Margaret Leng Tan
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Margaret Tan Hee Leng (b. 1945, Singapore -), popularly known as Margaret Leng Tan, is a pianist and a leading figure in experimental music. One of the best-known Singaporean musicians internationally, she is famed for her skill with unconventional playing techniques and the toy piano.
Education and early career
Tan’s mother taught piano and Tan began lessons at a young age, gaining attention at events like the 1961 Singapore-Malaya Piano Competition where she won the open section. She graduated from Raffles Girls’ School in 1962 and earned a scholarship to New York’s Julliard School the following year. Tan received her bachelor’s degree in 1966 and her master’s two years later. In 1971, she became the first woman to receive a Julliard doctorate.
For nearly a decade, Tan performed across America, Europe and Asia, but by 1980 had grown tired of playing traditional music. After taking an eight-month break to train hearing dogs for the deaf, she began exploring avant-garde music and resumed touring with a recital of modern and classical western music inspired by the East.
John Cage and other collaborators
Tan’s career took a defining turn after she met composer, artist and New Music pioneer John Cage at one of her performances in 1981. He became her greatest influence, and she came to be considered the foremost interpreter of his keyboard works. Tan found in his music an outlet for her painstaking perfectionism and themes evocative of her long struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. In turn, Cage extolled her extraordinarily intense concentration and projection, and a critic from The New York Times described her as the ideal pianist for him.
Cage composed for Tan, and invited her to open his 14-hour 70th birthday concert in 1982. They also collaborated to record music for a television programme on painter Jasper Johns and for a 1991 recital at the Whitney Museum, staged in conjunction with a Johns exhibition. The New York Times lauded Tan’s performance at that recital as one of the year’s most memorable. After Cage’s death in 1992, Tan performed a tribute at the Venice Biennale and in 2002 she travelled to Europe and Singapore with a retrospective for what would have been his 90th birthday. In 2003, she transcribed and premiered his lost work Chess Pieces (1944).
Tan prefers playing work by living composers as it enables creative cooperation between writer and performer. Many composers have written for her and she selects those with distinctive styles, such as Toby Twining, Julia Wolfe, Lois Vierk, Somei Satoh, Ge Gan-ru and Tan Dun. In the 1980s, she visited Japan on a cultural grant to meet contemporary composers. Tan is also associated with New Music pioneers like Cage’s mentor Henry Cowell and George Crumb, who acclaimed her as a “female Merlin, summoning spirits from the inside of the piano”.
Tan tests the limits of the piano’s capabilities through “extended techniques”. These include Cage’s prepared piano, where objects such as screws, erasers, washers and felt pieces are placed between or under the strings to create new sounds. She is also a leading player of the string piano, which involves plucking, strumming or sliding objects along the strings.
Practising Cage’s idea that any sound can be musical, she has played music involving squeak toys, whistles and a teapot. Guy Klucevesek’s Sweet Chinoiserie, written for Tan, required her to play two toy pianos simultaneously, an accordion, soy dishes and tin cans. She ate nine cans of tuna to find cans that would produce the requisite sound - an indication of the perfectionism and focus she brings to rehearsal and performing, as well as her humour.
Tan finds New Music more fun for both performer and audience and plays with a theatrical flair, creating a visual experience and gripping audience attention. She has accompanied the New York Philharmonic, is the first Singaporean soloist to play at Carnegie Hall and received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the State University of New York in 2011.
Tan is the first professional musician to regularly utilise the toy piano. She purchased one in 1993 to play Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano at Lincoln Center, and enjoyed the challenge of creating art on a small, primitive instrument that challenged her virtuosity. Her toy piano repertoire includes mainstream fare like the Beatles and Beethoven. She performed Moonlight Sonata on the instrument at Beethoven House in Bonn and accompanied a film of Schroeder, a character from Peanuts with two toy pianos played simultaneously.
Her career as a toy pianist has endured as composers continue to write new pieces for it. One of the most challenging was Aaron Jay Kernis’s Concerto for the Toy Piano, which premiered at the Esplanade in Singapore in 2003.
As of 2012, Tan has released 13 albums. Her first was of Japanese composer Somei Satoh’s Litania in 1988, and it was named by The New York Times as one of the year’s best. She has recorded five albums of Cage’s music, Crumb’s Makrokosmos and two albums by Chinese avant-garde composer Ge Gan-ru. In 1997, Tan recorded the first-ever toy piano album, winning praise from critics and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, and she produced a follow-up in 2010.
Performances in Singapore
A resident of New York, Tan participated in the Homecoming series at the 1992, 1999 and 2002 editions of the Festival of Arts, the first President’s Command Performance in 2009 and has collaborated with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Tan also appeared in the documentary Singapore Gaga (2002), and the 2004 Singapore Film Festival hosted the world premiere of a documentary about Tan, Sorceress of the New Piano.
Tan was born to lawyer and politician C.C. Tan and Joyce Tan. She has two siblings.
1988 : Litania – Margaret Leng Tan plays Somei Satoh
1988 : Sonic Encounters – The New Piano
1990 : John Cage - The Perilous Night, Four Walls
1994 : John Cage - Daughters of the Lonesome Isle
1995 : Milos Raickovich – New Classicism
1997 : The Art of the Toy Piano
2000 : John Cage – The Seasons
2002 : John Cage – The Works for Piano, Vol. 4
2004 : George Crumb – Makrokosmos I and II
2005 : Ge Gan-ru – Chinese Rhapsody
2006: John Cage – The Works for Piano, Vol. 7
2007 : Ge Gan-ru – Lost Style
2010 : She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2
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Another honour for Margaret. (1968, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved October 10, 2011 from NewspaperSG.
Bamberger, W. C. (2009). And in conclusion, I would also like to mention hydrogen, pp. 51-67. USA: Wildside Press. Retrieved October 16, 2011, from Google Books.
Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. TODAY, pp. 48-49. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Goh, C. L. (1999, March 6). Toying with Beethoven and the Beatles is the key to fun and fame. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 9. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Gu, L. Z. (1982, May 8). Out of musical rat race. The Straits Times, Section Two, p. 1. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Leong, S. (2006, March 19). Her piano forte. The Sunday Times, Lifestyle, p. 10. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Lim, C. T. (2002, May-June). Strings of silence: Margaret Leng Tan offers memories of her mentor. Esplanade: The arts magazine, p. 34.
(Call no.: RSING 791.095957 E)
Moed, A. (1997, November). Margaret Leng Tan: Avant Schroeder. CMJ New Music Monthly, 51. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Google Books.
Ooi, S. (1984, October 14). A niche for an artist. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Singapore pianist Margaret gets doctorate in music. (1971, 23 June). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Tan, M. L. (2011, July 10). Four walls for the disturbed mind. The Sunday Times. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Factiva.
Tan, S. E. (1998, July 29). In the brew is music from a teapot. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 2. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Tan, S. E. (1999, June 7). The teapot is sounding like a piano. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 7. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Tan, S. E. (2003, January 10). Honky-tonk act is no child’s play. The Straits Times, Life!, p. L3. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Tan, S. E. (2002, March 21). Tan’s the first at Carnegie Hall. The Straits Times, Life!, p. L3. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Xu, W. J. (1989, February 26). ‘Dancing’ on air for art. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Yashihara, M. (2007). From a different shore: Asian and Asian-American musicians in classical music (pp. 167, 169). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
(Call no.: 780.899 YOS (Art))
The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Tan, Margaret Leng, 1945-
Arts>>Music>>Musical instruments and ensembles>>Piano and keyboard