The Life Interview

Dragon lady of the toy piano

Margaret Leng Tan, turning 70, is still coaxing sounds from wacky instruments, including a cowbell, chess set and alarm clock

Anything can be a musical instrument for Margaret Leng Tan.
Anything can be a musical instrument for Margaret Leng Tan. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Transforming the toy piano into a real instrument with its own legitimate repertoire is Margaret Leng Tan’s legacy. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Margaret Leng Tan with her father, Mr C.C. Tan, in 1962 before he took her to the airport to fly to the Juilliard music school in New York.
Tan (above) practising on the piano at Juilliard in 1967. PHOTO: MARGARET LENG TAN
Tan with her mentor, the late American avant-garde composer John Cage (both above), after a concert performance in 1991. PHOTO: GEORGE HIROSE
Tan at home in Brooklyn last year with five of her dogs. PHOTO: LINA AHMELS

One of Margaret Leng Tan's custom-made instruments - a cross between a tiny, colourful pipe organ and pan pipes - has wilted in the Singapore humidity.

But her production manager, armed with resourcefulness and a hairdryer, has managed to revive it.

Tan lets out a bit of a squeal when she sees it. She rushes to the instrument, taps out a few tentative notes, then plunges into a jaunty solo. "Much better! Ohhhh! Not bad, not bad at ALL."

One of Singapore's most prominent musical exports, swaddled in a bright pink turtleneck, is bubbling over with delight. "It was wheezing, like it had asthma. But now it's alive!"

Tan, who turns 70 this year, can be girlish and imperious in the same breath. During most of the interview, she is walking around, stretching and standing, feet planted firmly apart. When she speaks, she declares her sentences in a crisp, clipped accent that anchors her to a certain Anglo-Malayan education of the 1940s and 1950s, untouched by 53 years of living and working in the United States.

One is reminded of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, who "doth bestride the narrow world: like a Colossus". Here stands Margaret Leng Tan, queen of the New Music world and diva of the toy piano, the first woman ever to earn a doctorate from the prestigious Juilliard school of music - and the first Singapore soloist to grace Carnegie Hall's Isaac Stern Auditorium, filling its 2,800 seats in 2002. The New York Times called her "the most convincing interpreter of John Cage's keyboard music".

Cage, the late American avant- garde composer and one of the most revolutionary and influential artists of the 20th century, was her mentor and frequent collaborator from their first encounter in 1981 to his death in 1992.

Often, his works demand that performers "prepare" the piano, altering its sound by placing various objects on or between the strings. Since then, the New York- based Tan has gone on to make her name on the world stage with her unconventional playing techniques and an arsenal of wacky instruments, most memorably the toy piano.

"One thing I've learnt from John Cage," she says as she paces around the room, "is that your awareness extends beyond just your art. The artist in the ivory tower is passe." She repeats this for good measure, almost as a mantra to herself.

"What's the point of being an artist? I questioned this for years. It's so f***ing narcissistic!" she shakes her head.

"The idea of being a classical pianist, at some point, just didn't make any sense to me, to go and do these shows and practise and play in your little ivory tower. I didn't see any sense in it. I decided, I'm going to do something worthwhile."

At first, this meant training hearing dogs for the deaf (she has five dogs). But she has found that meaningfulness in the art she makes.

In her hands, anything can be an instrument - from a cowbell to a coffee can. She has spent the past few decades of her life erasing the boundaries between "high" and "low" art, and creating plenty of fun, magical moments in-between.

Just over the weekend, she led audience members down the rabbit hole with her performance Cabinet Of Curiosities, where she coaxed sounds from an amplified chess set, an alarm clock, a teapot and a 16- piece toy orchestra (among other objects), framed by stunning multimedia visuals. This intricate production was commissioned by the ongoing Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen calls her a "singular artist in a sea of classically trained musicians", one creating "new, vital art... as young as when she first studied with John Cage and the experimental music of New York".

The show will be travelling to the Brisbane Festival next week. This means she will be spending about a month away from her beloved dogs. Tan, who is not married, lives with them in a large Victorian brownstone in Brooklyn. She calls them the Brooklyn Bark Chorus, revelling in the Bach pun.

At home, she has three grand pianos and at least 20 toy pianos, as well as a large room dedicated to objects she can play. For a recent piece, she went through several cans of coffee just to find the right sound.

She says: "I don't take anything in the kitchen for granted any more. Every time I finish a can of coffee, I save it and compare it. Even if they are the same brand, same flavour, they have a different pitch and sound. So I have a whole collection of coffee cans now. You can make a whole orchestra of coffee cans."

Tan was 16 when she arrived in New York in 1962, a "completely fearless" teenager in a scrappy, crime-addled city. She lived in an apartment because there were no student dormitories, a world away from her "protected childhood" in Singapore, where she went to Raffles Girls' School and practised the piano for hours every day.

Her late father, Mr C.C. Tan, was a prominent lawyer, politician and former chairman of the Straits Times Press. Her mother, now 95, taught piano ("she was smart enough not to try and teach me"). She has an older sister, now retired, and a younger brother, a lawyer.

Her love for the piano grew out of a sibling rivalry with her sister, who had taken up lessons. "Everything she did I had to do also and do better." This involved a great deal of "blackmail" by six-year-old Tan: "You just refuse to get into the car every day to go to school until you get piano lessons." She got her way.

She struggled with the strict, "uncreative" music lessons, but grew to love the piano and won the open section of the 1961 Singapore- Malaya Piano Competition. She was talent-spotted at a masterclass by Juilliard professor Joseph Bloch, who told her to "seriously consider" auditioning for Juilliard. She won a scholarship to the school, where she received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees.

