Perfect Sound Forever

Chrysalis and Absence

Photo courtesy of Evans Chan website

Some Notes on Margaret Leng Tan
by W.C. Bamberger, Part 2

To again quote from the liner notes to the album, Tan writes that the music "creates the sensation of being in a rhythmic 'limbo,' caught in a framework of suspended time which is typically Japanese," and that the experience might best be described by:
the Japanese word ma which may be defined as the natural distance between two or more events existing in a continuity. In contrast to the Wests's perception of time and space as separate entities, in Japanese thinking both time and space are measured in terms of intervals. . . . [In Satoh's own words,] "I think silence and the prolongation of sound is the same thing in terms of space. The only difference is that there is either the presence or absence of sound. More important is whether the space is 'living' or not."
I believe that it is within this ma space, a space natural, alive, and possessed of no distinction between sound and silence (between, that is, sonic presence or absence) that Tan strives to situate herself when she plays music.

And I believe this was one of the reasons Tan chose Satoh's work for her first recording. She clearly enjoys performing and recording, giving classes in prepared piano techniques, enjoys audience appreciation, but ultimately very much wants the music or the performance piece to come first, and the best way she can do this is by erasing herself as far as possible.

That Tan took this turn, that as she emerged from her chrysalis, she began concentrating on a repertoire of piano works far removed from those she studied is, I believe, symptomatic of rather than an inspiration for her desire to be as absent as she can be from the emergence of the music she plays. The categorical term "alternative piano" (or "extended," the words are near enough to synonymous here) is deceptive, even superficial. The theories, the intellectual approaches and formal strategies (including attempts at composing completely by means of chance operations) underlying the works cover a greater range than those of conventional harmonic composition. Cowell's scores, those of Crumb and Cage and others, are precise (some are nearly pictographic in their attempts at specific notation) even programmatic in clear ways (while Cowell said that "Banshee" was not "originally" programmatic, the string piano techniques certainly sound as if they are being used to imitate a howling demon, a rather simplistic, even faint-hearted, conceit. Crumb's Markrokosmos I & II attempts to create portraits of seasons and the arcs of the zodiac.) Cage, on the other hand, also famously composed by random processes, using found directions ranging from the throwing of the I Ching to notating the flaws in the coloration of the surface of paper. Tan of course knows all this, and certainly keeps it in mind when preparing and playing a piece. But, in the end, the notation styles, the oblique compositional strategies, just how deeply the eraser is to be inserted between the piano wires, do all not figure very directly into the experience we listeners and concert goers have of this music. What is of overriding importance is, quite simply, its alternative sound, what we hear that we have never heard before. This, the music's overt distance from the mainstream, is what hits us with most force and stays with us the longest.

When we listen to a recording of Tan (or anyone else, for that matter) playing such alternative works, see her play these pieces in concert or on DVD, it is the music she has chosen, and not Tan herself, that unavoidably determines the emphasis of the experience. That is, we experience "Margaret Leng Tan strumming the strings inside the piano," rather than experiencing "Margaret Leng Tan strumming the strings inside the piano." On the other hand, if she were touring playing the classical canon, we listeners would experience Margaret Leng Tan playing Chopin, Margaret Leng Tan playing Beethoven. And this is not what Margaret Leng Tan is after.

But does this mean she can't play Beethoven? No, but we would expect that she would seek a self-erasing way of approaching such a classic. And she ingeniously found just such an answer (again with Cage's help), by way of the toy piano, on which she does indeed play The Moonlight Sonata.

