“You can make music on just about any object capable of producing sound”: An interview with toy piano virtuoso, Margaret Leng Tan

“You can make music on just about any object capable of producing sound”: An interview with toy piano virtuoso, Margaret Leng Tan

Under the seasoned hands of Margaret Leng Tan, the toy piano transforms from a child’s plaything into an instrument capable of expressing music that would put most prog-rock bands to shame. Known for her innovative and experimental music, Margaret Leng Tan has had decades of concert experience under her belt, revolving around the eccentric whimsy of the toy piano. Her firm commitment to practice and to the sonic avant-garde belies her training as a classical musician, being the first woman to receive a doctorate from Julliard in 1971, and a winner of the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest artistic honour, in 2015. She was a close collaborator of John Cage, of 4′33″ fame - whom she maintains is one of the greatest influences on her life and aesthetics.

Ahead of her first foray into theatre, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, Bandwagon hopped on a Facebook call with the doyenne of toy piano to talk about her refusal to own a mobile phone, when she really got to know John Cage, and how soon we might get to see her performing on Jimmy Fallon with classroom instruments.

What is Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, and how is it different from your other performances?

MARGARET: Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is my first full theatre presentation. It's my first full-fledged foray into theatre and I'm very excited about it - can you imagine making your theatrical debut at 74? I'm really very excited about it because it's the latest reinvention of Margaret Leng Tan. I’m constantly reinventing myself, and this is my latest incarnation, so let’s see where it takes us.

The performance came about because I was going to write a memoir; a literary memoir that was called Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep - that's a great title, isn’t it? So I started collecting all kinds of ideas, thoughts, and anecdotes, and jotted these observations on bits of paper and stuffed them into a folder. But I never really could find the time to sit down and write my memoir given my performing and work schedules. I decided, in the end, it would be easier to make a sonic memoir than a literary one. Maybe, hopefully, one day the written memoir will follow.

Has there been any progress on the written memoir then? Or has that been put on hold?

MARGARET: Oh no, it's on hold right now because I'm just focused on this 3D, theatrical, sonic version that has evolved from a memoir into a portrait. Tamara Saulwick from Chamber Made, who is my artistic director, took charge of the whole artistic direction, and it gradually evolved from a sonic memoir into a portrait.

What’s the difference, then, between a memoir and a portrait of yourself?

MARGARET: A memoir is more of your recollections about events in the past and experiences. A portrait is more a depiction of you, of your total personality.

And so in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, we can expect this total depiction of you, but wouldn’t that also include the recollection of experiences that make you who you are?

MARGARET: Some of my recollections and observations do enter into it. Kok Heng Leun - a dramaturg from Singapore Drama Box - and Tamara pieced together a beautiful script made up entirely from my writings, observations, and reflections.

This is something you're doing for the first time - a theatrical piece. How different is this from your previous concert-type sort of performances?

MARGARET: You just said it yourself: it’s not a concert, it's a piece of theatre. There’s movement involved, there’s video, and I'm talking a lot. I'm telling stories and a couple of anecdotes. John Cage figures in it quite heavily, as does my mother. And I play 14 pieces of music by Erik Griswold - my long time collaborator whom I've known since 2002. He's created the most exquisitely compelling beautiful music for it, and the music forms the structural pillars of this work into which the text is interwoven. 

And was this something that you had to figure out and come to terms with for the first time or this is something that you had expected you would eventually do one day?

MARGARET: My work is already very dramatic and choreographic, so it's just going the one step further into full-fledged theater. It’s not been difficult to make that step, that transition, into full theatre. In fact, it seems very organic and inevitable that this is where I would end up. I do feel very confident about this piece. I have not got the least bit nerves or anything about it because it just feels so natural to just be myself on stage, right?

As you said, you are presenting this portrait of yourself. So in many ways, it’s literally you being you on stage.

MARGARET: Yeah, it's totally honest. I'm not acting. I'm just being myself. And I'm a very good storyteller, so telling people stories or anecdotes about Cage or whatever - it just seems so natural. And I’m telling some of these stories for the very first time.

Are you willing to give us a little bit of a teaser of what you’ll talk about?

MARGARET: Well, I talk about how I first met John Cage, and how I first really met John Cage. I don’t want to tell it and give the show away, you have to come and see it. If I start telling it I'll have to tell you the whole story.

It's also quite funny in places and it brings out some eccentricities that I have. For example, I don't have a mobile phone. I must be the only person left who doesn't have a mobile phone that you know, and I refuse to get a mobile phone. And this does come up in the play. I'll just give you a couple of choice lines about this, which is taken from my writings.

I have this little toy iPhone and I have this little toy dial-up phone and at one point I say: “Are you holding the phone, or does the phone have you in its grip?” Think about that. It's to make people think, you know.

