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Margaret Leng Tan is a leading figure in experimental music, and the world's first toy piano virtuoso. Born in Singapore and based in New York, the classically-trained pianist collaborated closely with revolutionary American composer, John Cage and is regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of his music. Her 1997 album, The Art of the Toy Piano, broke new ground by transforming the toy piano into a real instrument. She is known for her dramatic and often humorous performances that include theatrical elements such as costumes and choreography. Tan is also a performance artist, multi-toy instrumentalist, vocalist and writer. Late in life, Tan discovered her comedic potential through the toy piano and has aspirations to be a "sit-down comic."
Tan was the first woman (and first Singaporean) to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts from The Juilliard School. In 2002 she was the first Singaporean soloist to perform on Carnegie Hall's main stage. The 2015 Cultural Medallion recipient is now preparing for the premiere of Metamorphoses, a major new work written for her by American avant-garde composer, George Crumb. She is also assembling a sonic memoir of her life.
Born on 12 December 1945, Margaret Leng Tan is the second of three children of lawyer and politician, C.C. Tan and piano teacher, Joyce Tan. She started clamouring for piano lessons at a young age, partly because her older sister had started to learn the instrument. At age six, she began her own piano lessons. Her teachers included Singaporean pianist Lee Kum Sing. By age 10, she had moved on to complex classical pieces and was devoted to honing her skills as a musician.
She won the open section of the 1961 Singapore- Malaya Piano Competition, and was talent-spotted at a masterclass by Juilliard professor, Joseph Bloch, who encouraged her to audition for the renowned performing arts conservatory. She did so, successfully, and moved to New York at the age of 16. She earned her bachelor's and master’s degrees at the school and, in 1971, became the first woman and the first Singaporean to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts from Juilliard.
Of those early years abroad, she says: "I was ready to conquer the world, and not afraid because I was too young to know any better." She thrived on the conservatory's intensely competitive environment, and performed as a concert pianist across America, Europe and Asia after graduating. By the time she clocked a decade as a classical musician, however, her interests had started to shift. She took an eight-month break to train hearing dogs for the deaf, and began her exploration of ethnic and contemporary music.
It was at this pivotal time in her life that she met composer John Cage. In 1981, she had started practising his music for prepared piano as part of a concert programme she was putting together. Malaysian dance doyenne Marion D'Cruz was visiting her in New York at the time and began to dance spontaneously to the music. On an impulse, Tan looked up the composer's number in the phonebook and invited him to see their hybrid creation. That was the beginning of their friendship and artistic collaboration, which would last until his death in 1992.
Cage's influence on her has been so immense that she has divided her life into BC (before Cage) and AC (after Cage). A practitioner of Zen Buddhism, he introduced her to a different way of approaching life and music. "It's not the mountain peak I focus on, it is the journey. That is one of the precepts I live by today," she says. Besides performing Cage's music all over the world, she has also recorded five albums of his work and safeguards the textual integrity of his music in editions of his work for the publisher, C.F. Peters.
In particular, she is known for performing Cage's prepared piano pieces, where the piano's sound is altered by the insertion of objects between its strings. She is also a "string piano virtuoso", adept in playing the instrument like a horizontal harp, plucking and strumming its strings.
Perhaps most significantly, Cage's work led Tan to the instrument that would define the next phase of her career — in 1993 she bought her first toy piano to perform the composer's 1948 Suite for Toy Piano on her John Cage memorial tribute at New York's Lincoln Center. She went on to record two acclaimed albums featuring the toy piano – The Art of the Toy Piano (1997) and She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2 (2010). She also appeared with a toy piano performing Cage's famous 4′33″ in Tan Pin Pin’s documentary, Singapore Gaga (2005).
Composers have written for her with the toy piano in mind, including American composer Aaron Jay Kernis, whose Concerto for Toy Piano premiered at Esplanade – Theatres in the Bay in Singapore in 2003. She has pushed the boundaries of avant-garde music with collaborators like Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Michael Nyman, Julia Wolfe, Toby Twining and Ge Gan-ru. In 2017, she will premiere Metamorphoses, a major new work written for her by American avant-garde composer, George Crumb. She is also preparing a sonic memoir of her life.
In addition to amassing a collection of toy pianos, Tan is also drawn to making music with anything that produces sound, including household objects like tin cans and teapots. "I remember one reviewer wrote, 'she could even make a toilet plunger sound musical.' I think that's the ultimate accolade,” the witty musician says with a laugh.
