The seductive appeal of the toy piano

Mar 03, 2015

Margaret Leng Tan is known as the queen of the toy piano, but she will also be playing everything from bicycle bells and rattles to a jack-in-the-box at WOMADelaide this weekend.

Here, the New York-based Singaporean musician reveals why she has such affection for unusual instruments and what audiences can expect from her performances in Botanic Park.

How were you first introduced to the toy piano and why do you love playing it?

Back in 1948, John Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano, which was the first-ever serious composition written for this instrument. Beneath its charming and childlike veneer, it was also a sophisticated piece of writing where hidden intricacies posed real technical challenges for the performer.

As I practised, I gradually became convinced that the toy piano had the potential to become a real instrument if one worked hard enough at it, in accordance with the French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s belief that “poor tools require better skills”.  I think I have proved that less can indeed be more!

I love playing the toy piano because of its magical sound, which can seduce audiences into liking modern music without realising that is what they are listening to. Never underestimate the power of toys!

How big (or small!) is a toy piano?

Toy pianos range in size from miniature tabletop models to my performing instruments – my grand and upright touring pianos both have 37 keys (three octaves). They are 26 inches (66cm) high and I sit on an eight-inch-high stool!

At WOMADelaide, you will be performing Clangor! – described as “a diminutive music-theatre experience of nostalgia and humour”. What exactly can audiences can expect?

An evening of delightful fun and a trip down memory lane. I’ll take the audience deep into the rabbit hole to a special place where they can lose themselves in a novel sonic and visual universe – one where toys are capable of artistic expression and the toy piano can perform feats of undreamt-of virtuosity.

I also get a chance to explore my comedic aspirations through my dramatisation of David Wolfson’s Twinkle Dammit! and with Jed Distler’s encapsulation of Wagner’s monumental Ring opera cycle into his (one) Minute Ring.

In addition to the piano, what other toy instruments and objects will you be playing?

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Metaphorically speaking, everything but the kitchen sink – and that, too, if it were portable. When you are writing for toy piano and toys, there are no rules to be broken; composers’ imaginations can soar unfettered.

Monica Pearce’s “Clangor” is for three different bicycle bells and toy piano; Phyllis Chen magically combines the toy piano with a hand-cranked music box in her two “Carousels”, and James Joslin creates suspense with a jack-in-the-box. Ying-an Lin’s “Drunkard’s Dance” is a duet for toy piano and tin can, true to the revolutionary composer John Cage’s conviction that you can make music on any object capable of producing sound.

I even have my very own “Toy Symphony” from Jorge Torres Sáenz, where I play a total of 16 instruments. My composers hail from all corners of the globe – highly appropriate for a festival of world music, don’t you think?

Your musical style is often described as avant-garde or unusual. What drives you to push boundaries and how would you yourself describe your music?

I would call my music refreshingly quirky. It sounds like no other. It is avant-garde, yet highly listenable … none of that modern intellectual stuff that alienates audiences. I push boundaries because I still possess an unabated curiosity (even at my age!) and my inherently restless nature doesn’t allow me to become complacent.

John Cage was your mentor and collaborator for many years – how profound was the influence he had on you?

Cage’s impact is so significant that I describe my life as AC/BC … After Cage and Before Cage.

His influence extends beyond music into life itself. Cage expanded the term “music” to include extra-musical sounds including noise and, most importantly, silence. I learned to really listen to all that is going on around me.

His Zen Buddhist beliefs profoundly affected my approach to both life and art. Cage was my guiding spirit but he was never dogmatic or a teacher in the conventional sense of the word. Just being around him was to be on a perpetual journey of discovery. I think Cage’s greatest gift, not only to myself but to all artists, is he gave us, by example, the confidence to be truly ourselves.


Margaret Leng Tan will be performing on the Zoo Stage at WOMADelaide in Botanic Park this Friday and Saturday.

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