[Dixielandjazz] Thinking Outside The Box

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Fri Nov 19 08:16:18 PST 2004


Some on the list will enjoy this read about a pianist who thinks outside the
box. An interesting approach to music that could easily be adapted to OKOM
by those who still have a sense of adventure.


November 19, 2004 - NY Times - By ALLAN KOZINN

A Performer Drawn to the Piano's Wild Side

If Margaret Leng Tan wasn't so serious about what she does, and if she
didn't do it so well, an unsuspecting concertgoer might mistake her for a
slightly eccentric novelty act. Ms. Tan plays many of her concerts on a toy
piano, one of those tinkly sounding miniature keyboards that children play.
Often she uses two of these instruments, one for each hand. Along with a
growing catalog of virtuosic toy piano works composed for her, she is likely
to include in these concerts a Beethoven sonata synchronized with a video
clip of Schroeder, the Beethoven-obsessed Peanuts character, playing on a
similar instrument. O.K., she's serious, but she has a sense of humor.

When Ms. Tan plays what she calls an "adult piano," her programs are no more
conventional. Often, they include works for the "prepared piano" favored by
John Cage - that is, an instrument that has been set up with screws, nails
and other objects wedged into its strings to create unusual effects when the
notes are played. Or she might play works that require her to use her
forearms on the keyboard to create a dense welter of notes, a cluster
technique developed by Henry Cowell, with whom Cage studied.

Just at the moment, though, she is thinking more about the music of George
Crumb, whose "Makrokosmos," Books I and II (1972-3), require her to spend
ample time playing directly on the piano's strings - that is, plucking,
scratching, strumming and caressing them, as well as sliding objects (a
drinking glass, a metal brush) along them, and causing them to resonate by
singing into the body of the piano. Ms. Tan is playing these colorful
collections at Zankel Hall tomorrow evening as a 75th-birthday tribute to
the composer. She has also just recorded them for Mode, a new-music label,
which is releasing them on both CD and DVD.

Pioneers of Pianism

"For me," Ms. Tan said, "George Crumb, along with John Cage and Henry
Cowell, forms a triumvirate - the three C's, the three intrepid American
pioneers of 20th-century avant-garde pianism. In 'Makrokosmos,' you are not
only creating sound, you are creating theater. It's very visual, very
choreographic - so perfect for DVD. To play it, you have to be somewhat of
an actress and a vocalist. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades, really,
because inside the piano, you are also something of a harpist and a

Ms. Tan has created a small revolution in piano playing over the last 20
years. Although she is by no means the first to master the techniques of
performing inside the piano, her way of combining the avant-garde pianism
with her toy piano work, as well as her program of commissioning new works
for both instruments, has made this diminutive pianist an important figure
in the world of contemporary music.

Crumb as Mentor

She is the subject of a new 90-minute documentary by Evans Chan, "The
Sorceress of the New Piano," which was shown recently at the Vancouver Film
Festival. And having been closely associated with John Cage during the last
11 years of his life - she says that meeting him in 1981 led her to
reconsider her repertory, which had been mainstream until then - she now
speaks of Mr. Crumb as her mentor.

Mr. Crumb first came to prominence around 1970, the year he completed two
especially vivid scores: "Ancient Voices of Children," a setting of Lorca
poetry for voice and chamber ensemble, and "Black Angels," a searing antiwar
work for amplified string quartet. His chamber, vocal and orchestral works
have often included everything from lighting instruments to suggestions for
quasi-theatrical movement. During the 1980's, when the main debates in
contemporary music focused on the feud between Minimalists and atonalists,
Mr. Crumb's music, which follows other agendas, was eclipsed somewhat. But
it has enjoyed a revival in recent years, both in the concert hall and on
recordings, including an expansive series on Bridge Records.

Mr. Crumb is also famous for the exquisite calligraphy of his scores. In
some, staves full of notes wind in circular arcs around the page; others
depict objects that Mr. Crumb wants his music to suggest. The 24 movements
in "Makrokosmos," Books I and II, for example, have dual titles - one
descriptive, one representing a zodiac sign - and several of the scores
refer to them. "Crucifixus (Capricorn)," for example, is presented in a
cruciform score. "Spiral Galaxy(Aquarius)" is written in a graceful swirl,
and "Agnus Dei (Capricorn)" is a peace symbol. (Asked why he writes this
way, Mr. Crumb once said that apart from looking nice on the page, this
method of scoring forced performers to memorize his music, since it can't
easily be sight-read.)

"To this day," Ms. Tan said, "George draws his own staves, because he wants
them spaced a certain way, and printed manuscript paper doesn't give him
that freedom. This is someone who is still working in a very calligraphic
way, when so many composers have gone to computer notation programs. But I
can understand why, because his scores are so personal, they are such
beautiful works of art. When I play them, I like to display them in the
lobby so that the audience can enjoy them during the intermission, or before
and after the concert.

