Toy Pianos in the Wild
by DANNY OLDA
The New Music Conflagration Brings a First-Its-Kind Artist Residency to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve and St. Petersburg
Clutching toy pianos, Elizabeth A. Baker and I quickened our pace along the shore of Lake Maggiore through a cloud of insects that became distressingly dense. They’re midges, nature preserve ranger Andrea Andersen explains, not mosquitos. As we filed back onto the trail we looked back at the lake. Dark rain clouds were blooming over Tampa Bay. Surprisingly, the thick swarm of midges wasn’t unsettling in itself—it was the buzz, a peculiarly high pitch. Thunder tumbled lazily over the drone of the midges as we hopped back in the golf cart and continued down the trail. I was beginning to understand Baker’s attachment to this place and her reasoning behind selecting it as the setting for a new residency. It was rich in sound but also something distinctly Floridian.
The Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is a near-300 acre protected wildlife area situated at the far southern end of Pinellas County. Boasting a variety of landscapes—stark sand scrub, dark swamp woodland, pine flatwoods, willow marsh, hardwood hammocks, lake shore—Nature Preserve Ranger Andersen guided us through each one. I dressed poorly for the excursion in a tie and stiff leather shoes. Sweat soaked into my collar and, before the end of the day, would wick into the knot of my tie. However, I was quickly contracting Baker’s enthusiasm. A talented multi-disciplinary artist in her own right, she explored each ecosystem with a vivid sense of curiosity and adventure that I’ve since learned also characterizes her art-making. Baker had been visiting the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve since she was a little girl. However, she studied each landscape as if it were new to her, through the unfamiliar eyes of the artists-in-residence that would arrive early in the new year.
Baker helms The New Music Conflagration, a non-profit organization that promotes public awareness of contemporary concert music.
“I found that there was a bit of a hole in our area when it came to well-curated performances and education, with regards to contemporary concert music and avant-garde performance,” she explains. “It was a need to fill that void, outside of the academic sector, in a manner that promotes accessibility to the public-at-large that caused me to found The New Music Conflagration, Inc.”
Like Baker’s personal art practice, experimentation and innovation are fundamental to the organization’s activities and the residency is its latest effort in its mission.
“From the outside, most people don’t think of Saint Petersburg, FL as a mecca for new music and innovative concert presentation; however, the festival has increased the visibility of Saint Petersburg, as a place that fosters contemporary concert music at a high level of excellence,” Baker says. “Establishing an artist residency takes this goal of global visibility in the new music community to the next level.”
Through the New Music Conflagration and in partnership with the City of St. Petersburg, Baker organized the artist residency, a first of it’s kind for the area. Seven artists, from Eugene, Oregon to the Netherlands, have been selected to live and work at Boyd Hill January 2 through 8. In conjunction with the 2018 International Toy Piano Festival, the artists will share work they’ve already created in addition to pieces inspired by the residency during various concerts and workshops.
Held annually since 2015, the International Toy Piano Festival has been one of the main initiative of the New Music Conflagration. The festival draws artists composing and performing with this unique instrument and encourages them to engage with the local community while helping to further brand the Tampa Bay area as a one-of-a-kind cultural destination.
“We have already seen with the past two toy piano festivals an extremely positive response where people are now discussing the festival throughout the year in places as far as Israel, Malaysia, Japan, China, The Netherlands, Austria, Italy and a host of other countries,” Baker relates. “Prestigious music schools, including NYU, The Juilliard School and Yale have all had students involved in the festival either through performance or composition.”
The residency will bring additional talented artists to the festival while providing a particularly Floridian setting to work in. Beyond that, however, Baker is offering little further guidance to the residents. Easing creativity for the visiting artists is a priority for her.
“I’m basically giving the artists free reign, I’m not leading them anywhere,” she explains. “They will explore our local world and create without pressure.”
We drifted over the wood planks of the cabins at the Nature Preserve’s nearby Environmental Study Area, where the artists will be living during the residency. Sleepover summer camp affairs plucked directly out of the American psyche, they are wooden structures complete with bunkbeds, large screen windows and no air conditioning. Adjacent to the camp grounds is the Boyd Hill Pioneer settlement, a collection of relocated and recreated Pinellas buildings from the 19th Century, a compliment to the natural inspiration of the nature preserve.
Strolling between the old buildings and under the older oak trees clutching a toy piano, I wonder what sort of sounds will emerge out of this residency. Though the artists will arrive from around the world, Elizabeth Baker has prepared a setting such that any creative output there will somehow, but undoubtedly, be tied fast to our home.
“I think it is important to remember our roots,” she says. “Boyd Hill is the ultimate example of our roots, and viewed through the lenses of outsiders, hopefully we can cherish the beauty of our home and think more carefully about conservation.”