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 Times dub her “the Queen of the Toy Piano” and The Washington Post call 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 years old – but it was an inauspicious start. “Oh, I hated it,” she laughs. “It wasn’t very creative teaching back in those days, but I stuck it out because I made such a fuss about wanting to start I didn’t dare stop.”
When she was 10 years old, however, she was tossing up between a career as a concert pianist or a ballerina. “How’s that for ambition?” she says. “But by the time I was 12 I was definitely a better pianist than a ballerina.”
Her balletic ambitions have stood her in good stead when it comes to her choreographic performances at the piano, however. “It’s the way I move, it’s all dictated by the demands of the music. It’s very gestural, very choreographic, because I’m playing inside the piano, I’m playing on the keyboard, I’m moving back and forth. You have to be very, very organised.”
By the age of 16 she had moved to New York by herself to study at the Juilliard School, off the back of a competition win, and 10 years later, in 1971, became the first woman to graduate with a doctorate from the school. “And now I play the toy piano,” she says. “Life works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it?”
While the doctoral program hadn’t existed for very long, she explains, “I remember I was the only woman in a class of 12. Eleven men and me. So that kind of indicates where things were at, doesn’t it?”
“Because I’m not in the field of composing or conducting, I have never, ever experienced any kind of disadvantage or discrimination from being female in terms of career,” she says. “You don’t really have any competition when you have a niche career.”
John Cage and Margaret Leng Tan at Lincoln Center in 1988. Photo © Evans Chan
It was 10 years after her graduation, when she was touring as a concert pianist (after a brief hiatus to train assistant dogs for the hearing impaired) that a meeting with pioneering composer John Cage set her on a career path that might still be described as niche today, but was practically unheard of back then.
It began with her preparations for a tour in Asia. “By then I was already getting restless with just playing the classical repertoire and I decided to make an interesting program that would reflect the influence of Asian cultures and aesthetics on Western composers,” she says. “Of course, John Cage fit right into it.”
Tan was soon working on Cage’s pieces for prepared piano – that is, a piano whose sound is altered by the placement of various objects on or between the strings, resulting in what effectively becomes “a percussion orchestra under the control of a single player.”
When a dancer friend stayed with her – none other than Malaysian dancer Marion D’Cruz – she “couldn’t resist spontaneously choreographing to these prepared piano pieces,” Tan says. “So we put together this whole song and dance act and we thought, ‘John Cage must really see this’, not realising how famous he was.”
“So I called him up – fools rush in where angels fear to tread, right? – and after a whole series of excuses, he ran out of excuses, and finally he agreed to see us,” she says. “And he fell in love with us – he loved what we did!”
Cage was soon writing mesostic poems using their names and suggesting other works of his for the pair to perform. The following year was Cage’s 70th birthday, which was celebrated with a marathon ‘wall-to-wall’ concert in New York’s Symphony Space. “He asked me to open it with him and that was the beginning of this long relationship,” Tan says.
The collaboration lasted until the end of Cage’s life, 11 years later. Tan visited Cage to consult with him on the nature of indeterminacy in his piece One – a performance piece for four pianos – shortly before he died. “As I left, he was getting ready to bake cookies,” Tan wrote in a memoir for the New York Times. “Twenty-four hours later, in the midst of a thunderstorm of epic proportions, he suffered a massive fatal stroke.”
It wasn’t just musical lessons Tan gleaned from the composer. “It’s a whole approach to life,” she says. “You cannot possibly play John Cage’s music without understanding the philosophy from which it emerges. You have to really be steeped in his writings.”
The collaboration with Cage was the launching pad for Tan’s career in avant-garde piano music. “It was John Cage that opened the door to all of this for me,” she says. “Once you open the lid of a grand piano, it’s your oyster – it’s a whole sonic universe to explore once you’re not afraid to put your hands inside its innards.”
“I became the world’s first string piano virtuoso,” she says. “People were writing for me in very unusual new ways, exploring the interior potential of the piano.”