In 2015, she performed with an arsenal of unconventional instruments in Curios, a multimedia theater-piece by Chinese American composer Phyllis Chen, commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts for Tan’s 70th birthday.
Tan has no shortage of poetic accolades: The New York Times hailed her as the "queen of the toy piano," The New Yorker called her the "diva of avant-garde pianism" and The Village Voice, "the world’s premiere string piano virtuoso." In 2004, the Singapore International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Evans Chan’s documentary, Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan.
Asked to share some of the challenges she has faced in her career, Tan reveals that she recently suffered a "devastating tragedy" where an entire crate of her unconventional instruments was lost while they were in transit. These had been painstakingly collected over many years. "It was heartbreaking, but after I recovered from my grief I decided to go on a quest to find new instruments. It’s turning out to be quite an adventure!" When all is said and done she reckons that, "it is indeed a privilege to make your living by that which obsesses you."
Margaret Tan Hee Leng was born in Singapore to lawyer and politician C.C. Tan and piano teacher Joyce Tan.
Started piano lessons.
Won the open section of the Singapore-Malaya Piano Competition.
Graduated from Raffles Girls' School.
Started studies at New York's Juilliard School, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in 1966 and 1968 respectively.
Became the first woman to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Juilliard.
Befriended composer John Cage and began their 11-year artistic collaboration until his death in 1992.
Opened the John Cage 14-hour Wall-to-Wall 70th Birthday Marathon at Symphony Space, New York.
Awarded a US National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist grant.
Litania, her recording of Japanese composer Somei Satoh, was named one of the year's best by The New York Times.
Performed Cage's music in the US Public Broadcasting System's American Masters documentary on Jasper Johns.
Performed Cage's music in the US Public Broadcasting System's American Masters documentary on John Cage.
Her John Cage retrospective programme for the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Whitney Museum was on The New York Times' list of the year's most memorable performances.
Became the first Singaporean to participate in the Venice Biennale with a performance tribute to John Cage.
Purchased her first toy piano to play Cage's Suite for Toy Piano on her Cage memorial tribute at Lincoln Center, New York.
The New York Times publishes essay, John Cage Poses a Few Last Questions.
Released groundbreaking album, The Art of the Toy Piano (Phillips/PolyGram), which received worldwide media attention.
Became the first Singaporean musician to perform at Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium.
Toured Europe, Singapore and US with her Cage 90th Birthday Retrospective.
Artist profile done on her by Contact Singapore broadcast throughout the Asia-Pacific region on CNBC.
Premiered Aaron Jay Kernis's Concerto for Toy Piano at Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.
Feature documentary, Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan, by Evans Chan premiered at Singapore and Hong Kong International Film Festivals.
Performed 75th birthday tribute to George Crumb at Carnegie's Zankel Hall along with launch of Crumb's Makrokosmos I & II on CD and DVD by Mode Records.
Appeared in the documentary, Singapore Gaga, by Tan Pin Pin.
Transcribed, premiered and published Cage's lost work, Chess Pieces (1944).
Featured in SINGAPORE: The Encyclopedia (Editions Didier Millet/National Heritage Board).
Performed THROUGH THE SILENCE: John Cage in Memoriam at the Venice Biennale (Music).
Sorceress of the New Piano/The Maverick Piano DVD release on Mode Records.
Performed Cage-Kaprow-Fluxus at the Venice Biennale.
Performed on the inaugural President's Command Performance at the Esplanade.
Featured in CHRONICLE OF SINGAPORE: Fifty Years of Headline News (1959-2009) (Editions Didier Millet/National Library Board).
She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2 CD/DVD release (Mode Records), received the Diapason d’Or (France).
Awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the State University of New York.
Performed at John Cage centenary celebrations in Europe, US and Central America.
The New York Times publishes essay, Music of the Unquiet Mind.
Contributes digital performance video, Preparing the Piano for Bacchanale, to The New York Public Library’s John Cage Unbound: A Living Archive.
Inducted into the inaugural Singapore Women's Hall of Fame.
Awarded the Cultural Medallion.
Premiered Cabinet of Curiosities at Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) including SIFA-commissioned work, Curios by Phyllis Chen.
George Crumb begins composing Metamorphoses, Book I, Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after celebrated paintings), a major new piano work for Margaret.
CNN Great Big Story feature, The Toy Piano Virtuoso.
Performs Ode to Schroeder, a tribute to the toy pianist Schroeder from Peanuts, in Schroeder Hall, Sonoma State University, California
Asian premiere of SATIEfaction: Erik Satie, Cage and Beyond at the National Museum of Singapore in conjunction with What is Not Visible is Not Invisible.
