Go Deeper Thinking Out Of The Music Box: Phyllis Chen on In Plain Air

Thinking Out Of The Music Box: Phyllis Chen on In Plain Air

Posted July 2nd, 2018

Christ Church recently completed the installation of a state-of-the-art C.B. Fisk pipe organ in its historic home, one of the oldest buildings in the nation. In a world premiere performance at this year’s Fringe Festival, musicians from International Contemporary Ensemble will explore the physicality of the grand organ, the lasting power of its sustained notes, and the tangibility of its vibration throughout the space.

In Plain Air is composed by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis. A founder of International Contemporary Ensemble, Chen has worked extensively with toy pianos and other miniature mechanical objects, but the massive organ presents new challenges due to its enormous size and complex mechanics. Chen spoke to FringeArts about the inspiration behind the piece, the distinctive quality of the Christ Church organ, and the significance of working inside one of Philadelphia’s most historic buildings.

One portion of this work will be made entirely from crowd-sourced music box compositions created at a music box-making session this weekend, July 8, at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Chen will guide Philadelphians as they create their own music box piece by punching out holes in a paper strip. These compositions will then be joined from end to end (exquisite-corpse style), creating a grand music box composition to be unveiled in the Christ Church courtyard prior to entering the church as part of In Plain Air. 

FringeArts: How does this project fit into your larger career and to International Contemporary Ensemble’s mission?

Phyllis Chen: I have been a pianist since I was five but this has been my first opportunity to explore the organ. I can still remember the first time Parker (the Christ Church organist) walked us through the innards of the organ while it was still being constructed…all the pulleys, levers and Rube Goldberg-esque design that took such engineering and craftsmanship to create. As a composer I have gravitated towards cheap, miniature and small objects as musical instruments, so working with this new state of the art organ has been a new direction for me, despite it being in the keyboard family.

As a pianist, the organ has always been a bit like a mythical instrument to me for its large range and coloristic possibilities. For example, there are low sounds of the instrument that can be physically felt in the space for its powerful vibrations. As I enjoy playing and composing for small instruments, finding the organ has begged me to think more about the place in which it lives and how it is part of its surroundings. This has led me to think of ways of incorporating the community and the performers into the space itself.

FringeArts: How does it fit into International Contemporary Ensemble’s mission?

Phyllis Chen:  I am a founding member of ICE and have seen how ICE’s commitment to commissioning, performing and producing new works has evolved through the years. I think this project really exemplifies the kind of artist and community driven work that ICE likes to do.

FringeArts: What are some of the musical inspirations you bring to the movements?

Since July 2017, we have been making regular visits to Christ Church watching the different phases of the organ being assembled until its completion. During a visit in November, we were shown a close-up view of this incredibly sophisticated mechanical instrument. I’ve been composing and performing with custom made hand-cranked music boxes for many years and I saw the coincidental overlap of these two mechanical instruments as a place of inspiration. On one hand, the music box is very limited in register and timbre. It is very small and makes a beautifully plucked sound. The organ, on the other hand, is a grand instrument with incredible sustain power, covering so many different assortments of timbres.

From High Windows is a work for organ and music box that I conceived in part from this image of cranking the music box part from one of the open windows of Christ Church. When I learned the significance of the Church’s clear windows, I began thinking of a work that could bring together the organ and its community.

FringeArts: What creative opportunities did you find in composing for Christ Church’s new organ, its bells and its space?

Phyllis Chen: While touring the innards of the organ, we saw the various sizes and materials used in creating the pipe whistles. I saw the opportunity to create some of the smaller pipe whistles and make a miniature mobile organ with ICE performing different pipe whistles by blowing in them. I collaborated with a longtime instrument-maker friend of mine, Ranjit Bhatnagar. The two of us experimented with different materials and designs to create miniature pipe whistles. We worked with students from the Charter High School of Architecture and Design to assemble 15 of these pipe whistles that will be performed by ICE, using the ensemble as a mobile organ.  

FringeArts: What conversations did you have about the Church, congregation, or neighborhood when you were forming the compositions?

Phyllis Chen: While we were learning about the Fisk organ, we were also learning about Christ Church and its rich history in America and Philadelphia. We had many opportunities to speak with people from the church regarding its community and its history. I was fortunate to attend a Eucharist service earlier in the year and meet some of the church members. In April, I was also here for a science fair event that took place in the church, where I was able to speak to many people from the neighborhood.

FringeArts: What role does the audience play in the piece?

Phyllis Chen:One of the things that was told to us early on was that this organ is really for the people. I found that to be very exciting and somehow different than what one would think of when hearing about a new organ going into a church.

FringeArts: What should people know coming in to fully open themselves up to the experience?

Phyllis Chen: I can’t really say anything to calibrate anyone’s expectations, but for me, I find this event to be a celebration for the “birth” of the organ, so to speak, and all the people it will bring together in the next centuries.

—Christopher Munden & Alyssa Kerper

What: In Plain Air
When: September 22 – 23, 2018
Where: Christ Church, 20 North American Street
Cost: FREE
Performed by International Contemporary Ensemble