Believe it or not, scattered around the world is a small community whose members are united by an unusual passion: the toy piano.
Monica Pearce’s dog, Simon, is not among them, though he did sit in for a recent Brownsville Herald interview with Pearce, an experimental composer, at her home studio in Brownsville.
The Canada native, who moved to the Rio Grande Valley from Baton Rouge, La., in 2020, and to Brownsville last summer, writes for keyboard — including toy piano — and percussion. Her compositions have appeared on other albums over the years but now, as of Oct. 14, Pearce has her own album out, featuring exclusively her works performed by various A-list musicians.
The album is titled Textile Fantasies. The first track, “toile de jouy,” referring to an antique French fabric pattern, was written for and performed by harpsichord virtuoso Wesley Shen. It’s followed by “leather,” “chain maille,” “houndstooth,” “silks,” “velvet,” “damask” and “denim.” Discussing the idea behind the album, Pearce said it’s about capturing abstract concepts through music, “which can be really fun.”
The project started in 2015 with a few works she’d written all based on percussion and piano, she said.
“I wanted to do kind of a series of works that were based on a similar concept, because I would look at like visual art as … they get to do a whole show around a theme, and composers don’t usually get to do that in the same way,” Pearce said. “So I thought it would be really fun to work on something over the course of several years that would go in these different areas.
“And I always loved the idea of how textiles and patterns could play into music. Because you can look at a pattern and kind of look at the shapes and how they interact, and then try to find interesting ways to graft that onto a composition.”
“Chain maille,” a percussion piece that features among its instruments a chain-mail mask such as those worn by medieval knights, is slated to be performed at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley later this fall. On Sept. 8, in a concert at UTRGV, guest pianist Kate Ledger from the University of York, England, premiered some of Pearce’s works alongside pieces from other experimental composers. Pearce herself performs “semi-regularly” on the toy piano, though not in the Valley so far, though she expects to at some point.
While Pearce’s compositions might sound, well, new, to the casual listener, she’s considered fairly accessible compared to more hardcore experimental composers, she said, describing the scene in general as “some people who are just very interested in hearing things that they haven’t heard before and new sounds that haven’t really been explored yet.”
“I think I’m in that middle ground,” she said.
Pearce, who’s played piano since she was a child, said her own journey down the experimental path began while she was at school.
“At a certain point when I was in university I was practicing and everything like that, and then I just found that I really enjoyed writing my own music instead of having to practice so often on really difficult pieces,” she said.
Pearce remembers the first time she heard someone else performing something she’d written.
“There’s really just nothing like it, and the kind of connection you can have with a performer, it’s really special,” she said.
When composing, it’s important not to go beyond what’s actually possible for a musician to play, Pearce said.
“You have to imagine how they would do it and if it’ll fit their instrument,” she said. “Is it going to be incredibly inconvenient to play? You try and keep all those things in mind when you’re writing something.”
Though she performs occasionally, Pearce leaves most of the performing of her pieces to the ones who practice hours a day and “can take it the rest of the way and really make it special,” she said.
“I leave it to the professionals,” Pearce said. “Most of the stuff that I write is too hard for me to play.”
She composes mostly on piano, and a Yamaha upright model sits against a wall in Pearce’s home studio. Beside it, taking up much less space, is Simon’s nemesis: a toy piano. Explaining how she wound up in the toy-piano subset of the larger experimental music community, Pearce recalled that she’d finished her master’s degree and was living in Toronto.
“I was pretty burned out to be honest,” she said. “A lot of my friends were going on to do their doctorate, and I was just not feeling like academia was my path. And so right around that time I bought a toy piano. … I saw the toy piano as kind of like a playful instrument that could still have a lot of depth if you worked with it and wrote interesting music for it.
“And also the sound of it is really intriguing. It’s kind of imperfect in a way because the tuning of it is very strange. It can’t do the same things that a piano can do, but it can do other things that are very interesting and percussive.”
The late John Cage, considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, wrote a number of pieces for toy piano. To hear them performed by artists such as New York virtuoso Margaret Leng Tan, who worked with Cage, should banish any doubt that the toy piano is a legitimate musical instrument in the right hands.
Still, there will always be skeptics.
“Simon really likes the piano,” Pearce said. “He likes being around when I play, but he does not like the toy piano. Something about the frequency, he’s like, I’m out. Too loud, too weird.”
To hear tracks from Textile Fantasies and order a copy, go to centrediscs.bandcamp.com/album/textile-fantasies-3.
For more about Pearce’s compositions and projects, go to monicapearce.com.