Posts Tagged ‘John Cage’

Photo: Crispian Chan.
Margaret Leng Tan performing Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep on a toy piano. 

There is just no end to the variety of jobs people work at — or create for themselves — and no end to the variety of tools they use. Today’s story is about a toy-piano virtuoso called Margaret Leng Tan and the unusual career she built.

Sian Cain writes at the Guardian, “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 favorite 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. …

“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. …

“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. [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 marvelous 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. … 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.’ …

“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. …

“At first, she was strictly a classical pianist. … ‘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. …

“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.’ “

More at the Guardian, here. No firewall.

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Until January 24, you can see at the ICA in Boston an exhibition on the artistic legacy of one of the most interesting colleges ever. It couldn’t last, but while it did, it burned with a bright flame.

Let me drop a few names of people who worked and studied there: Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Jacob Lawrence, Willem de Koonig (painters); Buckminster Fuller (architect); Merce Cunningham (choreographer); John Cage (music); and Robert Creeley (poetry). I am leaving out too many, including the women, whose names are not as well known.

I went on my lunch hour and so swept through the exhibition too fast. I confess I am not crazy about much of the art from this period. My favorites here are Motherwell, Lawrence, Cunningham, and Creeley. But how amazing that they all gathered North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, energizing one another across disciplines and making the school their life for a while, even pitching in with the chores.

Surprisingly, the things I took away with me were two ideas I’d like to apply to art with grandchildren.

I’ve done photographic paper before (you put objects like leaves or shells on the paper, leave it in the sun a few minutes, then run in the house and rinse it in water), but someone in the show did a full body. I might try a hand or a face. I also loved the textures of one piece of art I saw. Not quite a collage, it used string and bumpy surfaces in imaginative ways that reminded me of a project I watched Earl Gordon do when I was a child. He sliced the seed pod of a flower and used it as a stamp. Got to try more of that.

You can read about the school and the exhibit here.

Photo: Craig F. Walker/Globe
I liked “Female Figure” on sun-exposed photographic paper, by Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg, left.

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