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We have an obligation to others. Otherwise it's just nothing but sheer narcissism, what we do.
Margaret Leng Tan
One way I write music is not to ask, not to define, not to label… Because after all, there is more than just east and west, there is past, present, and future. Vertically and horizontally, there are so many dimensions.
A prepared piano is a concept invented by experimental composer John Cage, and it means a piano whose sound is altered through the placement of various objects between or on its strings.
Cage “loved the way I prepared the piano”, Margaret Leng Tan, one of the foremost interpreters of his music, tells us in this episode of Making A Scene. In preparing the piano, she was influenced by the diverse music of her multicultural upbringing in Singapore. But for this Juilliard-trained pianist, it was also her encounter with Cage’s Asian-influenced artistic outlook that sparked a new engagement with her own cultural roots.
That’s just one way the subject of diverse cultural influences comes up in this spirited conversation between Tan and composer Huang Ruo, moderated by Esplanade programmer Lynn Yang. For China-born Huang, who is also a Juilliard graduate and based in New York like Tan, musical genres from different cultures are just one dimension of sound that inform his expansive creative process.
Indeed, these two music-makers are artists who prefer to work beyond boundaries. Tan is the world’s first toy piano virtuoso, and she likes how the instrument lends itself to particularly freewheeling experimentation. She has also been exploring the realm of theatre for several years, and the latest example of this exploration is her sonic portrait Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, which is part of 2021’s The Studios line-up. The show had its world premiere at Asia TOPA, Melbourne and was well-received by audiences and critics.
Besides composing, Huang is also a vocalist and educator given to creating new theoretical constructs for his work. His piece, A Dust In Time, is a response to the Covid-19 pandemic and it will be performed at this year’s Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts. It’s a work he terms “action art”, and the inherent implications about the purpose and obligations of art is something that has guided Tan over the course of her career as well. Today, facing a world in the grip of ongoing crisis and trauma, this conversation suggests that these obligations should be more pressing than ever.
[Beginning to 11:22] How Tan and Huang discovered music, made their way to New York, and based their careers there.
[11:23 to 22:02] The diverse influences that have shaped both artists, and why Huang thinks audiences should treat music more like food.
[22:03 to 35:24] How theatricality and storytelling have shaped Tan’s approach to performing, and Huang’s approach to composing.
[35:25 to end] How their artmaking has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here’s how Tan became a leading figure of experimental music
A glimpse at the creative process of Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep
Learn more about Huang’s musical journey
A closer look at Huang’s opera about Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen
This episode of Making A Scene is produced by Hong Xinyi for Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. The theme music of the podcast is More Than We Know from the album Seamonster by The Steve McQueens, a Mosaic Associate Artist supported by Esplanade.
Watch TWINKLE DAMMIT!, a documentary film on Margaret Leng Tan, from 1 - 14 Apr 2021.
Making A Scene is an Esplanade podcast about how art gets made. In this series, artists reflect on topical issues and connections that bind them across art forms and countries, and talk about what inspires their art.
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