Wendy Mae Chambers Stages Performance for 64 Toy Pianos

'Kun' Inspired by Hexagrams of I Ching

Wendy Mae Chambers of Harvey Cedars is a composer with a particular interest in multiples – large-scale performances by many musicians playing the same instrument.

This week, she will lead 64 toy piano players in a performance of “Kun” at Piers 15 and 16 at the South Street Seaport in New York City. She has also organized and produced concerts for 30 harps, 77 trombones and 10 grand pianos. Originally from Westfield and New York, she moved to Harvey Cedars in 1997. In the past she has put on concerts at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences in Loveladies.

Chambers’ desire to “really explore everything thoroughly about an instrument” led her down the somewhat unconventional road to multiplicity, which achieves a bigger, more powerful sound with “strength in numbers” rather than amplification.

One of the challenges of producing such a performance is finding musicians who specialize in one particular instrument and are willing and available to volunteer. In this case all her musicians are from the New York City area, so she has been commuting for rehearsals.

She has always been fascinated by the toy piano, she said.  Her love of the instrument made her the first person to play an entire recital on the toy piano in 1990.

The toy piano has 37 keys, with a finger reach fairly similar to that of a full-size piano, she explained, although it doesn’t have the dynamic range or a sustain pedal, and it’s much quieter. Bearing similarity to a harpsichord, inside the toy piano a hammer hits a rod instead of a string, so it’s more percussive. The musician plays the toy piano seated on the floor.

Chambers was inspired by the artist Christo, known for his big-impact installations in large geographic and community settings.

She described the “Kun” performance as a “live sound installation,” explaining that the show at the Seaport would have the toy pianos and their players spaced out in separate stations –38 solos, 11 duets and 1 quartet – throughout Pier 15, which is multi-level, and also Pier 16, where the hope was to draw a lot of tourist traffic. The concert would run continuously for four hours from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., with each of the 50 stations playing a six-minute composition. All the separate pieces, even as they stand alone, are linked and interrelated. While Chambers organized and produced the show, she will also be playing in it, as No. 48.

The same piece was performed in 2009 in Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, Fla.

“Kun” borrows concepts from the ancient Chinese classic text I Ching, based on 64 hexagrams. Chambers, recognizing a structural correlation between the I Ching and musical harmony, devised a music system based on the I Ching and named her composition Kun, after the second hexagram, which represents Mother Earth, or yin. (The first is the heavens or Father Sky, also the yang.)

At the end of the concert, she said, about 20 pianos would play a tribute to John Cage, in honor of his centennial year. Cage composed the first piece ever written for toy piano in 1948.

To learn more, visit 64toypianos.com.


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