In her first few weeks there, she struggled with a huge wave of crippling, painful homesickness. But in an instant, this changed.

She recalls the epiphanic moment in fine, poetic detail - the glint of sunlight on the East River, the striking Manhattan skyline: "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I said, I am going to conquer this city. I am going to make it in this town. Just the sight of all these skyscrapers - I felt that this great opportunity had been given me to come here. To hell with being homesick. I was never homesick again."

At the same time, Singapore is still a key part of her identity and she emphasises this as she tucks into her lunch of kaya toast and tea. In between bites, she says: "Do you know when I'm proudest? When I'm at an international festival and I see my name, Margaret Leng Tan, and then in brackets, Singapore.

"It really is quite a miracle, what Singapore has accomplished, and we should not take it for granted. You have to be away and come back to appreciate the little things that work here that don't work in other places."

But a relationship perhaps more umbilical than that of Singapore is the one she had with Cage. She speaks of him with warmth and reverence, often dispensing pithy quotes about her mentor: "It wasn't so much of him telling me what to do, it's more like he was opening up avenues for me to explore. That's the true teacher. You give them the chance to discover themselves. He was more a poser of questions than a provider of answers."

Tan would go on to write in an article for The New York Times in 2012 that "I still define my life in two periods, B.C. and A.C. - Before Cage and After Cage".

In her deeply personal essay, she detailed years of struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, until finding peace in music, particularly the music and philosophy of Cage. "His highly forgiving definition of error, as 'simply a failure to adjust immediately from a preconception to an actuality', has helped temper my self-judgmental parameters of right and wrong, all or nothing."

Her encounter with Cage was a mix of impulsiveness and serendipity. She was looking at putting together a concert programme of Western composers influenced by Asian cultures, such as Debussy, and her explorations led her to his work in the early 1980s. Malaysian dance doyenne Marion D'Cruz was visiting her in New York at the time and "she spontaneously began to dance to my Cage music that I was practising".

They decided that Cage really ought to see their hybrid creation. So Tan looked him up in the telephone book and rang him.

He was reluctant, but with a bit of convincing and a Juilliard dean's offer of the school's 1,000-seat theatre for the little showcase, he agreed.

He was so taken with the both of them that he wrote them a mesostic poem using both their names, Margaret and Marion, "a beautiful, beautiful poem", and invited them to perform his magnum opus of 20 pieces, Sonatas & Interludes .

That marked the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship. The year after, in 1982, Tan opened his 13-hour 70th birthday concert and worked with him till the day he died of a stroke in 1992.

Her "one major regret" is not having discovered the toy piano before he died. She came across it in 1993 when she chose to perform his Suite For Toy Piano at a festival.

Some of her fondest recollections of her work with him include one where she took turns to play three reverberating pianos, "like a bell ringer". He told her that he simply wanted her to have internalised the various parts to a point where she could go up to a piano, let go, open herself up to chance and play the pieces that came to her. The possibilities would be endless each time.

Another involved 10 pianos scattered outside Lincoln Center, where she and a group of pianists created "wonderful droplets of sound coming from all over the plaza, like these icicles dropping".

Cage may have been her starting point, but in the years since, she has also worked with many other composers across generations, both pioneers and up-and-comers.

One of them is leading experimental composer George Crumb, 85. They met about 20 years ago and Tan has tackled many of his works, including the iconic Makrokosmos series for piano.

Over the telephone from Pennsylvania, Crumb refers to her affectionately as "the dragon lady of the piano", with "incredible insight into my style". He has nothing but praises for her, calling her work "masterful" and "very compelling".

He says her classical training has given her an edge: "She understands the beauty of the phrasing and the emergences of sound, the balances, the expressive current of a piece of music. She's able to deliver that."

Crumb is composing a large-scale work for Tan and his eerie composition Black Angels (1970) will be performed at the Singapore International Festival of Arts by the T'ang Quartet on Sept 12.

Tan is working with a younger generation of cutting-edge composers, including Phyllis Chen, 37, from the United States. Her "bewitchingly beautiful" carnival-inspired work, Curios, was part of Tan's programme at the festival last week.

Chen, who runs a toy piano festival, met Tan eight years ago. She says in an e-mail that Tan "has that special quality that can turn a normal household item into something magical and important" and that she draws from Tan as a "main source of inspiration" for her work. Their working relationship is a close one - Chen might write long pauses in the music for Tan to interpret or Tan might suggest books and films relevant to Chen's compositions.

"Toy music is making its way up the ladder of respectability," says Tan, who sits back and smiles. "I'm so glad. This will be my legacy. I have transformed the toy piano into a real instrument, which has its own legitimate repertoire and which will have a life of its own after I'm gone.

"In all these 20 years since I've started a career as a toy pianist, I've never been accused of being a gimmick. You know why?" She lets the question hang in the air.

"Because I don't treat it as a gimmick. I am serious about what I'm doing and that comes across."

She adds with a laugh: "If you want to play with toys, you'd better believe in what you're doing. Otherwise nobody's going to take you seriously, let alone pay good money to see you."

At a dress rehearsal for her Singapore International Festival of Arts production, Tan is a veritable musical magician, playing a tiny keyboard in her left hand, a slide whistle in her mouth and her resurrected invented instrument in her right hand. Her long black sleeves swish as she concludes a haunting piece with a flourish.

She is right - her toys are worth the good money.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline Toy piano virtuoso Margaret Leng Tan has never been called gimmicky because she's serious about her art. Subscribe