The toy piano is an ambiguous Victorian invention. Is it a tool for learning? A child’s plaything? A novelty for adults? It’s an inherently limited device: with metal tubes instead of strings, it is difficult to tune with precision. It’s an imperfect mimic of the grown-up instrument that looms over it. However, like any limiting medium, the toy piano was biding its time, awaiting some creative genius to flourish under its constraints. John Cage famously composed music for this instrument, and others have followed suit. The “UnCaged” and “Non-Piano / Toy Piano” festivals are among an international network of events and organisations dedicated to this music.
Based in Pennsylvania, the NakedEye Ensemble are a motley crew of musicians and composers, founded and directed by pianist Ju-Ping Song. This release centres on her virtuosic exploration of toy piano and other non-traditional instruments. It makes childish fun of the sombre classical world; but then it elevates child’s play to serious art.
The opening track is a recording of “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” by Ge Gan-Ru. Ubiquitously billed as the first avant-garde composer of China, Gan-Ru’s works include “Fall of Baghdad” for string quartet. Written for Margaret Leng Tan, “Wrong!” is a kind of mock-heroic spin on Peking opera, with a solo performer employing voice, toy piano, and other novelty instruments. Peking opera is a formalised display of cultural heritage. But Gan-Ru’s piece is an irreverent, postmodern collapse of the past into the present. Song’s playing is by turns enchanting and absurd. In her singing, the practiced annunciation of opera is replaced with anarchic eccentricity.
Next up is “Gossamer Wings”, a triptych of miniatures composed by Erik Griswold and named for a Cole Porter line. This composition was also premiered by Leng Tan, whose shadow Song triumphantly emerges out from. Accompanied by her ensemble on flute, saxophone, cello, guitar, and percussion, Song leads Griswold’s flight dextrously. The musicians of NakedEye balance the classical and jazz elements of the piece with great skill: from the tremulous “Suspended”, they segue neatly to the catchy groove of “Moon Dancing”. Adam Rosenblatt’s xylophone is especially striking. Has he ever taken up the vibraphone in a jazz setting?
The remainder of the album showcases work composed specifically for Song or the ensemble. “Babbling Tower” by Rusty banks is an angular, staccato piece for toy piano and cell phones. Richard Belcastro’s “Knock ‘Em Back” is a short suite led by Chad Kinsey’s jamming electric guitar. These in-house compositions are successful and energetic, but they are given a tough job following the soaring rendition of Griswold’s “Wings”.
Closing the album, Jan Fedderson’s “Ujoforyt” is a short but memorable abstraction. Song’s piano is relentless, repetitious, and mesmerising. This finale makes it certain: listeners will never again doubt the mature capacities of this diminutive instrument. (Samuel Rogers)