(Region 0, NTSC, PCM digital stereo)
Margaret Leng Tan
SHE HERSELF ALONE
The Art of the Toy Piano 2 (CD/DVD)
For this disc of attractive yet challenging music, Ms. Tan performs Cage’s classic “Suite for Toy Piano” plus her arrangement of Cage’s seminal “Dream” for toy & grand piano (a work that foreshadowed new age music); and her arrangement for voice and toy instruments of a recent song by George Crumb.
Ms. Tan uses no less than six different toy pianos here. Some works find the toy piano performed with other instruments including grand piano, toy zithers, music boxes, glockenspiels and percussion, with Ms. Tan as a veritable one-person toy orchestra.
Her initial toy piano CD, “The Art of the Toy Piano” on Philips/Point (1997) was critically acclaimed and a strong cross-over seller.
This long awaited follow-up recording combines serious classics (Cage’s “Suite”) with colorful fun (Griswold), a sultry blues-tango (Twining), drama (Crumb), to haunting meditations (Cage’s “Dream” and Liben).
Also available on DVD with full video.
Original 96khz/24-bit recording.
Liner notes by Margaret Leng Tan.
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES:
Filmed in high-definition video.
Uncompressed Stereo PCM audio in 96khz/24-bit.
ALSO BY MARGARET LENG TAN ON MODE:
Ms. Leng Tan is well known as an expert interpreter of the music of John Cage and George Crumb. Theirs is difficult and demanding music and Margaret plays this music consistently well. For the past 17 years Ms. Leng Tan has been on a mission: playing, collecting and placing the toy piano in the spotlight for more serious consideration. Ms. Leng Tan describes her long odyssey of finding music composed for the toy piano or getting composers to write for such an under-recognized instrument as well as working with other toy instruments.
John Cage was the first composer to write for the toy piano, so it makes complete sense to begin this disc with his “Suite for Toy Piano” written in 1948. With just nine (white) notes employed, Cage’s work is filled with delicate grace, lush, humorous, a child-like sense of wonder, like a miniature ballerina spinning elegantly. Cage’s “Dream” was also written in 1948 and is rather Satie-like with somber minimal repetition. Eric Griswold’s “Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine” features toy & prepared pianos, music box & bicycle bells & horn. I like the way the prepared (broken-sounding) piano & toy piano sound together, like a sad, distant memory of riding on a merry-go-round gone wrong. Toby Twining’s “An American in Buenos Aires” was written for toy & regular pianos. It has elements of a tango & the blues, the melody is both sad and lovely, the blend between both pianos is just exquisite. Perhaps my favorite piece is George Crumb’s “Put My Little Shoes Away” which features toy piano, toy percussion quartet & Margaret’s rather child-like voice. Strange & wonderful with slightly twisted percussion & piano floating together. Jerome Kitzke’s “The Animist Child” is even stranger still. Written for toy piano & voice (an invented language), it includes hand claps, foot stomps and banging intensely on the toy piano. Margaret sounds like a boisterous child gone mad, yet the piece somehow works in an oddly disarming way. Ross Bolleter has a dozen discs of ruined pianos, most often found outside and slowly disintegrating. “Hymn to Ruin” features Margaret on ruined toy & ruined regular pianos. There is something quite haunting about this piece as the two broken pianos interweave ominously around one another like ancient ghosts of former civilizations that have abandoned their toys and pianos to the trash-heap of history. The title piece was written by Laura Liben and it is performed on toy piano and toy psaltery. A psaltery is a stringed musical instrument of the harp or the zither family. This piece is eerie, solemn with the strings somewhat bent, like a toy box slowly wearing down until it disappears.
Margaret Leng Tan recorded an earlier disc of toy piano for the Philips label which is long out-of-print. This, her second disc of toy piano, is a long time coming and one of this year’s finest treasures of new music.
New Recording Shows Toy Piano Isn’t Child’s Play
This little game may have been a tad unusual (though I know I didn’t invent it), but the seriousness with which I approached it was not. Play is how children work, and it is a wonder to watch the intensity with which they do it: the furrowed brows as tiny fingers placed blocks one upon another, the almost bureaucratic enforcing of the rules of the game - “no, Billy, that’s not what you’re supposed to do,” the mental focus that blocks out Mom, Dad and the rest of the world in preference for play-in-progress.
Of course, we lose this Zen-like focus and natural affinity for play as we “grow up” and start caring about the world. And our efforts to retrieve our lost second nature have kept psychologists, yoga studios and vacation travel industries in business. Is it little wonder, then, that the toy piano has such exotic allure? (Didn’t know the toy piano had such appeal? Take a look at this 2006 New York Times story announcing the profusion of toy piano festivals and recitals.) The instrument’s limited range, bicycle bell tone quality and slipshod tuning are to a professional-caliber piano what crayons are to a Cross pen. As such, the toy piano allows us as adults to revisit the uncultivatedness of our childhoods and to look with nostalgia, yet without embarrassment, on our own lost innocence and what followed. In other words, the toy piano is no toy; rather, it takes us back to who we once really were and also forces us to look at who we’ve become.
Perhaps the power of this instrument is, in part, what has enabled Margaret Leng Tan to forge a career as a world-class toy pianist. Leng Tan’s most recent recording, “She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2”, is a testament to the multiple levels of meaning this instrument can reach. At first glance, the toy piano looks like parlor furniture in Lilliputland and, as such, just plain silly: a tiny two-octave (if that) keyboard encased in plastic or plywood in the shape of a grand piano shares the playground with its playmate, a tiny matching piano bench. But sit at this instrument - your knees hiked up to your shoulders, your giant hands all but smothering the pint-sized keyboard - and you realize how far you’ve come from the child’s world, where according to the standards of make-believe this instrument made you a great concert pianist, and how much you regret, if you’re honest with yourself, that you can never go back.
Virtually every work on Leng Tan’s new recording is imbued with this uncomfortable combination of innocence and poignancy. John Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano” (1948), which Leng Tan calls “the first-ever serious piece of music written for the toy piano,” opens the recording with the profound simplicity that, in my opinion, defines the nature of the instrument. Listen to the simple five-note scale at the very beginning, followed by little fast-note flourishes. There is more than a hint of the improvisatory here - like my own childhood pianistic doodles, only, frankly, better:
The meanderings only intensify in the second movement, where repeated notes join the texture of the music. What could be more childlike than the repetitive pounding of a piano? (Remember that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was chastised as childlike for its repeated notes, now arguably the most famous notes in all of Western music?):
And the final movement’s march-of-the-toy-soldiers quality calls to mind the “Soldier’s March” from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen”, a compendium of piano miniatures on all aspects of childhood:
In the final movement of Eric Griswold’s “Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine”, the second work on Leng Tan’s recording, the toy piano is joined by another childhood icon: the music box. The combination of these instruments plus prepared piano (in homage to Cage) yields a découpage of sounds overlaying each other with apparent randomness. Imagine three children together in a sandbox, each playing sweetly alone, enacting his own inner narrative with his toy spade or bucket:
Toby Twining’s “An American in Buenos Aires (A Blues Tango)” implies a game of dress-up, when little girls put on their mother’s oversized heels and fancy dresses and pretend to have entered the glamorous adult world. (If they only knew.) In Twining’s work, there’s as big a difference between the refined sound of the professional piano and the raw sound of the toy piano as there is between a mother and the child hobbling around in shoes too big and way too sultry:
Speaking of shoes, no instrument could be better suited than the toy piano for George Crumb’s eerie “Put My Little Shoes Away” (2008), which Leng Tan arranged for voice, toy piano and percussion. In the text of this song, a child tells of her own imminent death with the fearlessness and plain-spoken honesty that children alone can muster in times of trial. A sound bite paints a thousand words:
Eventually toys either break or are outgrown and left behind, the objects that once purveyed such fascination and joy are silenced by neglect. Ross Bolleter’s “Hymn to Ruin” (2010) for ruined toy piano and ruined piano gets to the heart of what we all experience when we look back at our earliest days: the sense that our youth, to paraphrase Mark Twain, really was wasted on the young; the feeling of dread that those days now lie immovable as the cracked, irreparable - truly ruined - foundations of our lives. Bolleter’s work conjures a longing to fix those pianos so they might once again sing forth the splendors of Beethoven, Schumann, Grieg and Rachmaninoff. Alas, they can’t go back to what they once were; they are now something rather different:
And finally we come to the recording’s title cut, Laura Liben’s “She Herself Alone” (1996/2002) for toy piano and toy psaltery. Liben composed most of this piece as incidental music for a play. It too has the feel of the improvisatory, as though two kids were teaching themselves how to play these instruments so they could start a band together:
I’ll admit that our adult ears might not like what they hear in toy piano music. They might not like the instrument’s perpetual out-of-tuneness, and they might not like its incapacity for dynamic subtleties. But if, in fact, our adult ears are uncomfortable with this instrument, I believe it isn’t because it sounds ugly, but rather because its honest and unadorned sound forces us to examine our own lives with such profound penetration. The toy piano makes each of us ask, first, What was my childhood about, Have I grown better, worse, even ruined since then?, and, second, Why or Why not? Finally, the instrument forces us to stand alone with those realities, just as a child sometimes must go to sleep with the monster still under the bed.
