Margaret Leng Tan
The world’s first toy piano virtuoso
Strikingly unconventional in her vocation as the world’s first concert toy pianist, Margaret Leng Tan has established herself as a major force in the American avant-garde through her boundary-defying contributions on both the piano and toy piano. Hailed as the “diva of avant-garde pianism” by the New Yorker magazine and the “queen of the toy piano” by The New York Times, she is also renowned as a great John Cage interpreter.
Singapore-born but New York-based, Margaret is the daughter of former Straits Times Press chairman C.C. Tan. She started piano lessons at age six and at sixteen was awarded a scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School, after winning the Singapore Annual Piano Competition a year earlier. In 1971 Margaret became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts from Juilliard.
A decade later she met the man she attributes to being the turning point in her career, the American avant-garde composer and artist John Cage. It was the beginning of a collaboration which lasted until his death 11 years later.
With her inimitable style marrying music, theatre, choreography and performance, Margaret’s reputation as a quirky and visionary artist flourished. In 1984 she was awarded a US National Endowment for the Arts grant.
In 1990 and 1991 she gave concerts of John Cage's music at retrospective exhibitions honouring Jasper Johns. The New York Times called her "the most convincing interpreter of John Cage’s keyboard music".
Her toy piano debut came in 1993 when she played Cage’s 1948 Suite for Toy Piano in New York at her Lincoln Center John Cage memorial tribute. She had bought the 45-centimetre-high, two-octave toy from a thrift shop, the first of many in her collection of toy pianos and toy instruments. Her impressive arsenal of sounding objects has inspired composers to create pieces for her toy pianos featuring bicycle bells, music boxes, tin cans and teapots.
In 1997 the release of her groundbreaking album, The Art of the Toy Piano, was featured in Newsweek and on CNN, making waves in and beyond the music world. In 2002 she made history as the first Singaporean musician to perform on Carnegie Hall’s main stage.
Margaret was the subject of Evans Chan’s critically acclaimed 2004 documentary film, Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan. Margaret was also featured playing her toy piano in Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore GaGa.
Margaret has performed at the Venice Biennale on 3 separate occasions, in 1993, 2007 and 2009. Her 2010 album, She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2, received the Diapason d’Or (France) and prompted the Independent (UK) to call her “the toy piano’s Rubenstein.”
In 2011 Margaret was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts by the State University of New York. Margaret is also an accomplished essayist. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, Straits Times, and other publications worldwide.
In 2015, Margaret was awarded the Cultural Medallion by the President of Singapore, Mr Tony Tan.
"Whether you ultimately achieve your goal, or not, is inconsequential. It is The Process that counts... So be a little more Zen as you venture along your way - keep your antennae up, you may very well find that digressions from your chosen path may turn out to be the most meaningful after all."