Pic by Laurent Orseau

When I moved to Brussels (some 15 years ago), I started to develop a fascination for small instruments. Funny sounding toys and in particular, toy pianos caught my attention. Children’s miniature pianos, made out of metal rods instead of strings. Sometimes in wood, sometimes in plastic. I think what attracted me at that time was the lack of cultural and musical baggage these instruments and objects were carrying.
Nobody expects a symphonic masterpiece from a bunch of toy pianos and this lack of expectation created a very free space for me to explore, discover and simply play. Nothing had to happen, but everything was possible.

Now, after some years of experimentation, I’m still touched by how each one of them sounds and looks so different. All my toy pianos come from different places and times (Japan, US, Poland, France); some of them are pretty old and their souls are resonating every time they are being played.

But maybe first a tiny bit of toy piano history.
The most famous composer that took the toy piano seriously was John Cage. He composed the first suite for toy piano in 1948 and since then the toy piano gained popularity not only in classical contemporary scenes (George Crumb, Mauricio Kagel), but also in film soundtracks (Pascal Comelade, Yann Tiersen), pop and rock music (Sigur Ros, Tori Amos, Radiohead) and so on. Nowadays it is pretty much an integrated sound in contemporary music.
Polish composer and instrument builder Pawel Romanczuk is (to my knowledge) the one that has the biggest collection of toy pianos (and weird instruments). His studio must be a marvel to go through!

Pic by Laurent Orseau

My main interest in these little pianos is their intrinsic quality. I am not interested in playing classical piano pieces on them. Because they are mostly out of tune, they produce the most wonderful overtones and colors. I am interested in bringing out what is already there. I also process them electronically. Weird gamelan tinted sounds come out of it and it is highly inspirational. 
Last year I created Bakunawa, an ensemble piece based on gong rods and toy pianos.

Bakunawa LP Side B

Which leads us to gong rods. These gong rods are made of metal and are hidden inside old grandmother’s clocks. They mark the hours with a melody or tone. I have taken them out of the clock and used them bowing or tapping in combination with electronic effects. They produce crazy overtones and can make a kind of shimmering drone sound. I have used them extensively on Bakunawa Part I, where 5 musicians are bowing 8 gong rods together. What attracted me is that they have a very particular sound, in a way soothing and melancholic at the same time. I had many times people telling me after a concert that their sound had touched them, and reminded them of some childhood sentiments. I believe these sounds have a strong link to our memory and touch our unconsciousness.

Pic: Laurent gong rods
Bakunawa LP Side B

I am attracted to objects that have a hidden character, that you don’t hear at first encounter. Especially those found in past time are very interesting. New toy pianos are less soulful, but those from the past have lived a life, and whether we are aware or not, I’m convinced that we can hear that life. 
Lately I have been into ceramics. I have made a ceramic wokalimba. The wokalimba is a design from Giovanni Di Domenico. It is a metal wok with metal spikes soldered inside. It is literally a thing in between a wok and a kalimba. I have made a ceramic model to try out this new material. It is surprisingly crisp, with lots of high frequencies. It is also very fragile, while trying out and playing on it, I already broke some ceramic spikes. It is a work in progress, but so far, I’m very pleased with the sound and the feel of it. So much more to explore!

Pic by Laurent Orseau

Pak Yan Lau, born in Belgium, with roots from Hong Kong and now based in Brussels is a sound artist, improviser, musician and composer, who has developed over the years a rich, dense and captivating sound universe from prepared pianos, toy pianos, synths, electronics and various sound objects.
Skilfully blending electro-acoustic approaches, she explores sound in a bewitching way, merging these sound sources with poetry, magic and finesse.
She has toured different festivals and venues in Europe, UK, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.
2021 saw several releases, among which her 6 piece ensemble Bakunawa, which explores a combination of unconventional instrumentation (gong rods, toy pianos, metal tubes in combination with harp, bass drum, tom) and delicate use of electronics. Inspired by Asian ritual music, minimal music (Philip Glass and Eliane Radigue), and ambient music, she created her own personal ritualistic sound world.