Hit the image to the right
for a high resolution version
of Toychestra's press photo,
suitable for printing
and framing.

Toychestra books and
promotes their own shows:
see the Contact page.

Read on down for reviews
of Toychestra live
and of their jangly slabs
(records) My Good Side, Sassy Pony and What Leave Behind.

Review of My Good Side in the Italian music paper NO WARNING!:

[our goofy online translation]

"After the beautiful EP What Leave Behind realized in collaboration with Fred Frith, the given over Californian feminine collective to bizzarri sonorous experiments for single giocattoli returns; My Good Side us extension an interesting and very various development of how much the five getlteman is in a position to creating with theirs little orthodox instruments, ventidue tiny of it lives to us and variopinti it frescoes that at times they remember some passages of the Gentle Giant, angle irons and complex polifonie that shine of own light. If in the EP previously cited the wrong impression gushed some it were that one of a mere function of support to the guitar of Frith, My Good Side concurs us to focus the attention exclusively on atypical the sonorità therefore clearly captured in this disc, a lot that at times is easy to forget that these sounds are produced in prevalence by means of use it of giocattoli. Some of these experiments reach to assume the shape of song (Spider Lullaby, Feathers Dusted), between temptations of chamber music understanding in way naif, gamelan, samplings and pure rumorismo. A must for the fans of the more radical, reperibile experimentation through."

The Wire review of Toychestra & Fred Frith's What Leave Behind:
By Mike Barnes

In the mid-90s, Dan Plonsey spent five years presenting weekly concerts at the University of California, Berkeley. Two fo his favourites were a solo concert by Fred Frith--now a visiting professor of music at the selfsame establishment--and a performance by The Toychestra [sic]. Wanting to hear more, he composed a 25 minute "Concerto for Guitar and Toy Orchestra" featuring both camps. One feels that Plonsey himsel would probably smile at the description of the piece in this context. Most music for toys is either done for laughs, or simply sounds insubstantial and one-dimensional. It's true that someone playing a toy bugle, say, is unlikely to move you like Don Cherry in full flight, but the all woman sextet--who weave zither, violin and melodica in with audio learning toys, recorder, whistles and xylophones--produce an appealing noise. Fittingly, their parts are not too complicated but instead overlap in vivid, colouring book hues.

This liaison is not as off-the-wall as it might first seem. Frith's questing spirit has found him subjecting his guitar to a number of domestic and culinary objects in the past, which he may well be doing at times here. Movement two, "Fellini", leans slabs of his atonal guitar against a school music room processional with most affecting results, and it feels like an easy route to reaccessing naivete. His delicate scrapings and textural work on "3 Elephants and a Cow" lead to keening, fuzzed melodic lines and animated note-flurries against rudimentary drums and some device making bovine mooing sounds--the movement's concertante part, presumably. The effect is absurd but impossible to dislike. The closing movement, a simple chorale deftly shaded by Frith called "When To Rewind" is particularly disarmiing. As dreams go, Plonsey's was an unusual one, but he has realised it with aplomb.

Dusted review of What Leave Behind:
By Casey Rea

I am one of a great number of listeners in the experimental and avant-garde music community who will go to great measures to experience nearly anything with which Fred Frith is involved, be it a film soundtrack, a solo guitar piece or a full band prog freakout. What Leave Behind is a delicious addition to Frith’s oddball oeuvre, yet the most compelling charms in its brief running time are to be found in the teasingly ecstatic cacophony that is Toychestra.

Toychestra are six women from Bay Area who, with perfectly skewed savvy, arrange and perform symphonic miniatures using an array of children’s toys and noisemaking devices. Some of the instrumental voices come from more traditional and “playable” equipment - toy pianos, tyke sized drum sets, “my first xylophone,” and so on - but much of the racket is produced with a number of oddball noisemakers: kitschy electronic gizmos, tot learning devices, and found percussive objects. These seemingly inconsonant sources are then (with a display of collage chops that proves this isn’t just kid stuff) coaxed and cajoled, thwacked and rattled into original compositions- or, as the case may be, approximations of works from composers ranging from Dvorak to Martin Denny. The resulting highly disciplined foolery has been showcased at community centers, elementary schools, and rock clubs the world over.

What Leave Behind was composed by Dan Plonsey, whose involvement with Berkeley’s Beanbender Creative Music Series first insprired him to combine the celebrated talents of Mr. Frith with the delirious lullabies of Toychestra. The results are hilarious, stunning, intense, and highly listenable. Feedback washes and spastic skronks from Frith’s guitar volley over the intro to the track “Fellini,” while the sci-fi march of Toychestra tumbles along behind him, evoking images of what the teddy bears might do to the hapless after one of their picnics. “Grover Rides a Happy Honker” is a more delicate affair, replete with Copland-esque interjections and joyously playful percussion. Most appealingly, the potency of the collaboration very quickly transcends what on the surface might appear to be gimmickry.

