Perfect Sound Forever

Chrysalis and Absence

Photo courtesy of Evans Chan website

Some Notes on Margaret Leng Tan
by W.C. Bamberger
(August 2007)

ED NOTE: This essay will be reprinted along with essays about musicians, artists and writers, in W. C. Bamberger's forthcoming collected essays, And In Conclusion I'd Also Like To Mention Hydrogen. This will be published by Borgo Press/Wildside Press late this year.

MARGARET LENG TAN was the first woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate in piano performance, and the first decisive career move she made was to give up being a pianist in favor of training hearing-assist dogs. She was able to train and deliver two such dogs--a fact of which she is justifiably proud--before the badly run program collapsed, and she returned to the piano.1 On her return to music, she faced again the worry that had prompted her to involve herself with the potential of a non-piano-appreciating species: she felt that as a concert pianist, she was of no real use to society. She still has not completely reconciled herself with this feeling.

But this worry emerged only after she achieved her goal of graduating from Juilliard. Tan had been working toward being a musician almost all her life: as a child, she rose early to play violin for hours; she never had a child's toy piano as a child, but went straight to the full-sized pianos with a prodigy's skill and dedication, and as a 16-year-old traveled by herself from her native Singapore to Juilliard. During school breaks, visiting her family, she would complain that school couldn't be in session every day all year around.

In Sorceress of the New Piano, a documentary about Tan by director Evans Chan, composer Raphael Mostel observes that there is a growing gap between amateur-level players and professionals. The gap between what amateurs can master as compared to those on the professional level has indeed grown increasingly wider. Musical performance has now come close to being a strictly two-tiered world: prodigies and nobodies. This is in part because of how recordings have raised the bar of performance standards, but also because music has in many ways grown more complex over the past one hundred years. And this isn't only true for classical musicians: there are now 12-year-old guitar players who can casually recreate by ear every solo Jimi Hendrix ever bent over backward to create; Olympic-caliber gymnasts can be identified before they reach primary school; sports figures seem born with the game impressed into their genes. We are very nearly at the point where only those who can be said to have been "born to" a particular discipline have any chance of achieving real excellence. Writer Paul Metcalf once observed, "It is as though the genetic reservoir had quickly produced physiques for which there was a pressing cultural demand.2

Whether or not we take Metcalf at face value, Margaret Leng Tan's personal history certainly shows her to have been "born to be a pianist." And we can easily agree with Metcalf, in that a demand for musicians with unprecedented skills arose soon after World War I, and the upward pressure has only increased over time. If anyone has answered this cultural demand, it has been Margaret Leng Tan. A number of post-WWI composers have produced works that were at first considered "unplayable." Tan has now mastered and recorded several of these.

Still, however born to the piano Tan might have been, the path to the mastery of her craft has not always been a pleasant one. In Sorceress, she says,

I'm also extremely obsessive by nature. And I don't mean in the casual kind of way people throw the word around. For me it is a serious disorder with the serotonin levels, which has at time actually crippled me, paralyzed me. One of the advantages, however, of obsessive-compulsive disorder is it makes me very prefectionistic. I will very often push myself to the limits to accomplish something that I'm after. That's the advantage.
This at times mixed-blessing of concentration, physical ability and perfectionism culminated in her doctorate, and her subsequent turn to dog training.

But this is not hard to understand. Many of us who excel, and even those of us who do not hit the heights but achieve a personal goal, suffer from a post-victory letdown, find all the self-doubt we outdistanced during our bursts of enthusiasm suddenly piling on just at the finish line.

The momentum of an achievement such as Tan's is, unavoidably, a self-absorbed one. She of course knew this the entire time she was following her trajectory, rising through Juilliard, and it is to her credit that almost her first impulse after reaching her goal was to choose to come down from what she saw as the ivory tower of classical performance and to help others. But then, it seems the view from the tower was not, for her, even an inviting one--at least not if she looked toward the vista most of the other musicians there enjoyed. She wondered just how many ways she could ever find to perform a work by Chopin, and the thought depressed her. So, after spending a decade or more striving to become a classical pianist (and her technique and perfectionism, her dedication and her beauty, her academic/feminist credentials and sharp mind surely would have enabled her to become a star on the guest soloist circuit), she found herself unable to bear the thought of spending decades performing the usual classical suspects.

