Whimsical virtuoso

Margaret Leng Tan keeps her art fresh and pushes the boundaries in Cabinet Of Curiosities.
Margaret Leng Tan keeps her art fresh and pushes the boundaries in Cabinet Of Curiosities. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

From teapot to a full toy orchestra, Margaret Leng Tan shows herself to be an all-rounded performance artist



Margaret Leng Tan - pianos large and small

Singapore International Festival of Arts

School of the Arts Studio Theatre


New York-based Singaporean pianist Margaret Leng Tan, the first woman to earn a doctorate in musical arts at The Juilliard School, has re-invented her musical career several times over, first with the prepared piano and the music of John Cage, then toy pianos.

In this programme that coincides with the year of her 70th birthday, she combined all of these, throwing in delectable glimpses of her talent as percussionist and Peking opera singer.

David Gordon's Diclavis Enorma could almost be described as the most traditional of the five works performed, even if scored for two toy pianos, a plethora of call bells of the type you would find on a reception counter and taped playback. With movements reminiscent of Cage, Steve Reich and Johann Sebastian Bach, this was familiar ground for Tan, who from the offset showed that every note of the toy piano or call bell can be struck with musical intent.

Alvin Lucier's Nothing Is Real had Tan recording the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever on a dated cassette desk, then playing it back through a speaker in a teapot. Whimsical and intriguing, it echos the Beatles' pioneering use of technology in their recording of the same song, while Tan's limitless ability to bend the timbre of the teapot's sound has the audience questioning if a china teapot is a musical instrument.

Continuing along the lines of Alice's tea party in Wonderland, Tan became the Mad Hatter, playing toy pianos and a game of chess as a mechanical clock ticked incessantly and a kettle slowly comes to a boil in James Joslin's Hatta.

If Hatta provided some comic relief, Ge Gan-ru's Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, written for Tan and based on the ancient poem by the same name by Lu You (AD 1115) was musical theatre of the highest order.


  • WHERE: School of the Arts Studio Theatre

    WHEN: Today,8pm

    TICKETS: $50from Sistic (tel: 6348-5555, www.sistic.com.sg)

Tan took on the roles of poetry reader, a full toy orchestra (including bird whistle and mechanical crickets) and Peking opera singer, and she excelled at all of them.

The Singapore International Festival of Arts commission, Curios by Phyllis Chen, was inspired by an old photo of three Kassino clowns that Tan gave the composer. Performed on a myriad of toy instruments, gongs, bowls and cymbals, four out of the six movements featured accompanying video montages. This was largely a distraction, drawing attention away from Tan's virtuoso performance and Chen's vivid composition which was easily able to conjure the imagery in any listener's mind.

Tan donned several masks and even a clown's nose as she presented the movements, played the piano, struck percussion instruments and cranked toys. How she coaxed beautiful music from a hand-wound music box roll (movement IV) and a miniature pipe organ (movement VI) was sheer magic.

This reviewer has had the privilege of attending Tan's earlier concerts in Singapore, where Schumann and Debussy were the order of the day, and her pioneering concert that featured Cage's works for prepared piano.

After all these years she continues to keep her art fresh and push the boundaries while maintaining the very highest standards. This was an extraordinary performance of music and theatre by Singapore's foremost performance artist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline 'Whimsical virtuoso'. Print Edition | Subscribe