Like the reverberation of a adult’s reminiscence of childhood Sundays, the haunting closing track “When to Rewind” and its nearly a capella chorale of female voices (Frith contributes chilling volume swells and icy skitters) plays like an indie-rock Anonymous 4; it is polyphonic bedtime music for the half-forgotten child within. A perfect close to a day of play. When unconstrained talents like Fred Frith meet fellow journeywomen like Toychestra, it can only be assumed that the collaboration will at least be interesting. What is thoroughly satisfying , however, is the authenticity and unpretentiousness that this meeting achieves. Joy and heartbreak are the twin companions of childhood, and Toychestra and Fred Frith have evoked both.

KZSU library review of Sassy Pony:

[this is the kind of description KZSU staffers put on the CD case so DJs can play a track without listening first]

by Michael Howes

6 bay area women who make music with toy instruments and other random gadgets. There are some conventional instruments, including, violin, melodica, hurdy gurdy, zither, piano, clarinet, and umm mixing bowl. There are vocals on about half the tracks. What you get is something like demented circus music or dark children’s music that is slightly arty. Most of the songs slowly march along and the vocals are often deadpan. You’d think this would be more fun but it really isn’t, not that that is a bad thing.

**1. Wonderfully twisted instrumental march that gets more demented sounding halfway through. Like something you probably made up when you were a kid.
2. Really dark, and has a soundtrack feel at the beginning. Nursery rhyme type lyrics.
**3. Who could have thought that lemonade could be so scary?? Eeerie keyboard-sounding instrument with deadpan singing of surreal lyrics with mentions of lemonade, champagne, marriage and masquerades. Scare the kids with this one.
5. Lots of tinkling sounds of bells and toy pianos and at one point I think all 6 play a whirly whistle. Noisy but not loud instrumental.
6. Can’t really get my head around this one. Lots of accordion.
**7. Cool pre-caned loop from some toy with animal sounds and counting. Percussive.
8. Percussive instrumental track. Nice use of the “Barbie for girls Deluxe Music Center Keyboard.
**9. A slow, dark walk with lyrics about needing a hammer.
**11. Yea. Sounds like a drunk marching band happily marching around their sandbox banging on pots and pans. Instrumental.
12. Like the title suggests, it has a lullaby feel....'cept satan is playing the keyboards.

Review of Sassy Pony on Dutch website anothernicemess.com:

by DJ Marcelle van Hoof
[our funny online translation]

What you all with toy cannot do. The five ladies of Toychestra have made since 1996 music. Initially it was the intention that Paula, Lexa, Shari, Corey and Petra would form a ' ordinary ' rockgroep, but after Lexa had taken along toy (instruments) to the oefenruimte, everyone had been sold. After a number of singles and contributions to compilation albums Sassy Pony'de debuutelpee of Toychestra are. Seldom such a pleasure have at listening to a link unknown for me. It tinkles and tangelt, it are fresh and original and the economical vocalen ("I because another glasses or lemonade") are appropriate perfectly at both the naive and melancholic songs. Do not think moreover that the ladies with their wasbord, purple zoo train and houten cubes are infantilely busy. Every instrument is with a complicated system of microphones with each other joined. The link plays own composities and work of among others Perez Prado, Martin Denny and Dvorak. The melodica of Corey call weemoed. And how hot such a cow also again those ' boe''zegt if you turn him? In ' Sittin ' Pretty she steals the show!

from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Nov. 17, 2004:

Adult's play
Oakland's Toychestra makes kitschy high art out of fun.

By Craig Matsumoto

FOR A BAND whose setup looks like Santa's sleigh crashed into a garage sale, Toychestra is plenty serious. It's not that the five-woman Oakland band lacks a sense of humor – just look at the members' dime-store costumes: bridal gowns, superhero outfits, and cowgirl regalia. They take the stage in future-shock hairdos and fluorescent wigs, unfolding ironing boards to support their arsenal of instruments – tiny pianos, hurdy-gurdies, and plastic recorders – and kitchen-utensil noisemakers.

It all smacks of a novelty act, but the music goes far beyond childish thumping (though they're not above that). The band's artsy-goofy hybrid inspired East Bay composer Dan Plonsey to team the group with Fred Frith last year for Plonsey's Concerto for Guitar and Toy Orchestra, committed to CD, What Leave Behind, by France's SK Records. And Toychestra received an invitation to Paris early this year for a toy-music festival at the artsy Cité de la Musique cultural complex.

