Phyllis Chen - Mesmers | Album review
International Contemporary Ensemble member Phyllis Chen is a lover of all things Lilliputian. Her Mesmers is a collection of miniature works penned for toy pianos, music boxes, electronics and mixing bowls.
International Contemporary Ensemble member Phyllis Chen is a lover of all things Lilliputian. The local composer is a hot topic in the niche world of toy piano, and she chose a diminutive format for her sophomore album. Mesmers comes packaged as a nearly edible three-inch CD.
A follow-up to Chen’s excellent debut, 2009’s The UnCaged Toy Piano, Mesmers is a collection of miniature works penned for toy pianos, music boxes, electronics and mixing bowls. In less discerning hands, such a rigorous penchant for the petite could sound precious. But like fellow toy pianists Fabian Svensson and Andrián Pertout, Chen’s talents are no small fry. She sidesteps whimsy and allows the plinky sounds of the toy piano to stand up to its larger relatives.
None of the album’s eight tracks clock in over five minutes. Each is handsomely crafted, riffing on the circular gestures that often characterize Chen’s works. Heard individually, the songs are fleetingly pretty. The beauty of Mesmers lies in the power each composition develops in context of the whole. Every track relays into the next through a labyrinth of surprises.
The excruciatingly brief 56-second “Passageway” feels like walking through a geode-studded cave, although the light begins to fade almost as soon as the image is conjured. The following “Cobwebbed Carousel” illuminates a dreamy, crystalline soundscape by way of a hand-cranked music box. The entire album is built from such stepping stones, alternating between suspense and relief.
Like minimalist French electronic musician Colleen, another ardent fan of utilizing the fairground feel of the music box, Chen makes the most of the limited dynamic range of her instruments. It is a quirky music world that simultaneously haunts and inspires.