The Studios 2020: An Interview with Toy Pianist Margaret Leng Tan (Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep) [CANCELLED]
Playing a toy piano could easily come off as a gimmick, but for Margaret Leng Tan, the experimental artist has somehow managed to carve it into an entire career. Now, get ready to hear the story behind one of Singapore’s most renowned avant garde musicians, as Margaret presents Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep this March.
Co-commissioned by the Esplanade and Arts Centre Melbourne, The Studios 2020 was originally intended to open with this intimate look into Margaret’s life. Created by a team of Singaporean and Australian artists, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep explores themes ranging from memory and time, to control and loss, presented in a multidisciplinary show that combines spoken word, recorded text, projected images and original music. Performed by Margaret herself, learn about how she has been influenced by John Cage, George Crumb and other giants to create her art, and unearth the forces that have shaped her life and music.
Having received rave reviews when it premiered in other cities overseas, it’s a pity that it’ll likely be some time before we can see this work, in light of its cancellation. Still, we’ve decided to publish this piece anyway, where we spoke to Margaret and found out a little more about how the project started, her work, and how it is that she’s managed to stay relevant and innovative all these years. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: What made you decide to embark on this piece, and to tell your life story via theatre?
Margaret: I have been toying with the idea of writing my memoirs for years. I had come up with the title about 20 years ago. I’ve been told that when you have a great title, you really must write the book!
Over the years I collected anecdotes, observations, reflections, jotted down on scraps of paper that I stuck into a folder and promptly forgot about. With my practicing and touring schedule I found it extremely difficult to focus on writing. I decided it would just be easier to create a sonic theatrical memoir – instead of writing about my life I would simply live my life onstage!
Bakchormeeboy: You’ve worked with Erik Griswold for a long time. Tell us about the compositions he’s prepared for this work, and what we can expect, especially in how they coincide with various points in your personal history.
Margaret: For Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, Erik has created fourteen compelling pieces of music, most of them for prepared piano, a few for toy piano and the remainder for toys and percussion. To write this music Erik had to first understand where I am coming from. I have OCD and this is a key component of the piece. The music is not only brilliantly conceived to reflect the essence of who I am but it is the driving force in Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. The pieces are the structural pillars around which the text and visual materials all fall into place. I am living the music or the music is playing me, it is one and the same thing.
Bakchormeeboy: Especially in recent years, you’ve established yourself as a multimedia artist by incorporating theatrical aspects into your performances as well. What is the process like of conceptualising your shows? Does it begin with the music, or does it begin with a visual idea you have in mind, or something you want to do?
Margaret: The music is definitely the source. The theatrical element seems to happen spontaneously in several of my toy piano pieces and because it feels so right I am not in the least self-conscious about it. e.g having a cigarette dangling or a rose held between my teeth while I perform Toby Twining’s blues tango, An American in Buenos Aires; or donning my Brünhilde horned helmet when performing Minute Ring (with apologies to Wagner) by Jed Distler. The composers love it when I add a dramatic dimension to what they originally envisioned as concert music.
Bakchormeeboy: The title of the show strikes us as odd, since in various interviews, you’ve always seemed rather forthcoming and friendly, as opposed to being a ‘dragon lady’. What made you decide to term yourself a dragon lady, in spite of how you appear otherwise?
Margaret: I’m glad you think of me as friendly and forthcoming! Yes, that’s my “the girl-next-door” persona. But there is also another side to me that has been called formidable. Dragon Ladies have a backbone of steel and an indomitable will so I think I qualify. Dragon Ladies are akin to the steel magnolia belles of the American South…..sweet and charming on the surface but tough as nails inside, like Scarlett O’Hara!
Bakchormeeboy: With this year’s The Studios theme being Lost & Found, was there ever a time you felt lost, and how did you end up finding yourself again?
Margaret: Yes, there was that one year, in 1980, when I had become increasingly restless as a classical pianist. I wanted to go beyond the conventions of the genre but I didn’t know how. So I decided to enroll in a program to train dogs for the deaf instead. This gave me the distance and perspective I needed. In 1981 my encounter with John Cage changed my life. I returned to music but with fresh eyes and ears and I have never looked back since. You will have to come and see the play to learn more about this lightbulb experience!
Bakchormeeboy: As an experimental musician, how was your journey towards achieving the success you have today? What did you think was one of your biggest challenges as someone who chose to specialise in an unconventional instrument, and was there ever any pressure to go down a more ‘conventional’ route?
Margaret: I have what I call a “niche” career which means unconventional, one-of-a-kind, highly specialized, unbound. 2020 is my 25th anniversary as a serious toy pianist. It’s been a fantastic and fascinating journey filled with priceless stories which is what prompted me into thinking I should write a memoir.
Having the strength of your convictions is key. If you are going to do something as wacky as challenge Schroeder, the toy pianist in Peanuts, you must do it with utmost integrity and never as a gimmick. Now that I look back I am amazed at how easy it was to win over both audience and critics. Because I regard the toy piano (or any object that I happen to be playing) as a worthy artistic endeavour, and the music just happens to be beguiling, the public will willingly follow me down the rabbit hole.
After Cage, anything is possible. He gave artists the confidence to be themselves. Experimentalists like myself are the children of Cage. We have cleared the path for the next generation to find its own way.
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep was intended to play from 25th to 29th March 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, as part of The Studios 2020. The event has been cancelled as the artist is unable to travel to Singapore due to the evolving COVID-19 situation. All patrons who purchased tickets for the performance will receive an email from the Esplanade with details on full refunds soon.
The remainder of The Studios 2020: Lost & Found plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 26th April 2020. Tickets and full lineup available from the Esplanade. For updates on the works, follow The Studios on Facebook