Margaret Leng Tan: Sorceress, Maverick, Dog Whisperer?

Margaret Leng Tan

Sorceress of the New Piano/The Maverick Piano

A DVD by Evans Chan


The two films collected on this Mode DVD explore the multifaceted career and fascinating life story of new music pianist Margaret Leng Tan. Sorceress of the New Piano is a biography, while The Maverick Piano presents Tan performing some of her signature repertoire by composers John Cage, Erik Satie, Toby Twining, and Ge Gan-ru. Mode tends to favor this double-barreled type of presentation, and for good reason; hearing the works discussed in a bio subsequently performed in their entirety is far more satisfying than having to settle for sound bites.

Tan is best known for her work in two distinct areas: prepared piano and toy piano. Both are given ample coverage here. Tan expounds about the “Three C’s” of contemporary piano music: Cowell, Cage, and Crumb; she demonstrates their hallmark techniques and eloquently discusses the aesthetics of each. Ample footage is featured of her rehearsing and conversing with both Cage and Crumb, who are clearly delighted by her dedication and formidable performances. The pianist was particularly close with Cage, who encouraged Tan in her quest to transform herself into someone with unique talents to offer to new music.

Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (1948) inspired Tan to champion the diminutive instrument, expanding its repertoire with commissions and transcriptions. She suggests that the toy piano has far more capacity than the novelty instrument or “gimmick” status to which it has previously been relegated. That said, Tan is not above using the toy piano as an agent provocateur, as one can see in her performance of Raphael Mostel’s “Star-Spangled Etude #3.” Dressed in a foam “Statue of Liberty” headdress, Tan brings a pistol, whistle, and siren onstage, using Mostel’s simple piece incorporating patriotic tunes to craft a performance artwork about post-millennial militarism.    

The DVD includes interesting biographical information, detailing Tan’s long struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The pianist acknowledges that the perfectionist mindset which has made her such a compelling performer and new music advocate are byproducts of this challenging illness. Another intriguing aspect of Tan’s life is her work with animals; she took a hiatus from performing early in her career to prepare helper dogs for the hearing impaired. Sorceress/Maverick is a compelling document; like Tan, it seems capable of winning over even the most conservative listeners to the wonders of the avant-garde.

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