Profile: Margaret Leng Tan

Published on 18 August 2015

The first woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate, Margaret Leng Tan continues to defy convention as the world’s first toy piano virtuoso.

BY pamela ho

“Make the story funny, okay? Because I’m very funny. I see myself as an ‘entertainer’ and I don’t see that as denigrating,” says acclaimed pianist and concert toy pianist, Margaret Leng Tan. “I want to be a sit-down comic — that’s my other ambition in life.”

An alumna of Raffles Girls’ School, Tan moved to New York at age 16 to attend The Juilliard School, a performing arts conservatory that counts among its alumni Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve and Kevin Spacey. In 1971, she became the first woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate.

“I was a through-and-through classical pianist. It was only after I left Juilliard and met John Cage that my whole attitude towards music changed,” says the Brooklyn-based musician. “I like to joke about this: I’m the first woman to graduate with a doctorate from Juilliard. And now, I play the toy piano!”

Tan met Cage, an American avant-garde composer and artist, in 1981 and worked with him till his death in 1992. She’s widely regarded as the most convincing interpreter of his works. Her debut performance on the toy piano in 1993 was Cage’s 1948 ‘Suite for Toy Piano’.

She fell in love with the instrument and in 1997, released her groundbreaking album, The Art of the Toy Piano. Hailed ‘queen of the toy piano’ by The New York Times, Tan made history by being the first Singaporean musician to perform on Carnegie Hall’s main stage.

At this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), she will present Cabinet of Curiosities, a SIFA-commissioned programme of music-theatre works in celebration of her 70th birthday. ‘Curios’, a segment written by Chinese-American composer and toy pianist Phyllis Chen, was inspired by a 1920s image of carnival clowns. “It embodies all the complex feelings carnivals conjure up, the element of freakishness. And I’m somewhat of a freak, aren’t I? Playing toy instruments as an adult? I sometimes feel like a one-woman travelling circus.”

Tan will also be playing a toy pipe organ, a 99-cent bird whistle and a 16-piece toy orchestra. “It’s extraordinary what you can do with toys. After all, they’re just one step ahead of junk,” she declares, adding that she considers herself a junk artist in the tradition of John Cage, Pablo Picasso, artist Marcel Duchamp and composer Erik Satie. “Now I’m able to look back and see the trajectory. I know my place and my legacy. And it gives me a wonderful sense of belonging.”

The world premiere of Cabinet of Curiosities is on at SOTA Studio Theatre, 27-29 August, 8pm. Tickets available via Sistic. For more information, visit www.sifa.sg.

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