The wild barking of what sounds like a large pack of dogs erupts in my ear when I try to call a phone in Brooklyn, New York. Above the din, I hear a bright voice: “This is Margaret Leng Tan, please leave me a message and I’ll call you back when things calm down at this end.”
Things are unlikely to calm down any time soon – Tan performs at the Melbourne Recital Centre this Friday, before headlining City Recital Hall’s 12-hour new music micro-festival, Extended Play, the following week. When I get through to her, it turns out the cacophonous voicemail message is very much on brand for the pianist, who divides her life both into “Before Cage and After Cage”, and “Before Dog and After Dog”, and whose career in avant-garde pianism has seen The New York Timesdub her “the Queen of the Toy Piano” and The Washington Postcall her “formidable”. Throughout our conversation she dances between crackling wit and an almost spiritual gravitas.
Margaret Leng Tan. Photo © Michael Dames
Growing up in Singapore in the 1950s, Tan had her first piano lessons when she was six...