Tan fancifully describes her taking up of the instrument in Sorceress: "I was so pushing the envelope of the piano, taking it to its ultimate boundaries, its ultimate frontiers, that I fell off the edge and landed on the toy piano." Her move can more prosaically be traced to her 1993 performance of Cage's 1948 Suite for Toy Piano at Lincoln Center. Charmed by the instrument (she never had one as a child), she then began to collect toy pianos, and her composer friends began to write new works for them. Tan is now sometimes billed as the world's only "professional player of the toy piano." The seeming paradox of the phrase makes people smile. But as paradoxes go, it too is a toy, contrasting a purely economic label ("professional") to the very material demands of the instrument with a notoriously flat affect, and childish associations. More interesting than this intro blurb is a quote she favors from an artist with an aesthetic which helped inspire Cage's own, Marcel Duchamp: "Poor tools require better skills." This phrase, too, makes fans smile, as we naturally assume the "poor tool" to be the toy piano. But, listening to her music, learning something of her life and her ambitions, her obsessive demands that she become more and more precise in realizing difficult music (while finding ways to keep her presence to a minimum), we cannot help but be marginally suspicious that she reads Duchamp's words two ways: at times might not she feel the poor tool referred to is herself? It seems entirely possible.

The novelty of Tan's involvement with the toy piano interested many other musicians, both compositionally, and theoretically. Composer/writer Raphael Mostel, again in Sorceress of the New Piano, says that he believes Tan's toy piano playing acts to reassure us that anyone can make music. This conclusion seems to me to be precisely backward--and perhaps sounded just as backward to director Evans Chan as he assembled his documentary. Just prior to Mostel's statement, we are shown Tan talking about how hard she has worked within the limitations of the toy piano to develop the technique to allow her to elevate it to an instrument able to play art music. Tan has pioneered and staked out the toy piano as her own territory, and I would suggest that if an amateur pianist went to Toys R Us, marched past the Barbie Dream Houses, bought a toy piano, and mounted the stage with it, the result would, at best, fall somewhere in the range between "that was cute" to "that was interesting... once." The most obvious sense of Duchamp's quip applies here.

The toy piano is basically a small xylophone in a box, with plastic mallets activated by the tiny keys (with some having black keys that are only painted on). While each of the many toy pianos Tan has collected has its own distinctive tone, they generally sound thin and bright, with an attractive wooden snap when a key is depressed, and a lot of ringing sustain, like a carillon at 78 RPM. Notes in quicker passages will begin to scribble over one another, until the toy piano stops being about melody and becomes just about rhythm, with the melody a kind of implied line inside the blur.

Tan hasn't to this point "prepared" or altered her toy pianos. If we look inside the tiny instrument, the stair-step row of rods (which look like unlit sparklers) seem to cry out for the kinds of things you might find in an electrician's or tin-knocker's couch cushions--wire nuts, pressure caps, rods and pivots, pop rivets, vibration dampers for a/c ducts. She could easily thread poster board or aluminum, or piano wire itself through the closely spaced rods. But she has no tradition to escape here, no given toy piano vocabulary to extend, and takes no mechanical liberties with it.

The liberties the toy piano does lead her toward are of a different sort. Considering the instrument's very real limitations, and Tan's great skills, it is odd to hear her say, "The toy piano gives me the confidence to explore repertoire that I would not otherwise do, as someone trained in the classical tradition. On the toy piano I am able to play works by the Beatles, for example." She has recorded "Eleanor Rigby," for one. The bathos of the original, its stiff, stair-step melody, are twisted into sad-clown Baroque on Tan's toy instrument.7

But what "confidence" can Tan be speaking of? Again, I think it is the confidence that the listener's experience will be centered on the instrument rather than on the player. Tan playing "Eleanor Rigby" on the toy piano is about an entirely new experience of the tune. If she were to play the same song on the grand piano, it would evaporate in a cocktail music haze, leaving only "Margaret Leng Tan playing a blowzy pop tune." Her recorded repertoire on the standard (what she sometimes calls "the adult") piano is heavily weighted toward alternative works, and nonstandard harmonies. The number of pieces that come from the classical or song repertoire is very small. Looking at the recorded works for toy piano, the proportions are very much the reverse: as when she recorded Moonlight Sonata (and to remove it even further from classical formality, she dedicates it to fellow toy pianist Schroeder [from Peanuts], and at times even performs it in synch with a projected cartoon of the character).