And I'll say things like: “The phone is walking you while you think you're walking the dog. You’re on an electronic leash, my dear”.  There's a lot of these very like pithy sayings that are distilled from my various writings

So how would you react if someone's phone just went off during your performance?

MARGARET: I'll say to them: “Turn off the goddamn phone”. I'll just tell them, and make them feel like they want to disappear into a hole and die (laughs).

You mentioned that you'll be bouncing between several instruments, such as the toy piano to the big piano. You’re so closely associated with the toy piano, but I’m just wondering right now, do you currently have other instruments that you're fixated upon?

MARGARET: I'm not fixated on any other instruments but I do play a whole variety now of other toy instruments and sound objects and toys. Because I do believe, as John Cage did, that you can make music on just about any object capable of producing sound. And to make any object that produces sound into a musical instrument takes a great deal of practice and perseverance to make it speak in an artistic way

How do you practice then? How do you change the tones and the sound a toy instrument can make into something artistic in their own way?

MARGARET: I have a wonderful piece from before by Erik Griswold that he wrote for me - it’s the absolute pinnacle of multitasking where I play toy piano, bicycle bell, bicycle horn, and train whistle all at the same time. If you can imagine that. To do all these things takes tremendous coordination and sheer perseverance.

And so the bicycle bell is not a musical instrument, but I've made it into a musical instrument through Erik's music in this piece. And the demands Erik put upon me for this! I wore out three bicycle bells learning this piece. So if that doesn't say something about practice, practice and more practice, I don't know what else one can do to make it perfect. But it’s also about the music behind it. Practising alone on bicycle bells isn't going to get you to Carnegie Hall, you know.

Maybe not for anyone else, but it would get you to Carnegie Hall.

MARGARET: Oh right yeah I’ve done that piece in Carnegie Hall (laughs). Okay yes you can get to Carnegie Hall playing the bicycle bell.

You mentioned that this show is also going to be very funny. Your performances in general are rather cheeky, humourous, and dramatic. How do you get the inspiration to be funny and this eccentric?

MARGARET: I don’t know - that’s a good question. Now that I come to think of it. I think I'm just a natural - l’m not a stand-up, but a sit-down comic. Things come to me spontaneously in reaction to the audience, and after that, I think, gosh that's an awfully good line, I must remember that one for next time. Then after a while if you do that enough, it becomes a routine, right? It becomes a comedy act.

Except that your comedy act is not based on you telling jokes, but through your instruments and choreography instead?

MARGARET: ​​​​​​​Yes, and also at the same time I'll make comments that just pop into my head, you know. Like sometimes audiences laugh when I sit down on my eight-inch high toy piano stool, and then I'll just turn to them and say: “Well that's the most impressive thing you're going to see me do all night”.

These jokes come so naturally to you that I imagine the presentation of humour through music must also come very naturally to you.

MARGARET: ​​​​​​​Yeah, and everything is in timing. How you say something, how you deliver a punchline - it’s timing, it’s being deadpan, and I seem to have a natural instinct for that.

And do you feel you feed off the reaction of the audience?

MARGARET: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Of course. That is so much it. They have to give you back for you to give them more. You know, it's a two-way exchange. It can’t all just be one way. In those cases I clam up because it’s no fun talking to a wall. It’s very discouraging, and then it becomes hard work. It’s not a joy.

I'm not sure if you’re familiar with this talk show host Jimmy Fallon. He has this bit that he does with his band where they actually perform with toy instruments, mostly with pop stars. So my question is: when are we going to see Margaret Leng Tan performing the toy piano on Jimmy Fallon and show them how it’s really done?

MARGARET: ​​​​​​​Oh yeah yeah yeah he’s very famous. Do you know about 20 years ago, I was contacted to be on one of those talk shows?

(audible surprise)

MARGARET: ​​​​​​​Yeah back in the day of my toy piano heyday, after my first album came out. It was so funny, getting this message from a late-night talk show. But nothing came out of it; you know, they don't just immediately engage you. They want to feel you out and see you know if you’re suitable. So they put out feelers and then they never followed through.

If they were to approach you now, would you go on and perform?

MARGARET: ​​​​​​​I think so (laughs).

What do you hope the audience will get out of Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep?

​​​​​​​MARGARET: ​​​​​​​This show is one hour and 15 minutes long. I will give them (the audience) my all. And I really hope they will give back to me and stay with me through this experience. And also that they will leave being somewhat haunted by this experience. I want to compel them to go on this journey with me. I don't want them to be there thinking about the grocery list for tomorrow; I want them to be with me every minute of the journey, because it's a very personal journey.


​​​​​​​Dragon Ladies Don't Weep was originally scheduled to be performed in Singapore from 25-29 Mar 2020 at Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay. The show has been cancelled due to implications from the COVID-19 situation. This article has been updated to reflect these changes.