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Forum Series: Margaret Leng Tan, Queen of the Toy Piano

  • Steven Baxter Recital Studio YST Conservatory Singapore, 117376 Singapore (map)


Margaret Leng Tan has established herself as a major force within the American avant-garde; a highly visible, talented and visionary pianist whose work sidesteps perceived artificial boundaries within the usual concert experience and creates a new level of communication with listeners. Embracing aspects of theatre, choreography, performance and even “props” such as the teapot she “plays” in Alvin Lucier’s Nothing is Real, Tan has brought to the avant-garde a measure of good old-fashioned showmanship tempered with a disciplinary rigour inherited from her mentor John Cage. She is regularly featured at international festivals, records often for adventurous labels such as Mode and New Albion, and has appeared on American public television at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

Born in Singapore, Tan was the first woman to earn a doctorate from Juilliard. Youthful restlessness and a desire to explore the crosscurrents between Asian and Western music and that of the West led her to John Cage. This sparked an active collaboration between Cage and Tan that lasted from 1981 to his death, during which Tan gained recognition as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Cage’s music. Her authority on matters of Cage has evolved from that of an expert interpreter to responsible scholar protecting the textual integrity of his work; she edited the fourth volume of his piano music for C. F. Peters and in 2006 gave the premiere of his newly discovered 1944 work Chess Pieces, which she also edited for publication.

Tan takes a lively interest in the musical potential of unconventional and unlikely instruments, and in 1997 her groundbreaking CD, The Art of the Toy Piano, elevated the lowly toy piano to the status of a “real” instrument. Tan is certainly the world’s first professional toy piano virtuoso. Since then her curiosity has extended to other toy instruments as well, substantiating her credo “Poor tools require better skills” (Marcel Duchamp). She favours music that confronts and defies the established boundaries of the piano and her toy instruments. Like-minded composers have created works for her, including Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Michael Nyman, Julia Wolfe, Toby Twining and Ge Gan-ru; she is also a favourite of George Crumb.