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Melbourne Festival

Margaret Leng Tan

Jonathan Marshall

US-based pianist/performer Margaret Leng Tan wisely divided her substantial recital with a long interval. The first suite was performed almost entirely on toy piano: essentially a clunky, key-operated xylophone with limited notes. Although the pieces were diverse, the instrument’s small range transformed the evening into an extended Steve Reich-like event. The metallic notes had a weirdly percussive, hard-edged sustain which accumulated and hung about in gently piercing sheets long after each note was first sounded, while the jarring movements of the hammer mechanism added another scraping sonic element. In a lovely Dada percussion sketch by Jerome Kitzke, The Animist Child (1994), Tan played what she described as “the contents of my New York kitchen” (except the specified tuna tins, since she does not eat tuna), in which discretely sonic events, just barely out of time with each other, realised some other, hidden time—God’s perhaps.

The second suite consisted of more expansive, delicate works for prepared, bowed or plucked piano. Aside from some more sonically dense moments (notably within Somei Satoh’s Cosmic Womb, 1975), much of this section was characterised by the highly gestural quality of much post-World War II/post-John Cage music: single notes, harsh and soft and short, gentle flows, all lightly dispersed within a wide temporal field, suspended, clashing or gently coalescing. A classic (albeit dated) example closed the recital, with Cage’s score for a short 1950 MOMA film profiling Alexander Calder’s abstract, metal, hanging sculptures. It had a light, almost decomposed-orchestra feel and a gentle Cagean humour.

Tan’s work with Cage in his final years has generated the slightly disconcerting accolade of “most convincing interpreter of Cage’s music” (can one be a leading interpreter of compositions designed to thwart single interpretation?). Her performance of mostly post-Cage material however proved that the deceased avant-gardist’s ideas remain fresh and pliable. My favourite was Alvin Lucier’s Nothing is Real (1990), in which a blurred, tonal recording (actually the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever) was played back through a gently steaming teapot. Tan shaped the tone by lifting the lid and one could actually see the sound.

Margaret Leng Tan, Concert Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 21.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 6-7

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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