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‘Carving Figures on an Olive Pit’: The tiny sonic miracles of Margaret Leng Tan

‘Carving Figures on an Olive Pit’: The tiny sonic miracles of Margaret Leng Tan

Musician Leigh Harrold talks to toy piano virtuoso, Margaret Leng Tan.

Even in the rarefied world of avante-garde pianism, Margaret Leng Tan is unique – a niche artist in an already ultra-niche field. Although she is thoroughly in her element tackling the established modern masterpieces for grand piano, a ‘typical’ recital for Tan (as if there is such a thing!) will not see her confined to one instrument, or even to one type of piano. Her upcoming recital for Melbourne Recital will see her performing on a Steinway D, woodblocks, bicycle bell, bicycle horn, toy gun, and toy piano. 

Margaret Leng Tan

It’s this last instrument that truly sets Tan apart from the pack. She fully embraces the word ‘toy’ with all the implied limitations of the term because, as great artists will often tell you, working within restrictions  produces some of the most refined and concentrated forms of artistic expression. “There is no tone colour on a toy piano”, says Tan. “Through hours of concerted effort spent in controlling its very primitive mechanism … I have learned to control subtleties of articulation and touch through utmost sensitivity of the fingertips which creates the illusion of colour. Learning to control its action is tantamount to cultivating the finesse needed to carve figures on an olive pit!”

It’s a serious business then, all this playing with toys. Tan says she realised just how serious when she decided to tackle John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano. “It’s seemingly simple appearance masked a discreet sophistication. [There are] meticulous and exaggerated dynamic indications ranging from sffz to ppp. As if a toy piano could have such capabilities! Cage is challenging the pianist to achieve the impossible on a toy instrument. Nonetheless, the pianist tries their utmost and from the effort, subtle differences do emerge”.

All this talk of illusion and impossibilities seem to be testament to the shared power of imagination. Tan’s own imagined soundworlds – her sonic mirages built layer by painstaking layer through decades of study and refinement – appeal in turn to the imagination of her audience. Our imaginations are always at their most fertile and unbridled when we’re children, and I like to think that it’s this fantastical side – the side of ourselves that we’re often forced to shut down as adults – that Tan seeks to re-awaken with her bike horns, toy sirens, and 51cm pianos.

Certainly, in this recital, she’s aiming to make us laugh. We get to laugh as knowing adults during Jed Distler’s Minute Ring (“When I make my tribute to the great Wagnerian comedienne Anna Russell”) and as innocent kids during the nostalgic farm-sounds of Erik Griswold’s Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine. Even here, though, the lines between levity and seriousness are blurred. While we’re being transported back through our imaginations to simpler times, Tan will be engaging in “the hardest piece of multitasking I have ever encountered”.

For Tan, the “blood, sweat and tears that [goes] on behind the scenes to make it appear effortless and fun on stage” is all part of the job description. Her selfless dedication to this end is almost certainly the reason she has single-handedly turned performance on toy instruments into a virtuosic art form. Moreover, she has inspired a new generation of composers and performers to take up the mantle. “Rest assured that the toy piano will continue to flourish after I am gone as there are now other toy pianists in the world, and the composers who write for toy piano are now a worldwide coterie of intrepid young soundsmiths as far flung as Israel, Taiwan and Mexico”. Carving figures on olive pits, it seems, will have a lasting legacy.

Margaret Leng Tan performs Miniature Meets Monumental at Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday 23 August. Click here to learn more.

About the Author

Australian musician and writer Leigh Harrold enjoys a reputation as a 'musician of rare talent and intelligence' and is one of Australia’s busiest and most sought-after pianists. Click here to learn more.

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