This shuddering, this turning to the dogs, is of course the time-honored way of the classic canon. Not the canon of the classical repertoire, but that of great musicians. The narrative is one we all know: plays and books and films from Hollywood's earliest 16 f.p.s. (frames per second) big sprocket days, have followed its track. Someone, often an artist but not always, strives to achieve a goal, but then is dissatisfied; success is not as he or she had hoped, and they find themselves (temporarily) lost. The lost one enters a stage of chrysalis--some form of life by all appearances detached from the initial goals--and eventually reemerges a stronger, more creative, even a more spiritual person. This artistic chrysalis narrative has been around since the emergence of the idea of an artist as a calling separate from the tradition of the craftsman (some may smile at this narrative, seeing only the deep veins of melodrama that purple its popular tellings, but ideas have ways of protecting themselves, and behind a scrim that wards off self-conscious sophisticates, this idea is as true as it ever was). Margaret Leng Tan emerged from her chrysalis by becoming a piano teacher--by teaching the piano itself a few new tricks. Her return marked her turn away from the given piano canon. She began instead to assemble a program meant to show the influence of Asian aesthetics on Western music. Her comments in Sorceress of the New Piano suggest that what she had in mind was playing this program, a weave of neglected music and subtle education, for both Western and Asian audiences. Tan's moves (from piano doctorate to training dogs, from dogs to alternative piano, from Western to Asian music were not leaps between opposites. Rather, these moves were, at their most important and personal level, all of a piece. Her intent was the same in each instance) to set her ego aside in the service of helping those who could not (or would not) hear.

Even as she was reopening herself to her musical roots in the Asian neighborhood polyphony of her Singapore childhood, she also became interested in the American alternative piano repertoire. This had begun with Henry Cowell (who, surely not coincidentally, had been influenced by Chinese opera and other Asian music). Cowell had originated such now classic techniques as plucking or strumming the strings inside the piano, and laying a forearm over a span of keys to create "tone clusters," as he termed them (Bartok politely asked permission to use clusters in his own work). Cowell's pioneering ideas have since been extended by others into a strong, if seldom visited, oxbow off the traditional stream of solo piano music. John Cage, who was briefly Cowell's pupil, investigated these techniques and created a number of his own. The most important of these was the prepared piano, where screws and washers and felt and rubber erasers and other objects were inserted into the piano strings to change the timbre and transform the piano into a percussion orchestra. And Cage went even further into what he saw as the piano's untapped potential, at times literally: in his beautiful miniature "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs," the pianist taps, raps and slaps the wooden parts of the piano to accompany a woman singing words from Finnegans Wake.

Tan claims to have known little about Cage before 1981, when a dancer friend from Singapore visited and Tan seized the opportunity to produce what she now wryly calls a "song and dance act." She played a John Cage piece while her friend danced--with Cage in attendance at her invitation. Cage himself had been influenced by aspects of Asian aesthetics. Years before, he had famously turned away from a consideration of psychoanalysis in favor of Zen. One of Cage's Zen teachers told him that there was a sound inside everything, just waiting to be let out, and Cage folded this idea into his compositional approach. He, too, sought to both create new music and to educate his audiences in the art of hearing new sounds. Tan calls 4' 33" (Cage's infamous silent piece, where all the action the pianist performs is to open and close the lid of the piano to mark off each of the movements, while the audience listens to their own rustlings and other ambient sounds), "training wheels for us to learn to listen to the environment."

Another element of the canonic chrysalis story: the fateful meeting with an enigmatic master. Tan soon became Cage's most acclaimed interpreter (See John Cage: The Works for Piano 7, in particular. This includes the story of how Tan helped recover a lost work by Cage3).

Cage is, for Tan, one of "the three C's: Cowell, Cage and [George] Crumb." For Tan, these are "the greats of the extended piano technique," as she says in a joint interview with George Crumb at the time of her recording of his Makrokosmos I & II.4 This interview shows Tan in her collaborator mode, complementary but not overly deferential toward Crumb, her mind very much set on bringing out as much as she can from the music. This effort extends down to the smallest details. While rehearsing a section of Makrokosmos that requires the performer to slide a glass tumbler along some of the strings inside the piano, the piano beam interferes with a smooth motion. She and Crumb solve this by turning the tumbler around, the difference between the diameter of the bottom and the slightly wider rim allowing her more freedom.5 She grins and comments, "If only all of life could be fixed as simply as turning a tumbler the other way. That would be wonderful, wouldn't it..."