Toychestra comes from a place where the playfully absurd turns eerie. Tinny clinks and clanks get overlaid with sinister tones from the tuned instruments, and the occasional serene harmonies make the effect at once more peaceful and more unsettling. It's Miranda July conducting the Residents in the Twin Peaks Elementary School symphony.

A Toychestra is born

The band started as a one-off experiment in 1996. Paula Alexander, a member of performance art group Better Hose and Garters, was invited by drummer Gino Robair to join a festival of experimental music by women. "For the first rehearsal, we got together and brought our regular instruments, and I brought some toys too," Toychestra member Lexa Walsh says. "We tried both, and the toys definitely won. We started sitting in a circle improvising with toys, and we came up with a set in two weeks."

The band stuck together, encouraged by that first show and egged on by local fans including Plonsey, who booked the band in 1998 at his Beanbender's music series in Berkeley. "I hope they will always be as fresh when the inevitable happens and they begin to learn to play their instruments!" he wrote on his online concert diary, back before anyone knew to call it a blog.

Most original members of the group have left since those early days, Alexander included, but Walsh still carries the Toychestra torch along with Michele Adams, Angela Coon, Shari Robertson, and Corey Weinstein. Almost none of the band members are trained musicians; most are artists of other stripes who are interested in investigating the kinds of sounds they can create. In many ways, Toychestra resembles an ongoing experiment in naive sound.

What comes out are two- and three-minute instrumentals with spooky melodies over absurd nursery-rhyme percussion. Dreamy harmonies adorn some songs, with lyrics mixing absurd and serious themes: "Ha, ha, Paris / I want another glass of pink champagne / Ha, ha, marriage/ I follow, you follow, masquerade," the group sings on the slow-moving "John's Buttons."

With most of the band unable to read sheet music, songwriting is a painstaking group effort. "We write it down any way we can, memorize it, tape it, and play it to each other. We used to just sort of remember these parts, like, 'Blue-Yellow-Yellow, Orange. Orange,' " Walsh says, describing the colored keys on the pianos and xylophones. "Now I have an organ at home, so I can at least write it down, like, C-C-D-D."

The tricky part isn't so much the notes but the rhythms, which can't be spelled out. That made Plonsey's concerto a challenge, because it had to be learned by rote – and because, at 24 minutes, it was by far the longest piece the band had ever played. "I started out writing some simple, repeating bits to play," Plonsey says. "I wanted to see what would happen, because they'd never worked with written music before. It was all totally aural."

The concerto is a modern avant-garde piece with a playful feel. In its performances, the band worked away at the marchlike rhythms while Frith added his usual scribbles and plucks.

Plonsey was impressed with the results. Toychestra had spent years re-creating the interlocking rhythms they'd heard in other music (Coon is a huge Frith fan, Plonsey notes), and that preparation was necessary for the scope of the concerto. "It hit me that their music is much more complicated than my music," Plonsey says. "When you pull apart what they've done, it's pretty sophisticated."

Popular in France

Toychestra's experience in France was just as successful but more daunting. "It was our first concert-hall experience, and it was pretty uptight. For instance, there wasn't much hospitality to speak of, and I personally enjoyed playing the punk-squatted info shop in Angers the next night much more," Walsh says. "It was a good experience, though. I think we have learned to overcome our fears of concert halls and to loosen the place up a little."

The question now is whether all this high-art exposure will propel the band into a new phase – one Plonsey worried about years ago, in which the band starts to learn the toy instruments. Walsh says Toychestra is incorporating more serious instruments such as melodica and kalimba to undercut the shrillness of the toy instruments. Even more telling, Plonsey says members of the band have asked for souvenir copies of his concerto's sheet music. "It's like bringing computers into the jungle. I hope I haven't corrupted them," he says.

from the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 2, 2000:

"Musicians typically don't want to grow up, but the members of Oakland's Toychestra have taken that pledge more literally than most. These five women play nothing but toys...'They blew on bazookas and blasted great toots/On clarinets, oom-pahs and boom-pahs and flutes.' That's actually from Dr. Seuss but it might as well be a Toychestra concert review." --James Sullivan

from San Francisco Frontiers, May 4, 2000:

"To [their] auspicious visual display, the performers brought a subversive girls-will-be-girlishness that erupted in the wiggle room afforded by their labor intensive but relatively low-brainer noisemakers. During numbers named, 'Nurse', 'PMS,' 'In the Beer Garden,' and 'Masturbation' (whose lyrics consisted of two words: masturbation and football), the band really got something going. Self described as 'avant-garde, ambient kitsch', Toychestra takes up where the late, lamented Martin Denny put down his coconut."--Erin Blackwell