There are three core biographical elements that are intermingled throughout Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, a co-production between Australia’s Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore which premiered as part of Melbourne’s extensive Asia TOPA festival: first, Margaret Leng Tan’s artistic relationship with the American minimalist composer, John Cage; second, her lifetime experience of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; and third, the passing of Tan’s mother in December 2018. Director Tamara Saulwick brings these elements together in what she describes as a “sonic portrait … a collage of some of the key forces that have shaped the life and career of Margaret Leng Tan.”

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan in Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. Photo © Pia Johnson

The Singaporean Tan is an American new music and avant-garde icon – “the diva of avant-garde pianism”, as one writer puts it. She is known firstly as the preeminent interpreter of Cage’s piano music – Cage was her mentor for over a decade – but is also recognisable for her boundary-breaking work with toy pianos and other unconventional instruments. “The toy piano’s Rubinstein’, says one music critic; “the queen of the toy piano”, said another. Her 1997 recording, The Art of the Toy Piano, spoke to Marcel Duchamp’s observation that poor tools simply call for better skills. But Dragon Ladies is about more than Tan’s performance; it is also about the individual and the life underneath the performance.

“I have lived with obsessive compulsive disorder for as long as I remember,” recalls Tan. One manifestation of Tan’s OCD is compulsive counting. “My own parents did not know what to make of it all and did their best to cope with my idiosyncrasies,” she says. “Fortunately for them I insisted on having piano lessons when I was six, and this became a creative channel for my obsessive energies … you can imagine how delighted I was to be actually required to count the beats in a piece of music. I could now count to my heart’s content in a totally creative fashion!”

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan in Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. Photo © Pia Johnson

Throughout Dragon Ladies, counting – whether obsessive, considered, breathless, or steady – is a recurring motif in the music and dialogue. Counting “speaks to the underlying themes of memory, time, loss and control that have emerged throughout the work’s development,” explains Saulwick. “We witness the counting which marks time and time passing; the counting that catalogues our rapidly changing world; the ritualised counting that soothes the nerves; and the counting which lives within the architecture of music and inside the mind of the musician. Through this motif a portal is opened into the interior world of this most singular artist, offering glimpses into the passions and obsessions that sustain and compel her.” Tan’s own counting on stage is accompanied by the video art of Nick Roux, of Chunky Move renown, whose understated screen work complements well Saulwick’s explorations of sound, performance and music.

Composed by the Brisbane-based, US-born Erik Griswold, whose works span classical, improvised and experimental forms, the music of Dragon Ladies is both concert music and theatre music. The minimalist score incorporates toy piano, prepared piano, and various other improvised instruments, highlighting Tan’s musical and artistic prowess while also providing the sonic groundwork for action, dialogue and emotion. As Griswold has said, “Sometimes the music needs to shift from foreground to background imperceptibly, to create space for something larger to develop.” For those unfamiliar with Tan’s work, Dragon Ladies will provide a diverse introduction to her array of styles, moods and techniques.

Tan left Singapore when she was 16 and travelled to the United States to study piano at Juilliard. Some years later, she would meet Cage, who changed her musical outlook: “Through Cage and his take on Zen philosophy, I have made a truce with my OCD. I recognise that it is integral to who I am and have come to accept myself, warts and all … I have learned to relinquish the grand illusion of the goal and relish, instead, the unfolding of the process.” As Cage recommended in his Lecture on Nothing, “Regard it as something seen momentarily, as though from a window while traveling… at any instant, one may leave it, and whenever one wishes one may return to it. Or you may leave it forever and never return to it, for we possess nothing… Anything therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its loss.”

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan in Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. Photo © Pia Johnson

Indeed, there is a distinct calmness about Tan’s performance in Dragon Ladies, a sense of casual relaxation that, when described, might seem at odds in what appears on paper to be a piece of minimalist avant-garde musical theatre. But the show, like its hero, is unpretentious, and her musical curiosity and joy permeates throughout. Tan is warm, personable, and humorous, drawing the audience along for a journey through her life. And she is humble: “I have always been fiercely autonomous in my performance practice. Now I find myself engaged with a formidable creative team and loving it! When I eventually step onstage I will represent the collective voice and vision of all these extraordinarily gifted people,” she wrote.

In the opening scenes, Tan – while swivelling a baby grand piano in a wide arc across the stage – counts steadily to 74, her age. She remains a vital and energetic performer, and Dragon Ladies provides us with a rare insight into that which drives her passion as an explorer and pioneer of new musical territories. Ben Wilkie

Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep plays at the Sydney Opera House as part of UnWrapped March 18 – 20

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