account for the lion’s share of concert and chamber music programming. Imagine if The Great Dictator, Nanook of the North, Citizen Kane and maybe one early Woody Allen film (Take the Money and Run?) were the four movies playing at the New Paltz Cinema this weekend, for a poignant parallel.

There was a disconnect between serious new music and its popular audience in the early 20th century (let’s not point fingers here; I like Webern very much, thank you, and Bartók and…), and reconnecting has proven to be quite a challenge. In fact, much of what we still consider “new” serious music – for example, the gadfly conceptual (and suddenly revitalized) work of John Cage, La Monte Young and the Minimalists – comes from the late ’50s and early ’60s. New music, in the popular mind, is already 60 years old. In other words, the situation has gotten so dire that “new” now generally refers to a condition of style, not of chronology.

So the Davenport residency addresses a situation that is nothing less than urgent. And the complex challenge is not merely to promote the creation and – especially – the performance of new music and its admission into the canon, but also to help condition, prepare and, in some cases, give birth to its audience. The Davenport Residency recognizes the same imperatives that Bard College has with its expansive new degree programs focused on a sustainable and even evangelical approach to new serious music.

This year’s recipient of the Davenport Residency is the radical composer and pianist Phyllis Chen, whose devotion to the toy piano, one of John Cage’s axes of choices, signifies her allegiances and imprimatur pretty clearly. Her two releases in this mode, UnCaged Toy Piano and Little Things, are challenging works – primitive and abrasive at some times, alien and magical at others, and mostly mono-timbral throughout. If any composer was ever accused of being a philosopher and cultural agitator more than a music-maker, it was John Cage; but, when approaching music like Chen’s, we do well to remember and heed Cage’s prime directive: Just Listen. That’s where a revival of new music begins.

Chen’s residency at New Paltz runs from October 6 through 27, and is highlighted by several public events. “Alex Peh and Friends Present Béla Bartók” kicks off the series on October 6 at 8 p.m. in the Julien J. Studley Theatre, with percussionists Christopher Clarino and Christopher Howard and pianists Wenyin Chan and Alex Peh. The evening will feature performances of groundbreaking American works by Steve Reich and Mark Applebaum, concluding with Bartók’s masterpiece Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. This concert will also be performed at the Wallkill Senior High School on October 5 at 7 p.m.

Chen will lead a workshop on her own music and iconic works from the American avant-garde on October 7 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon in the Nadia & Max Shepard Recital Hall. The workshop will include John Cage’s notorious 4’ 33”, Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real for piano, teapot and electronics and Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Mediations. A workshop and rehearsal of Lucier’s Opera for Objects will follow the lecture. The event is free and open to the public.

The series concludes with the Phyllis Chen Davenport artist-in-residence concert on October 27 at 8 p.m. in Parker Theatre, performed by Chen in collaboration with students and faculty. Chen will feature her newest works: Columba for solo piano, commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard; Mobius for two music boxes; and Lighting the Dark, scored for music boxes, clavichord, accordion and electronics, and inspired by the photography of Paula Gianturco.

Tickets for the “Alex Peh and Friends Present Béla Bartók” and Phyllis Chen Davenport artist-in-residence concerts cost $8 for the general public, $6 for seniors aged 62 and over, faculty and staff and $3 for students. Tickets can be purchased at the door prior to the performance. For additional information, call (845) 257-2700 or visit

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