"The Cage scores are very calligraphic too," she added. "I think these two
composers have very much in common. In fact, when I visited George this
summer, he told me that during the 1960's he met Cage, and it was a seminal
experience, because until then, he had not been able to come up with his own
language. His music didn't yet have that stamp that says, this is George
Crumb and no one else. But after he met Cage, he wrote that extraordinary
set of Five Pieces for Piano, in 1962, and I think that was the beginning."

Variety of Influences

Ms. Tan came to Mr. Crumb's music by way of the Five Pieces, in the
mid-1980's, when working inside the piano was still a fairly new world for
her. She was born in Singapore, in 1953, and began studying the piano when
she was 6. Her lessons, she said, covered the classical repertory. But that
isn't all she was hearing.

"Singapore was a British colony for 150 years," she said, "and it only
became independent in 1965. So I was exposed to Western classical music very
early. But at the same time, there was the sound of ethnic music all around
you, and it doesn't matter whether you consciously listen to it or not, it's
part of growing up. And I'm so glad I grew up in Singapore, rather than in
Hong Kong or Taiwan, because Singapore is multiracial. There's the Chinese
component, which is the majority today, but also a large Indian population
and the indigenous Malay people. So you grow up trilingual and tricultural.
Well - plus Western, so four languages and cultures. You're exposed to it
all in a natural way."

When she was 14, a visiting pianist from the United States heard her perform
and suggested that she apply to the Juilliard School. Two years later, she
moved to New York to become a student of Adele Marcus at Juilliard.
Musically, Ms. Tan's interests were in the standard classical canon,
although she tried to find fresh programming twists. One early program,
assembled for an Asian tour, included works that showed the influence of
Asian music and philosophy on Western composers, and included music by
Debussy, Messiaen, Hovhaness, Griffes and Cage.

She began exploring other works by Cage as well, including some of his
prepared piano pieces, in a program she performed with a dancer in 1981.
While rehearsing for those performances, she contacted Cage and asked him to
hear her play. Their friendship began then, and lasted until Cage's death in

"Meeting Cage was one of the milestones of my life," Ms. Tan said. "I think
of my whole life as B.C. and A.C. - before Cage and after Cage."

Cage's works opened for Ms. Tan a world of piano music based on extended
techniques, or ways of playing the instrument other than by pressing the
keys. Mr. Crumb's Five Pieces followed a few years later, and she felt a
kindred spirit at work in those as well.

"I was really struck by two things in the Five Pieces,'' she said. "One was
this absolute distillation of his timbral universe. And the other was an
aura of suspended time, where musical space assumes an almost
three-dimensional presence - where the musical space becomes almost
palpable, and where each tone has a living presence. These are qualities
that I feel are inherent in Asian music as well. His concept of time and
space is very much encapsulated in the Japanese concept of 'ma,' in which
time and space are perceived as one - as inseparable entities that exist
coincidentally rather than separately. It permeates Crumb's music, and it's
something that Cage was preoccupied with as well. And if one is aware of it,
one approaches the music differently."

'So Utterly Primitive'

Having explored the Asian influence in Western music, Ms. Tan has also
championed Asian composers, including Somei Satoh, Ge Gan-ru and Tan Dun.
Western composers who have written for her include Aaron Kernis, Julia
Wolfe, Toby Twining and Lois Vierk. Some have written works for her to play
on the standard piano, but most have been intrigued by her toy piano
playing, something she took up in 1993, when the Serious Fun Festival at
Lincoln Center presented a Cage memorial concert. For the occasion, Ms. Tan
learned Cage's Suite for Toy Piano (1948), and she was hooked.

"The toy piano is so utterly primitive," Ms. Tan said. "It's just little
plastic hammers, attached to piano keys, hitting metal rods. It's nothing
but a repackaged xylophone pretending to be a piano. You have to work hard
to make it speak. But if you work at it, you actually can make it capable of
articulation, touch and dynamics within its limited range."

Cage clearly suspected as much. In his Suite, his articulation is specific,
and he asks for dynamics that range from quintuple piano to quintuple forte
- a range far beyond the instrument's means.

"But he knew what he was doing," Ms. Tan said, "because a player who
observes those indications will work very hard to accomplish them, and even
though you cannot produce that range, what comes out is very different than
if you hadn't tried at all."

3 Steinways, 16 Toys

After Ms. Tan began playing the toy piano regularly in concert, she said,
composers began writing her e-mail messages full of ideas for new pieces.
Mr. Kernis wrote her a concerto that she describes as "one of the hardest
pieces I've ever played." Ms. Wolfe provided a piece for toy piano and boom
box, and Eric Griswold wrote Ms. Tan a work for toy piano and a hand-cranked
music box. 

"I had thought the toy piano programs would have died a natural death at
some point," said Ms. Tan, who now has 16 toy pianos and three Steinways in
her Brooklyn apartment. "But there's been a tremendous demand. I think
composers feel that with the toy piano, there are no rules to be broken, so
the sky is the limit.

"It reminds me," she said, "of a wonderful saying by Marcel Duchamp: 'Poor
tools require better skills.' "

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