Champions of culture

Absurdly serious musician

Playwright Haresh Sharma, realist painter Chua Mia Tee, avant-garde musician Margaret Leng Tan and Chinese-language novelist Lin Gao received the nation's highest artistic honour at the Istana last night. Life interviews this year's recipients of the Cultural Medallion

She is a serious musician who makes music out of absurd instruments - a teapot, a cassette deck and her signature toy piano were just some of the tools Margaret Leng Tan used at her well-received performance in August during the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Tan, who turns 70 in December and resides in New York, is the first woman to earn a doctorate in musical arts from Juilliard as well as the first Singaporean musician to perform on Carnegie Hall's main stage.

Deeply influenced by the late avant-garde American composer John Cage, she performed his Suite For Toy Piano at a memorial tribute in 1993 and has gone on to elevate the musical status of the instrument with critically acclaimed albums such as The Art Of The Toy Piano (1997) and She Herself Alone: The Art Of The Toy Piano 2 (2010).

She says of receiving the Cultural Medallion: "On one hand, I think it's about time I got it. On the other hand, I think it's very brave of them to give it to somebody who plays with toys."

Who and/or what has been the biggest influence on your art?

John Cage was a very, very important figure in my life. I was at a crossroads when I didn't know what to do with my life and meeting Cage taught me what I wanted to do. He taught me how to listen, he taught me how to live life a certain way, which is the way of Zen.

He said failure is just our inability to adjust immediately from a preconception to an actuality. We have fixed ideas of how we want things to turn out and when things don't go like that, it's hard for us to adjust from what we expected to what it is. You are free to like or dislike, but the important thing is to accept equally what you like and what you dislike.

In other words, I've stopped judging myself and criticising myself as much as I used to. I still do it, but with a lot more equanimity.

Your proudest achievement so far?

I've never been accused of gimmickry and I think that's because I do what I do with integrity and both critics and the public sense that.

The Singapore International Festival of Arts performance was also a milestone for me. Through the production, I have gone another step in reinventing myself. Beyond being a multi-instrumentalist, a toy pianist and a vocalist, I realise I have always been somewhat of a performance artist, but I really nailed it in this show.

What do you consider your greatest failure?

I can't think of any, but if you play a really good concert, you don't learn anything from it. If you give a bad performance, you learn from it once you're done hitting yourself over the head, once you open yourself up to reflect and be honest. Things go wrong for a reason .

Is there anything you would do differently?

I like my life as it is. The world has been kind to me. I've been given opportunities and also been astute enough to take these opportunities when they came.

Also, I think I've taken risks, I've taken chances, like this idea of developing a career as a toy pianist.

When you think about it, it's pretty outrageous isn't it? How ridiculous can it be to have someone at the age of 70 sticking a lantern over her head, wearing a mask and playing this instrument?

To pluck the strings of the psaltery with one hand and play the piano with the other, it takes years and years of practice to be able to do this with any kind of conviction and grace.

I did it and spent years on it only because I believe so fervently in the aesthetic value of the music I've created. And I knew that if I could do this music justice, I could take the audience along with me on this ride.

What do you plan to do with the $80,000 Cultural Medallion grant?

I might use it for some commissioning or recording work. The beauty of it is that there is no time limit, so I don't have to rush into anything.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Absurdly serious musician'. Print Edition | Subscribe