However, she does play at least one Beatles melody using (as opposed to simply playing "on") the standard piano. Her performance of Alvin Lucier's Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) both restores a physical reality and injects a haunting spookiness into this anthem for psychedelic doormice. She first plays a very simple, but dramatic, octave-leaping arrangement of the melody. As she plays, a small cassette recorder captures the music. The recorder is wired to a tiny speaker in a teapot set atop the grand piano. When she reaches the end of the keyboard action, listeners have to wait while she rewinds the tape. When she plays back the tape of herself at the keyboard, she manipulates the lid of the teapot, and even lifts the teapot off the piano, all to change the resonance of the sound on the top of the piano. The keyboard section might be likened to the alap section of an Indian raga, which is played to define the scales and mood of the piece, which are then developed with variations in later sections. For all the simplicity of the notes used, and the simplicity of the actions Tan takes, this piece does slyly bring up questions of what is "real." The piano is a real instrument, of course--but is the teapot a real instrument? Tan is the musician, and she manipulates it to control the sound of her playing, so the teapot-with-recorder-with-piano-resonator surely is an electro-acoustic instrument... isn't it? Or are we mad as hatters to think so?8

TO RETURN yet again to Raphael Mostel's comments: indeed only professionals can play a great number of modern works. Even for most of them, there are a number of pieces considered "unplayable." Some of Cage's works have been put in this category at times, but a better example would be that of Conlon Nancarrow. Beginning in the 1940's, he only wrote music for a player-piano, an instrument already obsolete. Nancarrow composed using blank rolls of paper, through which he would punch holes to tell the piano what note to play. His typical composing speed was about a dozen notes an hour. These pieces were considered unplayable by mere human musicians because of Nancarrow's uses of off-times and blinding bursts of speed, and other passages easy to punch but daunting to finger.

Once Tan had noted the affinity between the hard, bright sound of her toy pianos and the player piano, it was almost inevitable that she would decide to take on one of these "unplayable" pieces. She selected two toy pianos with very different voices, and proceeded to transcribe Nancarrow's "Three 2-Part Studies" for her diminutive instruments. Her attitude toward the struggle to learn this piece highlights Tan's response to challenges:

I would long ago have given up had I not been goaded on by the ultimate challenge--to render on a toy instrument the kind of virtuosity and precision that would lead Nancarrow to bypass the uncertainties of human execution and invest his energies in the player piano's unfettered possibilities.9
That a composer might have such little faith in human potential was not, I believe, something Tan could let pass unchallenged. It was not that she wanted to emulate mechanical means, but that she wants human possibilities (her own as well as others') to be as "unfettered" as possible. If this was indeed the challenge she set herself, she succeeded brilliantly.

In one of the basic dialectics of art, Tan reached this unfettered state by almost enslaving herself to the music and its preparation. Critics and composers have commented how she brings an "amazing focus" to each note of each work she performs. She practices each piece for hours, of course, but she also personally scours hardware stores for the kinds of screws she needs for Cage's prepared piano pieces. To find the right sounds he goes to extraordinary, at times even comic, lengths: when preparing for a piece with "kitchen percussion," Tan says, "I ate through nine cans of tuna fish to find three that would sound really good. So in fact I was auditioning tuna fish cans." What is not remarked on is that "focus" is a form of humility, of surrender to the demands of a task.

We should also see this surrender to the work in an aspect of Tan's performances, one that bothers some audience members: her theatricality. The most casual of observers will note that as Tan plays those "alternative piano" works which involve the keyboard the manner in which she uses her hands, the way they rise off the keys in what is for the non-players among us theatrically graceful arcs, like cranes lifting their wings; the way she holds her head; the way expression caches itself in her shoulders, are all recognizably "classical" in posture. We also have to cede that Classical performance has its specific vocabulary of gestures, its very specific theatricality- even while these hand positions, and body movements have their technical purpose (fingers not curved properly cannot play fast, for example).