Margaret Leng Tan. Photo © Jim Standard
She soon fell in love with the toy piano, making her debut on the instrument with Cage’s 1948 Suite for Toy Piano in 1993 at New York’s Lincoln Center. “It was so challenging because of all the subtleties and intricacies he managed to create out of nine white notes,” she says. “So sophisticated and so demanding with all these articulations and phrasings and touch. I thought, ‘My God, if I can master this I can make this damn little toy into a real instrument.’”
“And then it became a real instrument,” she says. “My composer friends got excited and it spurred them on to heights of unprecedented creative frenzy and before you knew it I had a repertoire.”
Tan hasn’t just amassed a repertoire of pieces for the instrument, she also has an extensive collection of “top of the line” toy pianos. “To me they’re not just the Steinways of the toy piano world,” she says. “My toy pianos are beyond Steinways, they’re Strads.”
She even goes so far as to say her career would be over if she lost them, with vintage shops and eBay the only place you might find a toy piano of satisfactory quality these days. “They’re irreplaceable,” she says. “It’s not just a case of insurance or getting another one. It’s just that these are so special, and I’ve done things to them to make them even more responsive.”
“I can boast to you proudly that anything I can do on the adult piano I can do on the toy piano, in terms of control, it’s like fine point embroidery – the kind of control you have to have over your fingertip sensitivity is just incredible,” she says, explaining that mastery of the toy piano requires just as much work as the full-size version. “I can assure you, when you get nerves, it’s not toy nerves – it’s real nerves.”
But the rigorous requirements of the unusual instrument have paid dividends. “My work on the adult piano has improved immeasurably because the control it took to control the toy piano,” she says.
In what will be her Sydney debut, Tan will give the Australian premiere of George Crumb’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, at Extended Play. The collection of 10 pieces after celebrated paintings was written for Tan, who gave the world premiere in 2017 and has since released a recording on Mode Records. Performing the music requires the extreme control Tan is talking about, with a dynamic range spanning ffff to pppp – and every increment in between. “I can actually differentiate levels of p, pp, ppp, pppp, and do it reliably on the big piano because of the work on the toy,” she says.
Crumb is another composer whose music has been an important part of Tan’s career, beginning when she performed his major piano cycle Makrokosmos. “I got very close to him also because he and his family are also great dog lovers and that was a great bond we had,” she said. “It was a very different relationship than the one I had with Cage. With Crumb, he’s very avuncular whereas with Cage, he was very much a guru, very saintly, a mentor in that sense. With Crumb it’s just much more down to earth.”
Tan’s recording of Crumb’s Makrokosmos has become legendary – it was the composer, apparently, who first described her as a “sorceress” – and she performed for his 70th and 75th birthdays. “Just four years ago, I went to visit him on July 4, the patriotic holiday,” she says. “And he just dropped a bombshell and said, ‘you know Margaret, I’m ready to write another new major piano cycle’. His first in 40 years, since the Makrokosmos in the 70s, can you imagine?”
The cycle will form the second half of Tan’s concert at City Recital Hall, and the paintings for each movement will be projected above the stage. “It’s quite a wonderful cycle of works, very challenging. He’s even included one movement for toy piano and grand piano,” she says. “It’s got toy piano with all these percussion toy instruments, I use my voice – it’s very theatrical, it’s very dramatic, he made it for my style and I like using my voice in unusual ways.”
A movement inspired by Van Gogh’s late painting Wheatfield with Crows, for example, requires Tan to voice the crows herself, and she doesn’t hesitate to demonstrate over the phone. “I learned to caw – I’m not kidding – from the crows in George’s garden,” she explains. “I was so proud, one day I cawed and they came.”
Tan’s concerts in Melbourne and Sydney, which she has titled Miniature Meets Monumental, will see her perform on both toy piano and full-size grand. “It’s really about coming down the rabbit hole with me,” she says. “I can even make the toy piano monumental, in its own way, like when I do the Wagner Ring Cycle in one minute.”
Tan – who describes herself as a “sit-down comic” – relishes the pairing of ‘serious’ avant-garde music with works like Jed Distler’s Minute Ring for toy piano. “I think people will enjoy this evening of extreme contrasts,” she says. “It’s colourful, it’s funny, it’s serious, it’s ecstatic, it’s vernacular meets ivory tower, it’s serious and comic at the same time.”