Margaret Leng Tan
by Sutherland, Duncan
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 in playing the toy piano.1
Education and early career
Tan’s mother taught piano and Tan began lessons at a young age, gaining attention at events such as the 1961 Singapore-Malaya Piano Competition where she won the open section.2 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.3 In 1971, she became the first woman to receive a Julliard doctorate.4
For nearly a decade, Tan performed across America, Europe and Asia, but by 1980 she 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.5
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.6 In his music, Tan found an outlet for her perfectionism and themes that were evocative of her long struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder.7
Cage composed for Tan and invited her to open his 14-hour 70th birthday concert in 1982.8 They also collaborated to record music for a television programme on American painter Jasper Johns, as well as a 1991 recital at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, 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 to him at the Venice Biennale and in 2002, 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).9
Tan prefers playing work by living composers as it enables creative cooperation between writer and performer. Many composers have written for her and she has worked with those with distinctive styles, such as Toby Twining, Julia Wolfe, Lois Vierk, Somei Satoh, Ge Gan-ru and Tan Dun.10 Tan is also associated with New Music pioneers such as Cage’s mentor Henry Cowell and George Crumb, who called her a “female Merlin, summoning spirits from the inside of the piano”.11
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.12 She is also a leading player of the string piano, which involves plucking, strumming or sliding objects along the strings.13
Like Cage, Tan believes 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.14
Tan finds New Music more fun for both performer and audience and plays with theatrical flair, creating a visual experience while gripping the audience’s attention. She has accompanied the New York Philharmonic,15 and is the first Singaporean soloist to play at Carnegie Hall. Another major accomplishment for Tan was receiving an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the State University of New York in 2011.16
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 the Lincoln Center, and enjoyed creating art on a small, primitive instrument that challenged her virtuosity. Her toy piano repertoire includes mainstream fare such as the Beatles and Beethoven. She performed Moonlight Sonata on the instrument at the Beethoven House in Bonn, Germany in 2000. A year earlier, she performed Ode to Schroeder: The Art of the Toy Piano at the Singapore Arts Festival, where she played the toy piano to a video clip of Schroeder, a character from comic strip Peanuts, who is a pianist.17
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 Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in Singapore in 2003.18
By 2012, Tan had released 13 albums. Her first, released in 1988, was Japanese composer Somei Satoh’s Litania,19 which was named by The New York Times as one of the year’s best albums.20 She recorded five albums of Cage’s music, one on Crumb’s Makrokosmos and two on the music of Chinese avant-garde composer, Ge Gan-ru.21 In 1997, Tan recorded the first-ever toy piano album, winning praise from critics and Peanuts creator, Charles Schulz.22
Performances in Singapore
A resident of New York, Tan participated in Singapore’s Homecoming series at the 1992, 199923 and 2002 editions of the Festival of Arts, as well as the first President’s Command Performance in 2009. She has collaborated with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and appeared in the documentary Singapore Gaga (2002).24 The 2004 Singapore Film Festival hosted the world premiere of a documentary about Tan, called Sorceress of the New Piano.25
1988: Litania – Margaret Leng Tan plays Somei Satoh
1988: Sonic Encounters – The New Piano
1990: The Perilous Night, Four Walls, John Cage
1994: Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, John Cage
1995: Milos Raickovich – New Classicism
1997: The Art of the Toy Piano
2000: The Seasons, John Cage
2002: The Works for Piano, Vol. 4, John Cage
2004: Makrokosmos I and II, George Crumb
2005: Chinese Rhapsody, Ge Gan-ru
2006: The Works for Piano, Vol. 7, John Cage
2007: Lost Style, Ge Gan-ru
2010: She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2
1. Margaret Leng Tan. (2016). About Margaret. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Margaret Leng Tan website: http://margaretlengtan.com/pages/about.html
2. Tan, C. (2015, August 31). The Straits Times. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/dragon-lady-of-the-toy-piano
3. Another honour for Margaret. (1968, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. A pianist who made history at Julliard. (1979, March 1). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Bamberger, W. C. (2009). And in conclusion, I would also like to mention hydrogen. USA: Wildside Press, p. 51. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Google Books website: https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=I_9FZinA-bMC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA51%20-%20v=onepage&q&f=false
6. Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Bamberger, W. C. (2009). And in conclusion, I would also like to mention hydrogen. USA: Wildside Press, p. 52. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Google Books website: https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=I_9FZinA-bMC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA51%20-%20v=onepage&q&f=false
8. Gu, L. Z. (1982, May 8). Out of musical rat race. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Margaret Leng Tan. (2016). About Margaret. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Margaret Leng Tan website: http://margaretlengtan.com/pages/about.html
11. Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Xu, W. J. (1989, February 26). ‘Dancing’ on air for art. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Breaking the barriers of music. (1992, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tan, S. E. (1998, July 29). In the brew is music from a teapot. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. (2016). The honored inductees to the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame: Margaret Leng Tan. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame website: http://www.swhf.sg/the-honourees/11-arts-culture-entertainment/107-margaret-leng-tan
17. Goh, C. L. (1999, June 3). Toying with Beethoven and the Beatles is the key to fun and fame. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Tan, S. E. (2003, January 10). Honky-tonk act is no child’s play. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. De Souza, J. (1986, May 28). Music for an open ear and mind. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Kong, L. (1991, April 6). Re-inventing the piano. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Margaret Leng Tan. (2016). Recordings. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Margaret Leng Tan website: http://margaretlengtan.com/pages/recordings.html
22. Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Breaking the barriers of music. (1992, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 2; Tan, S. E. (1999, May 18). Hey, Singapore! We’re back. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Leong, S. (2006, March 19). Her piano forte. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Chew, D. (2006, March 22). Serious toying around. Today, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Margaret Leng Tan. (2016). Recordings. Retrieved 2016, August 4 from Margaret Leng Tan website: http://margaretlengtan.com/pages/recordings.html
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.
Arts>>Music>>Musical instruments and ensembles>>Piano and keyboard
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Music)
Tan, Margaret Leng, 1945-
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists>>Cultural Medallion Recipients