Toy piano virtuoso Margaret Leng Tan: ‘I played Beethoven in Beethoven’s house – eat that, Schroeder’

The 76-year-old has played everything from toys to teapots to become a famed avant-garde musician. Ahead of Australian shows she speaks about her toy piano collection, OCD and believing in fate

At her last count, Margaret Leng Tan owned 18 toy pianos – but these days she just settles for “lots and lots”. The 76-year-old musician, once labelled “the world’s first toy piano virtuoso” by the New York Times and “the formidable doyenne of the avant-garde” by the Washington Post, finds her pianos everywhere from garage sales to garbage cans. “I picked up a beautiful one from the garbage – the legs were missing but it was vintage and had a beautiful sound,” she says. Last year, a complete stranger even left a red one for her on her Brooklyn doorstep: “I have become a foundling hospital for orphan pianos.”

Her personal favourite in her collection is a vintage Schoenhut, which she deems “the Steinway of the toy piano world”.

“That one has been everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Beethoven’s house in Bonn. I played Beethoven in Beethoven’s house! Can you imagine? Eat that, Schroeder!” she laughs.

Perhaps after Schroeder, the Peanuts character, Tan is now the most famous face of the toy piano; when her seminal album The Art of Toy Piano was released 25 years ago, Peanuts creator Charles Schultz even wrote to inform her: “You have joined Schroeder as one of the great toy piano performers of our time.”

Tan exudes a light playfulness that complements her chosen instrument: “I’ve always had aspirations to be a sit-down comic – not a stand-up one!” she says. “The toy piano gives me that golden opportunity.” She is not limited to the piano either: in one arrangement titled Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine, written for her by the composer Erik Griswold, she simultaneously plays toy piano, bicycle horn, bicycle bell and train whistle. “It was incredibly difficult,” she says.

In her latest show, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, she plays a simpler version involving a toy piano, a Fisher Price plastic phone and a toy mobile. “I’m one of the few people left in the universe, along with Werner Herzog, who don’t have a cell phone,” she says. “But I do have a toy one!”

Have her audiences always understood what she’s doing? “They’ve come along for the ride. They’ve often been very enthusiastic and willing to go with me down that rabbit hole. I mean, the toy piano. That is as screwy as you can get!” she laughs. “But because I take it seriously, they take it seriously. And the toy piano is so seductive. How can you resist a toy piano? It is a marvellous way to introduce avant-garde music to audiences, who would never go to such a concert – they’ll go to a toy piano concert out of curiosity.”

Dragon Ladies is a step away from her usual concerts: it is a one-woman biographical theatre show in which Tan tells the story of her life through significant moments. “It started because I intended to sit down and write my memoir but I never could find the uninterrupted time to do that,” she says. “I thought it’d be easier to make a sonic memoir than a written one. And I had the title – I read somewhere that if you have a good title, you must deliver.”

A significant part of the show explores Tan’s lifelong struggle to manage her obsessive compulsive disorder. When she was a child, she once wrote, her OCD “manifested itself in a spectrum of behavioural quirks ranging from an adamant insistence that the bow in my hair be perfectly straight to a perpetual need for reassurance to allay my many fears, largely imagined but painfully real to me.”

Music and rhythm became outlets for her impulse to count everything. “Music is all about counting. OCD is all about counting. It is a marriage made in heaven,” she says. “But I wouldn’t wish OCD on my worst enemy. It’s not fun. But I want to show people that you can still be creative and function in spite of it. Or because of it. Or both.”

Margaret Leng Tan - Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep - Photo coutesy of Esplanade Theatres on the Bay 2
Tan performing Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. Photograph: Crispian Chan

Tan began playing piano when she was six. Her father was a famed lawyer and politician in Singapore, and her mother was a piano teacher – “though she had the good sense never to try to teach me,” Tan says. When she was 16, Tan left Singapore to study at Juilliard; she became the first woman to graduate with a doctorate from the prestigious New York school. “Now I play the toy piano. Go figure,” she laughs.

At first, she was strictly a classical pianist. While struggling to decide what to do with her career, she briefly considered training seeing-eye dogs. “It was only after I met John Cage that I knew what I wanted to do,” she says.

Cage was arguably the world’s most influential avant-garde composer; his 1952 piece 4’33 is famously performed by musicians doing nothing, embodying his belief that any auditory experience, including silence, could be music. Tan met Cage in 1981: the story goes that he refused to come to her house to hear her play, so she hired out a 1,000-seat auditorium to perform just to him.

Is it true? “I wanted him to come,” she chuckles. “But he didn’t want to hear someone play in their living room.”

John Cage changing the tuning of his piano by placing coins and screws between the strings, in Paris in 1949.
John Cage changing the tuning of his piano by placing coins and screws between the strings, in Paris in 1949. Photograph: New York Times Co./Getty Images

Cage was her close friend and mentor until his death in 1992. “He believed, and I agree with him, that you can make music with essentially anything. Whether it is a tin can or a bucket, that is music,” Tan says. “He was a genius. There won’t be anyone else like him for a very long time, if ever. He was a unique prophet. He expanded the definition of music to include noise and silence – all of this has now become acceptable. His influence is all-encompassing.”

Dragon Ladies is dedicated to both her late mother and Cage. Tan sees their meeting as an act of fate. “I think so much in life is being in the right place at the right time. I do believe in fate, I do believe in destiny. You can be as talented and work as hard as ever. But if you don’t have that last ingredient, the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, your life will take a very different path.”

Does she ever think about what she’d be doing if she never met Cage? “Oh, I can’t even imagine,” she gasps.

In her seventies, part of Tan’s mind is now always set on the future, and what her legacy will be. She’s proud of her role in transforming the toy piano into “a real instrument that has his own repertoire – it will live on after I’m gone. At this point in my life, it’s time to hand the baton on to the next generation.”

She finds it gratifying to meet young musicians who are inspired by her. “It sounds so conceited, but they really admire me,” she says. “My advice to them always is: simply be who you are. Do not let anybody dissuade you from trying new things. Do not let anybody tell you it’s wrong. Because if I believed that, where would I be today?”

Contributor

Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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