Margaret Leng Tan has established herself as a major force within the American avant-garde; a highly visible, talented and visionary pianist whose work sidesteps perceived artificial boundaries within the usual concert experience and creates a new level of communication with listeners.
Embracing aspects of theatre, choreography, performance and even “props” such as the teapot she “plays” in Alvin Lucier’s Nothing is Real, Tan has brought to the avant-garde, a measure of good old-fashioned showmanship tempered with a disciplinary rigour inherited from her mentor John Cage. This has won Tan acceptance far beyond the norm for performers of avant-garde music, as she is regularly featured at international festivals, records often for adventurous labels such as Mode and New Albion and has appeared on American Public Television, at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Born in Singapore, Tan was the first woman to earn a doctorate from Juilliard, but youthful restlessness and a desire to explore the crosscurrents between Asian music and that of the West led her to John Cage. This sparked an active collaboration between Cage and Tan that lasted from 1981 to his death, during which Tan gained recognition as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Cage’s music, partly through her New Albion recordings, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and The Perilous Night/Four Walls. She has subsequently recorded Works for Piano 4 and Works for Piano 7 for Mode Records’ Complete John Cage Edition. After Cage’s death in 1992, she was chosen as the featured performer in ta tribute to his memory at the 45th Venice Biennale.
Tan takes a lively interest in the musical potential of unconventional and unlikely instruments, and in 1997 her groundbreaking CD, The Art of the Toy Piano on Point Music/Universal Classics elevated the lowly toy piano to the status of a “real” instrument. Tan is certainly the world’s first professional toy piano virtuoso. Since then her curiosity has extended to other toy instruments as well, substantiating her credo “Poor tools require better skills” (Marcel Duchamp). She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2, Ms. Tan’s latest toy instrumental album (mode 221 CD/DVD), has been called “one of this year’s finest treasures of new music” (Downtown Music Gallery).
Tan favours music that confronts and defies the established boundaries of the piano and has collaborated with like-minded composers to create works for her, such as Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Michael Nyman, Julia Wolfe, Toby Twining and Ge Gan-ru; she is also a favourite of composer George Crumb who has written Metamorphoses (Book I) for her. Photogenic and comfortable with the camera, Tan is the subject of a feature documentary by filmmaker Evans Chan, Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan, which has been screened at numerous international film festivals.
In 2015, the Singapore International Festival of Arts commissioned Curios, a multimedia theatre work from Phyllis Chen for Tan, who was also awarded the Cultural Medallion – Singapore’s highest artistic accolade – in the same year.