If there is, as Cage was told, a sound inside everything waiting to be released, there are also potentials inside every idea that can be realized. Tumblers are not just glasses, they are the hidden parts of a combination, the secret elements that if turned the right way allow entry to secrets and treasure. With a kind of safecracker's finesse, Tan seeks to turn the tumblers of music--sounds, approaches to her instruments, theatricality and more--ways they have never been turned before, to open up unsuspected secrets, to realize new experiences in sound, once again to help us all hear.

. REACTING TO Tan's turning of their compositions' tumblers, composers often speak in magical terms: Crumb compares her to a "female Merlin," and also says that she is a "sorceress." Japanese composer Somei Satoh says, "when she is onstage, she looks like a shaman. She has the power to call many ghosts to the stage," and he laughs. Tan's wish to explore the dialectic of Asian and Western music led her to Satoh, and to the recording of her first CD, Litiana: Margaret Leng Tan Plays Somei Satoh (1988)6. Satoh was little known when Tan sought him out and said that she wanted to record an entire album of his music, and Litiana has helped change that. It was included on the New York Times list of "Best Recordings of the Year."

But, for some listeners, particularly Western ones, Tan might seem almost absent from her own debut recording. There is nothing here that declares the rising of a new star, no obvious virtuoso technique, no flashy cadenzas or tricky runs. Satoh's music is sparse, and Tan's piano often sounds like an accompanying rather than a featured instrument. This marks another idea protecting itself by hiding behind a seeming cliché: Asian depth (spiritual or philosophical) requires defacement and emptiness. Satoh, quoted in the liner notes, also suggests that listeners adopt a non-Western sense of time, one which is "the manifestation of the moment of all time which is multi-layered and multidimensional . . ." The listener can then "experience a new sense of time presented in this music as if eternal time can be lived in a single moment." This ambition can only be achieved by the sorceress becoming nearly invisible. A brave decision for a musician making her debut? We will only find it so if we fail to join in. Tan tries her best to help us, characteristically by becoming an absence that draws us in.

On the first track of Litiana, The Heavenly Spheres, there is almost a full minute of silence before the ear becomes aware that sound is stirring. When the music rises above the awareness horizon Tan is softly playing sections of repetitive figures; at other times, she plays chords with a vibrato that suggests strumming rather than the striking of keys. More than Tan's piano, soprano Lise Messier's voice holds our attention. The percussionist's marimba lines at times obscure Tan, like a clattering train passing, briefly blocking the view of an open landscape. Debut as near-invisibility. An alternative idea, indeed.

Birds in Warped Time is a duet for piano and violin. The piano here sounds like one of Steve Reich's early process music lines lifted out and displayed bare. Melodic interest is almost entirely the business of the violin, with the piano offering a glow of tremolo and harmony that surrounds the violin rather than remains behind it. Again, it is almost possible to forget that this is the pianist's album. The three solo piano works are no more self-aggrandizing. A Gate into the Stars is in fact the sparest piece here, a pointillist placement of single notes, very minimal chords with no harmonic drive, a suggestion of a possible harmony rather than an insistence on it--like a drawing of a just few lines that manages to capture a wide night sky.

For Incarnation II, the sound of the solo piano is processed through a digital delay. The idea is to create a quasi-meditative state through the use of repetition and reverberation. This piece most clearly demonstrates Satoh's characteristic use of quickly played notes to create slowly moving harmonic swells (a mid-'70's guitar-based version of this idea on a Julie Tippetts album is titled "Shifting Still," which may be the best description of this sound).

In the notes to this album, Tan offers her own interpretation of the title piece. Satoh has not said so, but Tan believes this is a litany for those killed when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "It is purely coincidental, yet fittingly appropriate," she writes, "that this first American recording of Somei Satoh's 'Litania' should have taken place on August 6th, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima" ("she has the power to call many ghosts to the stage," just as Satoh said).

The tremolo, a persistent but understated feature in other pieces here, dominates Litiana. The harmonies, rather then being transcendence-minded are ominous and molten, pouring out of the piano with great heat and clamor, splashing high in raspy metallic protest. We come away with the impression of having heard a fiercely emotional piece of music, but again with little feel for the character, or even the presence of the pianist enabling the instrument.

See Part 2 of the Margaret Leng Tan article

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER