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Music Notes: a pianist who gets her body into it


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Margaret Leng Tan hovers over the smaller of her two Steinway grand pianos. She presses a chord. Slowly, her hands sweep into the inside of the piano to pluck a cluster of strings. Striking a low note, she damps the string with her finger ("thud"), and then begins to apply various objects, flicking a string with a guitar pick, bowing a few notes with a length of dental floss. The entire process comprises one continuous, flowing motion, as sustained and concentrated as the Japanese Butoh dance or No drama. It is, in fact, a kind of dance: Tan calls it "pianistic choreography."

"You're supposed to use horsehair or fishing tackle instead of dental floss," she admits afterward, "but have you ever tried to find fishing tackle in Brooklyn? Besides, a friend of mine remarked that the piano keys look like 88 teeth anyway."

Undoubtedly, Singapore-born Margaret Leng Tan is the most unusual conceit pianist on the international circuit today. To begin with, she's abandoned the usual Brahms-Chopin shtick to concentrate on a growing repertoire that extends the piano's capabilities--inward, through playing directly on the strings, and outward, through electronics. To meet this music's unusual needs, she's evolved a highly theatrical style of playing in which every movement contributes to the performance. She's not only the first unconventional member in a family of lawyers and housewives, but was the first woman ever to receive a doctorate from Juilliard.

A teenage pianistic prodigy, Tan only took her first turn off the beaten path when she attempted to redefine herself as an Oriental after living several years in America. "In 1980-81, I started listening to a lot of ethnic music, especially Asian," says Tan, who now lives with two large dogs in a house in Brooklyn. "Getting in touch with my roots, and all that stuff. I got the idea of together a program--just as a oneshot deal--of music by Western composers who'd been influenced by Asian aesthetics, beginning with Debussy."

Asian aesthetics brought Tan into contact with John Cage, who unlocked the door to a synthesis of her own culture and the Western classical tradition she had adopted.

"In Japan, John is worshiped as a god," she says. "If he were Japanese, he'd be a national living treasure. This man's influence is all-pervasive, even for the people who negate him." The admiration is mutual, for Cage has called Tan "an excellent musician, quite extraordinary, with an intensity of concentration and projection that reaches many people."

Tan began thinking, in her playing, about the Japanese concept of Ma, the idea of space and time as coincidental entities. "In the West you think of space and time as separate dimensions. In Asian thinking, they are inseparable. When you move through space you move through time. That's a simple but mind-blowing conclusion. You find this expressed in the Japanese arts, particularly No theater, which is interminably slow, with a sense of suspended time. Cage came upon it when he started working with electronic tape--that so many inches of space equals so many seconds."

Ma, in turn, provided a meaningful approach to extended piano techniques. "This whole idea of pianistic choreography evolved from the fact that when you use the interior of the piano your whole body is involved. The way you have to move has to be choreographed, there's no time to fumble. It's very organized in the sense of gesture and becomes very stylized. It's integral to the music, not something I superimpose. Even when I play on the keyboard now, everything is within a sense of choreography. Before, the piano was the instrument, and you were playing with the instrument. Now I feel that not only is my body an extension of the instrument, my body is the instrument. The piano is an extension of me.

"It's like ink painting or calligraphy: you cannot break the momentum and spontaneity of the gesture. Once you go, you go. The whole rhythm is gone with the energy of the stroke. Everything generates the next, and everything evolves out of the previous gesture. And if this ongoing motion is in any way broken because I hesitate or fumble, the energy flow is cut, and the note just sounds contrived or artificial. It's all or nothing, totally uncompromising."

One of Tan's discoveries in her search for aesthetic roots was the Tokyo composer Somei Satoh. Born in 1947, self-taught, and from ultratraditional Japanese background, Satoh writes shimmering, ecstatically minimalist music full of tremolos and delicate melodies. He doesn't use the inside of the piano, Tan says, "because he's a good boy. In Japan, composers are obedient, law-abiding citizens like everyone else. They cross the street when the light turns green." Instead, Satoh uses digital delay and other electronic enhancements that sometimes make it sound as though four pianos are being played at once. Tan recorded five of Satoh's works on New Albion Records, and the disc was instantly popular--enough so that it hit the number-two spot on the Top Ten New Music Recordings list for 1986.

Monday night at 8 in Ravinia's Murray Theatre, Tan will perform three works by Somei Satoh: his pianistic magnum opus, Litania, Birds in Warped Time II (with violinist Frank Almond), and A Gate Into the Stars. (For picnickers, Ravinia is now broadcasting Theatre concerts outside.) The impressive flip side of the ticket will be another Orient-influenced artist, ambient/rock composer Harold Budd, playing synthesizer and piano music from his soon-to-be-released album, The White Arcades--his first Chicago gig since 1982. This will also be Tan's first Chicago performance since her three conventional Dame Myra Hess recitals in the 70s. For more info, dial 728-4642.

"Daniel Charles [author of a book on Cage] paid me the ultimate compliment," says Tan. "He said, 'It's hard for Westerners to really understand Asian thought, and the Japanese mind-set is too rigid to synthesize Western civilization.' But he thought that I, with a foot in either door, was the perfect embodiment of this whole East-West synthesis. That really made my day.

"The difference is, I didn't grow up in Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or China, which is so essentially Chinese and nothing else. I grew up in Singapore, which is multicultural. There are three basic ethnic components: the Chinese, the Malay, and the Indians. It was easy for me to appreciate gamelan, whereas a Chinese might not. And there's also the element of growing up in a British colonial environment, in the last days of Empire. Because I'm all those things combined, it's easier for me to make this fusion. If I weren't from Singapore, I don't think I could do what I'm doing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Hagley and Hoyle.

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