And, in a parallel to the way she likes to help extend the piano's sonic vocabulary, she extends this classical (utilitarian) theatricality. One way she does this is by her adoption of the toy piano, and her insistence on treating it as an authentic classical instrument. And she is equally proficient with an orchestra's breadth of other toy instruments. Her performance of Guy Klucevske's Sweet Chinoiserie10 at Other Minds 5 (March 26, 1999) begins with the sounds of tuned thick glass (tumblers and soy sauce dishes), then moves to the toy piano. The timbres are similar, but the contrast brings out the orchestral resonance of the toy piano. The last movement begins with melodica, its reedy tone clearer than the toy accordion that follows. As the work nears the end she simultaneously works the bellows of the toy accordion to produce harmonium-sounding chords, and plays the toy piano. And as I write this, New Albion records is scheduled to release a new Tan CD titled Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, "a melodrama for voice and toy orchestra" by Chinese composer Ge Gan-ru.11 But her theatricality goes beyond the curve of her fingers, the nuts and bolts of treatments and use of unusual instruments. She also adds costumes to some of her performances: a Statue of Liberty crown, a toy gun.

It would certainly be easy to dismiss these theatrics, along with the toy piano, as gimmicks, and some have done so. But there is another possibility, one I believe is the more likely. This, too, is a surrender to, a joining with, the demands of the piece she is performing. The piece where she wears Liberty's spikes and fires the pop gun is Star Spangled Etude #3 ('Furling Banner'), by Raphael Mostel. Mostel laughingly says he told Tan that "she had more schtick" than he had music, and this piece (which is little more than the anthem's melody played one hesitant, then forceful note at a time) would be a trifle, a slack moment, if not for Tan wearing the spikes, firing the gun, and blowing the whistle. While all of us will understand that a political point is there for the taking, Tan's performance (caught in Sorceress) makes it difficult for us to know whether it is a positive or negative view of the anthem, of the Statue of Liberty, or of democracy itself. Her theatricality both breathes life into this slight piece, and forces us to listen to ourselves, consider our political preconceptions, while Tan herself slowly walks off stage, unknowable in her natural space behind spikes and pop gun.

This performance, for me, captures Margaret Leng Tan, and what she is doing: emptying herself into the instruments and scores of alternative music to help us see and hear ourselves.


1 She is still very much involved with dogs. She recently adopted one who was a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

2 Paul Metcalf, "Charles Olson," in Where Do you Put the Horse? (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1986), 24. Metcalf was thinking of the near-seven-foot basketball players who all seemed to appear within a single playing generation.

3 Mode Records. The DVD is the format to buy. In it Tan can be seen with the painting Chess Pieces, which includes Cage's music she transcribed after it having been forgotten for 60 years.

4 Available on the DVD George Crumb: Makrokosmos I & II. The interview and her performance of the piece was filmed by Evans Chan.

5 The detail-minded will notice that in her actual performance of the piece as captured for the DVD, the tumbler has been turned back to its original position.

6 New Albion Records NA 008 ADD.

7 This arrangement (by Tan and Toby Twining) is available on The Art of the Toy Piano (Point Music 456 345-2). Her performance of this at the Other Minds Festival in 1999 can be heard at Internet Archive (

8 Tan's performance of this at the 1999 Other Minds Music Festival can be heard at Internet Archive.

9 From Tan's comments on her performance of this piece at the 1999 Other Minds Music Festival ( My italics.

10 March 26, 1999. This is also available on The Art of the Toy Piano.

11 Ge Gan-ru has been called China's "first avant-garde composer." When Tan met Ge Gan-ru, she gave him a thorough tutorial on string piano techniques. It wasn't long before he created a piece for her, Gu Yue ("Ancient Music," composed in 1985). This can be heard on her album Sonic Encounters (Mode 15 CD).

Sorceress of the New Piano will be coming out on DVD on Mode in early 2008.

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