Thursday, July 27, 2006

Toy Piano - why is Margaret Leng Tan so fascinating?

The European Mezzo TV channel tells you everything about "culture" you need to know:
1. It is a ridiculously small milieu. Just look at their site. It is not much more developed than your average friendly grocer's home page.
2. It is snobbish. Ubearably snobbish. It does not intend to introduce art to new audiences, it does not intend to render the experience of art more... well, more anything than it already is. You need to get it, to get it. Just look at their site. The few introductions to future programs are ridiculously small, superficial and badly translated ("she inflames the audience"....).
3. It has no money. Just look at the site.
4. It seems not to care. It makes no effort to be user-friendly (the TV program on the site is in Excel, for the love of God!).
5. From time to time, it brings you the most delicious moments you could ever have hoped for.

Margaret Leng Tan's recital was such an enlightening moment. Leng Tan plays the piano. She comes out of the vein of John Cage. And moves forward. How can you move forward after Cage? Are we not stuck, as after any serious avant-garde artist? It might almost seem a permanent paradox: the true revolutionaries leave little space for their students. But if you look carefuly enough, there is plenty of room for others. And so, Leng Tan, after playing around with several of Cage's games (she is a Julliard graduate, so that meant mainly prepared pianos and such), tried the toy piano.
Today, she is considered the magician of the toy piano. Moving consequently into the exploration of the "toy sound", she established herself as a real master.
But Lang Tan is not my main interest here. What I found curious about what I saw was that the sound of the toy piano is so fascinating. Is it because it's a toy? Because it's so "simple", "naive"? Because it wanders around the frequencies, often destroying the "natural harmony" completely?And if so, what is it about this that attracts us? Maybe, and this is just a hypothesis, it's because this childlike simplicity is a relief. We can step down from the pedestal and actually enjoy it, without necessarily appreciating it as the scholarly art amateurs we are does. The playfulness is nearly destructive, it almost breaks the whole illusion of art, but then, not quite. It maintains the charm, the power, and yes, the beauty, while allowing us to move away. Only what sort of movement is it? Is it really the creation of distance? I would say it is rather assuming a distance, taking it as a starting point, which allows to be as close as we wish, making up our own rules, our private relation to the piece, uncontaminated by the judgement of style, technique, interpretation. That does not mean all of these elements do not play a role - they do. But we are happy to stop judging it, to put ourselves into the oblivion of spectatorship.
This became clear when Lang Tan played a very well known piece, Mozart's Turkish March, and I started listening to the interpretation, the technical aspects, the mistakes, and it wasn't as appealing. What I really needed was something simpler, easier maybe, but more immediate, more bare, less dressed up in the fancy clothes of "culture".
This brings me to another point, which could be developed: aren't the minimalist works - that have been appearing in the last couple of decades in various art fields - this type of search for a bare art? An art that, beyond the discussion of "hi" and "low", starts with an "a-b" that allows us to enter easier, to travel further, and to feel more at ease, just as if this were a simple toy, that by some chance (which, as Cage knew well, has little to do with chance, although it can spur from coincidence), by some chance becomes this: good.

Listen to Margaret Leng Tan here and here. I must admit, though, that these aren't the works that impressed me most.

1 comment:

Theodore Diran Lyons III said...

VVOI, excellent and thought-provoking post. I enjoyed the files you directed us to, and I think amongst the many special things happening in Margaret Leng Tan's work is a sense of honesty and directness [you have referred to it as ‘bareness’… perhaps nakedness? Stripped of pretense and extraneous subject matter?]. As such it seems to lack any trace of pretentiousness, unless it is intentionally so and we have to then perhaps inquire as to its true sincerity, which may be the entire point. My great aunt was a concert pianist who at 84 years of age and gnarled arthritic hands could play melodies so rich and intense that you are moved both by what had been played and WHO was playing it. My sense is that this type of humility is being displayed through the toy piano here, for if her pieces were played on a grand, for example, it would not destroy the melody as quickly perhaps. The toy piano is thus a stand-in or metonymy for a desperately needed modesty and meekness...or maybe I am way off?


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