Phyllis Chen wins prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for Music Composition

Assistant Professor Phyllis Chen is a 2022 winner of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, one of the highest honors available to scholars, scientists and creative artists in the United States.

Chen, who teaches music theory and composition in the School of Fine & Performing Arts at SUNY New Paltz, was one of 180 Guggenheim Fellows selected from a pool of nearly 2,500 applicants from across the United States and Canada.

The acclaimed composer and sound artist’s work, hailed as “spellbinding” and “delightfully quirky matched with interpretive sensitivity” by the New York Times, is largely rooted in the possibilities of the toy piano and other unusual instruments like hand-cranked music boxes.

The fellowship will support Chen as she continues a new sound installation performance using the Sounding Stone sculptures of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. As Chen began to “explore the sonic possibilities” of these sculptures, which were privately loaned to her by the Noguchi Museum in winter 2020, she was taken aback by the sound they produced when struck with a mallet: “a crisp bell-like sonority.” The installation will be the first piece to feature all six Sounding Stones as musical instruments. 

“Noguchi created several obsidian sculptures that are naturally resonant and bell-like, but they were never explored as musical instruments during his lifetime,” said Chen. “The fellowship will allow me to focus my creative work on developing a long-durational work using these stones at the Noguchi Museum’s indoor-outdoor gallery space in Queens.”

Chen first came to New Paltz’s Department of Music as the 2015 Davenport Resident for New American Music, which featured three weeks of performances and workshops highlighting Chen’s unique approach to experimental composition. She joined the faculty full-time in 2019.

Chen’s drive and curiosity to reimagine, discover and test limits transcends her endeavors, from her artistry and performance to her teaching and scholarship. Ever the collaborator, she’s always inviting her community to join her. She developed the New Music New Paltz website to support her students’ music and connect them with the local community, and has been instrumental in recruiting other eclectic, convention-bending artists to campus for the Davenport Residency, including 2022’s artist-in-residence Jen Shyu, also a Guggenheim Fellow.

“The process of experimentation is at the heart of my artistic practice and what I encourage most with my students,” said Chen. “I teach a class ‘Experiments in Composition’ that is both a survey on different sonic approaches found in contemporary music as well as a lab-like space for students to try new approaches and sounds that they would otherwise not try. It’s through this process of sound discovery where I think we find our materials to work with, sometimes long before we develop a personal voice.”

Learn more here about the SUNY New Paltz Department of Music and its events, faculty and programs.


About the Guggenheim Foundation

Created and initially funded in 1925 by Senator Simon and Olga Guggenheim in memory of their son John Simon Guggenheim, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has sought since its inception to “further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions.”

Since its establishment, the Foundation has granted nearly $400 million in Fellowships to over 18,000 individuals, among whom are more than 125 Nobel laureates, members of all the national academies, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Fields Medal, Turing Award, Bancroft Prize, National Book Award, and other internationally recognized honors.

Phyllis Chen becomes the second SUNY New Paltz faculty member to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in the last five years. Assistant Professor of Photography Nadia Sablin was a 2018 Fellow.