Margaret Leng Tan’s Childlike Symphony

Using hard–to–find toy instruments and one–off pieces made especially for her to perform compositions, OzAsia–bound avant–garde artist Margaret Leng Tan’s collection of instruments was lost by a parcel service carrier but, luckily, they were replaced in time for her one–off Adelaide appearance.

“[They lost] toy instruments, invented instruments and masks, a lot of stuff for my show,” Tan says. “I had to cancel my show in Washington DC – they never found my crate.”

These instruments are used for Tan’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a strange and intriguing childlike show that features the pianist wearing masks and creating music on a variety of toy instruments and found objects. Cabinet of Curiosities features a piece, Curios, written especially for her by Phyllis Chen, which was inspired by a photo given to the composer by the toy pianist as well as Tan’s unique collection of instruments.

If Tan – hailed as the world’s first toy piano virtuoso – couldn’t find replacements, the show might have been lost. “I really did not want my Cabinet of Curiosities and particularly the piece by Phyllis Chen to die because of UPS [the parcel carrier],” she says.

“I didn’t want that to be the end of it because it is such a wonderful piece. I said, ‘I am going to replace everything’. And I’ve managed to do it. I’m so amazed. I’ve gone on these expeditions, as I call them, and I have managed to replace everything for Curios.”

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She replaced the instruments thanks to friends and shopping online, but Tan says the show will sound slightly different, as the replacement instruments have different pitches.

“My inventor in residence for the project, Ranjit Bhatnagar, has managed to find the materials to make me a new electronic instrument made out of rubber bands. All the wind-up toys, the vintage wind-up toys, they’re gone. I found a website called

Office Playground, and I was able to find a whole bunch of new wind-up toys doing different things that are matched to some of the activity on the video [that is part of the performance]. I’m quite excited to bring a new version of the show.”

Born in Singapore in 1945, Tan won a scholarship to Juilliard when she was 16 and was the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts from the prestigious musical school. She met famed avant-garde and experimental artist John Cage in 1981 and worked with him for the next 11 years until his death in ’92. She discovered toy instruments in 1993 for a concert to honour the late Cage as Tan was to perform his 1948 composition, Suite for Toy Piano.

“That’s when I started discovering the magic of toy instruments,” she says.

“Little did I realise that down the road, half a century later, his little Suite for Toy Piano would be the catalyst for a whole new world and repertoire of real music being made on toy instruments. This will be my legacy: that I have made the toy piano a real instrument.”

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Tan says she fell in love with the sound of toy instruments immediately as her first toy piano, which she bought in a thrift shop for $45, featured a magical sound. “I got all my composer friends excited about it and this spurred them on to unprecedented heights of creative frenzy,” she says.

“They all started writing for me because they couldn’t wait to write for this little magical instrument.” Now, there is even a toy music festival – the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival and Competition, which was started by her friend Phyllis Chen.

“Thanks to Phyllis, so much of my growing repertoire has come from this festival. Now there are other people who are also toy pianists all around the world. We all know each other. It’s wonderful. There’s a real network now. I must say that toy piano is alive and well – and thriving. John Cage must be smiling from up there and saying with his characteristic grin, ‘Isn’t this marvellous’.”

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Tan says her former mentor is responsible for this world of toy instruments and compositions. “He expanded the whole definition of music to include silence, environmental sounds and noise. John wrote music for percussion and he created a whole repertoire for percussion that would explore the junkyard and use wheel hubs, coffee cans and flower pots. He was tapping everything in sight, and that made it possible for this whole percussion repertoire to expand beyond just a triangle in an orchestra hitting ‘ding’ every now and then.

“With toys and invented instruments the sky is the limit because there are no rules, you see. The only limits are the limits of your imagination.” Her avant-garde children’s music-like concert won’t be for everyone, but Tan advises people to come with an “open mind and open ears”. “I just want to entertain people and give them a good time.

I hope they leave with a smile on their face. You don’t have to have any musical background at all to appreciate what I do. It’s better if you don’t come with preconceived notions as a classical musician or whatever because then you’ll be much more open to the fact you can make wonderful music with toys and toy instruments.”

Margaret Leng Tan Cabinet of Curiosities Nexus Arts Wednesday, September 28, 8pm ozasiafestival.com.au

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