Born in Singapore, Tan was the first woman to earn a doctorate from Juilliard, but youthful restlessness and a desire to explore the crosscurrents between Asian music and that of the West led her to John Cage. This sparked an active collaboration between Cage and Tan that lasted from 1981 to his death, during which Tan gained recognition as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Cage’s music, partly through her New Albion recordings, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and The Perilous Night/Four Walls. She has subsequently recorded Works for Piano 4 and Works for Piano 7 for Mode Records’ Complete John Cage Edition. After Cage’s death in 1992, she was chosen as the featured performer in a tribute to his memory at the 45th Venice Biennale.
Tan takes a lively interest in the musical potential of unconventional and unlikely instruments, and in 1997 her groundbreaking CD, The Art of the Toy Piano on Point Music/Universal Classics elevated the lowly toy piano to the status of a “real” instrument. Tan is certainly the world’s first professional toy piano virtuoso. Since then her curiosity has extended to other toy instruments as well, substantiating her credo “Poor tools require better skills” (Marcel Duchamp). She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2, Ms. Tan’s latest toy instrumental album (mode 221 CD/DVD), has been called “one of this year’s finest treasures of new music” (Downtown Music Gallery).
Tan favors music that confronts and defies the established boundaries of the piano and her toy instruments and has collaborated with like-minded composers to create works for her, such as Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Michael Nyman, Julia Wolfe, Toby Twining and Ge Gan-ru; she is also a favorite of composer George Crumb. Tan’s authority on matters of Cage has evolved from that of an expert interpreter to responsible scholar protecting the textual integrity of his work; Tan edited the fourth volume of Cage’s piano music for C. F. Peters and in 2006 gave the premiere of his newly discovered 1944 work Chess Pieces, which she also edited for publication. Tan’s Mode DVD of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes includes a video in which she examines the original, 1940s era preparation materials for the work. Photogenic and comfortable with the camera, Tan is the subject of a feature documentary by filmmaker Evans Chan, Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan, which has been screened at numerous international film festivals including Vancouver, Melbourne and AFI/Discovery Channel’s SILVERDOCS where it was nominated for Best Music Documentary. Sorceress of the New Piano and a bonus film by Chan, The Maverick Piano, is now available on DVD on Mode Records (mode 194).
David N. Lewis (Uncle Dave Lewis), courtesy of All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com)