“My living room looks like an explosion in a toy shop,” Brian Duffy admits over the phone, as he surveys the wreckage. “There’s no furniture, there’s just millions of decapitated toys.” If you ever see the Modified Toy Orchestra perform, you’ll realise why. Duffy’s band plays layered electronic music that incorporates surreal lyrical snippets, floor-shaking drum beats, and shimmering swathes of synthesised sound. And all of it comes out of discarded toys that have been taken to bits and rewired in Duffy’s studio.
“We use a hula-dancing, singing Barbie doll who’s been modified so that the pitch of the sound is changed by the movement of her arms,” Duffy chuckles. “There are springs coming out of her head that act as body contact points so the signal flows through your fingers and changes.”
Brian Duffy was originally a painter, before teaching himself to play the piano and graduating onto other acoustic instruments, electronic synthesisers and computers. But it’s playing toys that makes Duffy happiest as an artist. “I’d got sick of the European tradition and the fact that every instrument I own is designed by somebody else and locked within a certain scale structure,” he says. “Learning how to play one of these toys, I have to throw away what I already know and work with processes which are inherently unstable.”
He recruited the rest of his band ten years ago when he was asked to support Kraftwerk, and decided to play a cover of their song “Pocket Calculator” using a Stylophone and a toy keyboard called the Bee Gees Rhythm Machine. The people he chose to help were all seasoned musicians, but found that being a member of the Modified Toy Orchestra was more difficult than it looked.
“It’s much, much harder to perform live than anything I’ve ever done before,” Duffy says. “When it comes to playing tiny plastic mushrooms you’ve got to be incredibly accurate – it takes months and months of rehearsal to get it right. I’ll be teaching a new member a part, and saying, ‘No! It’s fencepost, fencepost, mushroom, mushroom, daisy, sunflower – you’re playing it all wrong!’”
The MTO have played at sound art events, heavy metal gigs, and major European festivals, but you can catch them next Thursday and Friday as part of the Royal Opera House’s “Firsts” season of cutting-edge, genre-defying work. They’ll be on a bill that includes disabled Scottish artist Claire Cunningham, who dances using crutches, and turntablism-inspired performers Impact Dance.
And while the Orchestra shouldn’t be dismissed as just a novelty act – Duffy explains at length how the music can be seen as a metaphor for the limitations of human experience – the gig should also be a lot of fun. “I’ve never done any performances in my life, other than with the Toy Orchestra,” Duffy says with satisfaction, “where you look out and the entire audience is smiling.”