Move over, Schroeder. Margaret Leng Tan, the formidable, pathbreaking virtuoso of the modern piano, is coming to town for an evening of cutting-edge 21st-century music. But instead of the usual Steinway, Tan will be packing two miniature toy pianos — as well as plastic hammers, toy whistles, rattles, spinning tops, hand-cranked music boxes, miniature cymbals and even an old Melitta coffee can or two — for an all-toy program that, she says, will turn the dry and often forbidding world of modern music on its ear.
“It’s really very subversive,” Tan says with a mischievous laugh. “This music thumbs its nose at all that academic contemporary music that takes itself so seriously.”
In fact, Tan’s one-woman “Clangor!” program (at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital on Wednesday night) at first glance looks like something a bunch of precocious, overcaffeinated 6-year-olds might put together. Composer Jed Distler mashes all 16 hours of Richard Wagner’s operatic “Ring” cycle into a single minute on the toy piano, while James Joslin’s “Fur Enola” weaves a spinning top and a jack-in-the-box into a complex atonal toy piano score. David Wolfson’s “Twinkle, Dammit!” evokes the joy of childhood piano lessons with an ominous plastic hammer, while the virtuosic “Toy Symphony” from Mexican composer Jorge Torres Sáenz calls on Tan to play the toy piano and no fewer than 16 other toys.
But for all its playful, pianists-just-wanna-have-fun spirit, Tan says the fast-growing world of “toy” music is just as serious and meaningful as anything in her more “grown-up” repertoire. “Composers love writing for instruments where there are no rules,” she says. “And the music is very seductive. It’s a way to get people to listen to new music — and like it!”
Tan should know. She’s been the world’s most die-hard champion of the toy piano since 1993, when she picked one up in a thrift shop in New York to perform John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano” at a festival at Lincoln Center.
Tan, at that point, was among the most highly-regarded interpreters of contemporary music in the country, a close associate of composers from George Crumb to Cage himself, and an inventive instrumentalist who vastly expanded the sounds that could be conjured from inside the piano.
But the Lincoln Center performance woke her to the strange allure of the toy piano, whose innocent, bell-like, but quietly aggressive tone seems to evoke childhood in all its complexity.
“I was stretching the boundaries of the piano so much that I fell off the edge — and landed on the toy piano!” she says. “And I realized that, with what Cage did with that beguiling and guileless little piece, the toy piano had the potential to be a real instrument.”
That seemed unlikely, to say the least. Invented in 1872 as an educational tool, the toy piano never aspired to much — “no adult would deign to play it as a real instrument,” Tan says — and with metal bars rather than strings producing the sound, it was more of a repackaged glockenspiel than an actual piano. After a heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, it sank into obscurity, and few adults can still say they played one as a child — not even Tan herself, who grew up in Singapore in the late 1940s. “I would have looked on one,” she says, “with great disdain.”
Undaunted, Tan began commissioning new works and making her own transcriptions of “adult” piano pieces. Taking her cue from Schroeder, the Beethoven-obsessed toy pianist from “Peanuts,” she started with the “Moonlight” sonata, and by 1997 had enough material to release a CD. “The Art of the Toy Piano” quickly became a media sensation, raved about from Billboard to the BBC, and Tan found herself crowned (as the New York Times dubbed her) “The Queen of the Toy Piano.”
Queen or not, Tan seemed to be reigning over a toy piano renaissance. She toured the world, playing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Beethoven’s house in Bonn, and released another album in 2010 to as much acclaim as the first. Meanwhile, a flood of young composers and pianist had taken up the cause, writing music for an ever-expanding range of toys. Audiences loved it. By 2012, several toy music festivals (notably the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, directed by composer Phyllis Chen) had been launched, and new works — including Ranjit Bhatnagar’s edible toy piano (it’s made of gelatin and fruit, and has electrodes embedded in the keys) — began to pour in.
The surge of interest “has really inspired composers to create some fabulous pieces,” Tan says. For her own part, she’s still pushing the boundaries, expanding her arsenal of musical toys (she has hundreds of them in her Brooklyn apartment, along with six dogs and close to 30 toy pianos), preparing her third album of toy music, and working on a major new work for toys by Phyllis Chen called “A Cabinet of Curiosities,” to be premiered at the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence next year.
It’s also Tan’s 70th birthday next year, and her evolution from piano virtuoso to (as she now describes herself) “a damn good multi-toy instrumentalist,” seems to have left her delighted, if slightly bemused.
“I’m the first woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate — and now I play the toy piano!” she says, laughing. “The world works in strange and mysterious ways.”
Brookes is a freelance writer.
‘Clangor’ Margaret Leng Tan’s 90-minute toy music performance takes place Oct. 8 at 7:30 pm at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at door. See www.pianojazz.com/hillcenter.htm for more information.