Flash Review: Margaret Leng Tan

By Jane Lai

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Famously known as the “queen of the toy piano,” the first woman to graduate from Juilliard with a doctorate, and a major force in the American avant-garde, Margaret Leng Tan is known to break and reinvent convention as a pianist in a post-modern world. Rippling with energy, cascading charisma, and a malleable musical sensibility formed over decades of practice, patience, and performance, Tan’s performance was a night to remember.

Tan takes an audience through a meticulous journey. She whirlpools from ballads, found sound, calculated breaths, and unearthed true percussiveness from a piano. A true master in using so many parts of one instrument, she emphasizes discovery over resourcefulness through pendulum-like variations, growing repetitions, and subtle arpeggio sequences. 

In “Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black” (Paul Klee), Tan stations herself at the piano and embarks on a dark, intense, and brooding path. Without anticipation, she plucks strings with her left hand throughout.

Distinctly different, for “Arched Interiors II” (Christopher Hopkins), Tan puppeteered strings with bows made from fishing lines. Coaxing rare harmonics from the instrument, each movement was like searching fields for rare berries. At one point, a phone chimed perfectly in pitch.

In Picasso’s “Guernica,” Tan carefully placed cork-backed metal rulers on strings, emitting a jangling of harsh, abrupt tones when she struck the keys. Imagine clutching large sets of door keys or perhaps, sets of chattering teeth, amplified. Everyone tries to hold in their coughs until the end when the room is dead silent. But a man coughed and it made sense in the soundscape.

Two great pieces of musical advice I received as a child were: always listen to someone else more than yourself and to always look ahead and anticipate how to adjust next. While this advice was an exercise in nurturing musical sensibilities with other musicians, this also rings true for Tan’s work. Her piano was responsive, dynamic, and nearly sentient. Through a dialogue between herself and her piano, Tan watered and fed her pieces to life. 

I’ve been listening to a lot of soundscape music lately. Artists like Blithe Field specializing in building loops, Nils Frahm’s muted piano work, or synth patch melodies by Emily Sprague, each artist highlights their unique reimagination of sound and how that can expand. An accidental knock, a spill of marbles, or an audible gaze contribute to a universe of imperfect music. It’s sometimes calculated (or not) but what emerges is a holistic, human experience where a found sound is a garnish. Tan’s performance was not entirely a culmination of anything, or similar to anyone I’ve seen before. But rather, it was a tacit invitation to space in her head and what it means to breathe detail through consistency in a world that often doesn’t make sense.

About Jane Lai

Jane is a community-oriented musician and collaborator based in Brooklyn, NY (who occasionally dabbles in writing).

This article is a part of our Flash Review series, which is dedicated to capturing the specific embodied experience of a performance in National Sawdust's space. Live performance can often feel fleeting or ephemeral, but we hope these reviews allow you to return to that moment and enable you to listen deeper. What did you miss the first time around? How can you better appreciate the music through someone else's lens? More than anything, our Flash Reviews are an invitation to remember together. If you've ever been moved by a performance in our space, we hope you'll consider writing about it for us. Email boxoffice@nationalsawdust.org for more info.