Toy piano profile on Voice of America TV.
World premiere of George Crumb’s Metamorphoses, Book I at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. followed by the European premiere at the Holland Festival and the German premiere at Donaueschinger Musiktage.
Participates in an 18 hour performance of VEXATIONS by Erik Satie at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in conjunction with Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897
New York premiere of Metamorphoses at the Ecstatic Music Festival in Merkin Concert Hall. CD release by Mode Records of the live concert recording of Metamorphoses from Donaueschinger Musiktage.
Debut at the New York Clown Theatre Festival with selections from Curios.
Performed Cage, Cowell, Crumb at the Venice Biennale (Music) including the Italian premiere of Metamorphoses.
Los Angeles debut at REDCAT, Disney Hall.
Performed Minimalism Redux at National Gallery, Singapore in conjunction with Minimalism: Space. Light. Object.
Toy piano feature stories on BBC World News and BBC World Service Outlook.
Toy, Toy, Toy!: Reflections on a Singapore Childhood in conjunction with The Orchid Show: Singapore at the New York Botanic Gardens.
Sydney debut performing Miniature meets Monumental at the Extended Play Festival including the Australian premiere of Metamorphoses.
Performed John Cage: Music for Merce at the Kennedy Center’s Merce Cunningham at 100 celebration, Washington D.C.
Asian premiere of Metamorphoses at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall.
Moscow debut in the Moscow Conservatory of Music’s Rachmaninoff Hall.
One of the influential women honorees at U2’s Joshua Tree Tour Singapore concert in Jalan Besar stadium.
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, co-commissioned by Asia TOPA and Esplanade, premieres at Arts Centre Melbourne.
Feature documentary, Twinkle Dammit!: The World of Margaret Leng Tan by Chuang Xu, premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Won Best Director (Feature Documentary category) at the NÒT Film Festival (Italy) and Best Foreign Documentary at the KADOMA International Film Festival (Japan).
Honoree at the Phillips Collection's Arts, Innovation and Impact Gala, Washington D.C.
Asian premiere of Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep at Esplanade.
Lianhe Zaobao cover story in conjunction with National Gallery Singapore’s online performance series, Art + Live | Resonates With.
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Sixteen-year-old Margaret Leng Tan with her father, C.C. Tan, just before departing for New York to attend The Juilliard School. Singapore, 1962.
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Margaret Leng Tan, in her early 20s, at The Juilliard School where she earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees as well as a Doctor of Musical Arts. New York, c. 1968-1969.
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Margaret Leng Tan and avant-garde composer John Cage, after her performance in Out-of-Doors’ John Cage celebration held at the Lincoln Center. New York, 1988. Image credit: Evans Chan.
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Margaret Leng Tan preparing the piano for recording of Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano on ECM Records. Performing Arts Center in State University of New York, 1997. Image credit: Michael Dames.
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Margaret Leng Tan playing the strings of the piano. Singapore, c. 1990s. Image credit: Yvonne Tan.
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Margaret Leng Tan performing her memorial tribute to John Cage at the Serious Fun! Festival, Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts. New York, 2993. Image credit: Jack Vartoogian
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Margaret Leng Tan and her toy piano collection. Brooklyn, New York, 1997. Image credit: Jim Standard.
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Margaret Leng Tan with toy grand piano, gift from DoMiSo Toy Piano Company. Brooklyn, New York, 2007. Image credit: Alfie Lee
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Margaret Leng Tan playing with toys in Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! by Ge Gan-ru. Brooklyn, New York. 2007. Image credit: Michael Dames.
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Margaret Leng Tan listening to the teapot during rehearsal for Nothing is Real by Alvin Lucier. Atlantic Gallery, New York. Image credit: Susana Lei'ataua.
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Margaret Leng Tan performing John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano in rehearsal for the Duchamp Cabaret at the Barbican Centre, London. 2013. Image credit: Benedict Johnson
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Margaret Leng Tan performs a birthday tribute on the September 5, 2012 centenary of John Cage in a show titled The Art of the Toy Piano. Poland, 2012. Image credit: Wojtek Kornet.
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Margaret Leng Tan with American avant-garde composer George Crumb, discussing Metamorphoses, the new work he is writing for her. Pennsylvania, 2015. Image credit: Ken Wei
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Margaret Leng Tan presenting the world premiere of Arlecchino from Curios, a multi-media work by Phyllis Chen, commissioned by the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts. School of the Arts, Singapore.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.