CD Review: Toy piano, but this music isn’t child’s play
It would be safe to say that few in the classical music world are familiar with pianist Margaret Leng Tan and her unique musical specialty: the toy piano.
For most, the toy piano is nothing but a plaything that bridges a child’s musical development between babbling and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But to some composers, like minimalist John Cage, the instrument has been a breeding ground for new musical ideas.
The toy piano was invented in the late 1800s in Philadelphia by a 17-year-old German immigrant named Albert Schoenhut. The pianos are akin to a glockenspiel and are still being made today by the Schoenhut Piano Co.
The Singapore-born Tan has made it a calling to bring the toy piano repertoire to the fore. She's been at it for the last 17 years, and this wonderful CD reveals the special charm and range of the instrument.
Here we get eight works in which the toy piano is paired with voice, psaltery, bicycle horn, wood blocks and prepared piano.
John Cage’s Satie-like work “Suite for Toy Piano,” (1948) opens this disc. The suite offers five minute-long pieces alternating between fast and slow, with the playful and innocent tone of the instrument well defined.
On Eric Griswold’s “Old Macdonald’s Yellow Submarine,” an Asian musical influence is revealed. Most fetching is the lullaby nature of the movement “Pink Memories” written for music box. Here the music seems to live in a dark but fragile netherworld.
The most appealing work on this disc is Toby Twining’s “An American in Buenos Aires,” a bluesy and tango-inspired work for piano and toy piano. Here sultry piano music girds the shimmering plink of the toy piano.
On George Crumb’s “Put My Little Shoes Away,” the music is inspired by a volume of Ozark folk songs. Crumb uses the voice to lend a magical and bewitching presence to the music. An array of percussion instruments is also used to great effect. It's vintage Crumb.
Less successful is the pairing of toy piano and voice on Jerome Kitzke’s “The Animist Child,” where both instruments seem to exist in separate universes.
In Cage’s pensive “Dream,” the timbre of the toy piano is used to produce many tonal colors; the dying of each note serves as a poignant musical statement when set against the piano. Playing with tones, both familiar and unfamiliar, also underpins Laura Liben’s “She Herself Alone,” which uses toy psaltery in a game where pitch is bent.
Throughout, Tan reveals a great sensitivity and resonance with the toy piano. And she proves that this tiny instrument offers a colorful palette for the composer.
Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan, She Herself Alone (Mode)
Subtitled “The Art of the Toy Piano 2”, this follow-up to 1997’s first outing begins with the celebrated “Suite for Toy Piano” by Tan’s friend John Cage, and includes an arrangement of Cage’s “Dream” plus pieces by George Crumb, Eric Griswold, Toby Twining and others, augmenting both Schoenhut and Steinway with other toys, percussion and voice. Warning: contains plinky-plonk.
Margaret Leng Tan, She Herself Alone (Mode)
Los Angeles Times “Culture Watch: What’s new in music, DVDs and books”
SHE HERSELF ALONE: The Art of the Toy Piano 2 (DVD)
Now, just in good time for Christmas 2010, it is available in DVD, filmed by Spanish videographer Anton Cabaleiro, and it is a joy, which will bring delight to lucky children of all ages; including oldsters like us.
There are two seriously playful pieces by John Cage and several by living composers, of great variety. She changes dress for the moods of the pieces, uses props (e.g. a rose in her mouth for the Blues tango) and plays two and more instruments all at once. There is a miniature musical box which will astonish.
Most of the music is necessarily simple, but not simplistic. Everything is played with great concentration and filmed imaginatively in close-up.
Order it whilst there’s still time!
Margaret Leng Tan. She herself alone. The Art of the Toy Piano 2
Seit Margaret Leng Tan 1993 Cages Suite for Toy Piano vor der Vergessenheit bewahrte, ist die Pianistin und Performance-Künstlerin dem kleinen Glockenspiel in Verkleidung eines Miniatur-Klaviers verfallen. Inzwischen hat sie ein ansehnliches Repertoire für ein Instrument initiiert, dessen Charme aus der Verbindung kindlicher Einfachheit und obertonreicher Perkussionsklanglichkeit resultiert. Nachdem The Art of the Toy Piano 1 sich vor allem auf Transkriptionen und Arrangements konzentrierte, enthält die Fortsetzung viele eigens in Auftrag gegebene Werke jüngerer amerikanischer und australischer Komponisten.
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