Piano minimalism wins new fans



Margaret Leng Tan

Singapore Courtyard, National Gallery/Wednesday

In conjunction with National Gallery's exhibition, Minimalism: Space.Light.Object, avant-garde pianist and Cultural Medallion recipient Margaret Leng Tan was invited to give recitals as musical reflections on the subject.

The recital, which attracted a sizeable audience, was a three-hour-long affair organised chronologically in three parts.

The first involved the music of pre-minimalists and pioneers, opening with John Cage's Bacchanale (1945), his first work for prepared piano. With pieces of felt, a bolt and screws with loose nuts inserted between strings, the Steinway grand was transformed into a clangorous and rattling gamelan with drums.

One of the premises of musical minimalism was the repetition of notes with gradual and minute changes with the progression of time, without particular directions in mind. That was the essence of the earliest work, Erik Satie's Third Gnossienne (1890), which Tan described as music that "doesn't go anywhere".

Asian influences underpinning early minimalism was also demonstrated in Alan Hovhaness' Jhala (1952), which resounded with hypnotic echoes and the tolling of temple bells.

The second part highlighted classic and post-minimalists, including Steve Reich's Clapping Music (1972), performed with two pairs of hands. Tan was assisted by tabla virtuoso Govin Tan, with the duo clapping out a sequence in unison, then going out of phase before gloriously returning together.

John Adams' China Gates (1977) and three of William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes (1978) had strong melodic centres, with the added mystique of overtones colouring the sonorities.

In one of the latter pieces, low keys were kept permanently depressed with cloth wedges, allowing higher tones to reflect against the lower strings.

Other than Phyllis Chen's Wunderkammer from Curios (2015), in which the percussionist in Tan unleashed on a smorgasbord of bells, bowls, cymbals and gongs, the Schoenhut toy piano was the star of the third part.

Younger exponents of minimalism were celebrated - David Lang's Miracle Ear (1996, three tuna cans were banged on), Joshua Fried's You Broke It! (1989 to 2006, a banal tune is repeated like a broken record), Yuichi Matsumoto's Intention (2012, with Tan reciting a text by Cage) and Milos Raickovich's Nadja's Kolo (2018, a dance with toy piano and grand piano played together).

Most impressive were the three longish pieces that closed each segment. Varied in mood, texture and timbre, each resounded differently as a wall of sound and volume, but all united by Tan's sheer passion, drive and intensity.

Philip Glass' How Now (1968), lasting about 25 minutes, was perhaps the most insistent and mind-numbing piece, but Tan had a clock to check on its excesses.

Somei Satoh's Incarnation II (1978) suspended time for 11 minutes, with a tsunami of repeated low tones washing over a near-spiritual experience.

Steven Montague's Paramell Va (1981) opened with a succession of crossing triads (like Debussy and Villa-Lobos), punctuated with chords and clusters before closing with a big bang.

A standing ovation and most likely converts to new music were the just result.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2019, with the headline Piano minimalism wins new fans. Subscribe