Margaret Leng Tan

(b. 1945)

mode 194

Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan


mode 194 Margaret Leng TAN: “Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan” — Two Films by Evans Chan. Sorceress of The New Piano, The Maverick PianoDVD

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Mode 194: Margaret Leng Tan - Sorceress of the New Piano.
Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan
Sorceress of the new piano released in 2004; The maverick piano released in 2007. Previously released as a compact disc.



10 years in the making, 2 films by Evans Chan trace the artist’s life, career and pianism.

SORCERESS OF THE NEW PIANO  (2004)   (90 minutes)
Sorceress of The New Piano includes excerpts from the following pieces (in alphabetical order):

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN:
Sonata in C major Op.2, No.3
with Play It Again, Charlie Brown (1971) by Charles M. Schulz
Sonata in C-sharp minor (“Moonlight”)

John CAGE:
The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942)
    with Joan La Barbara
Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945)
Music for Marcel Duchamp (1945) with Anemic Cinema (1926)
    by Marcel Duchamp
Works of Calder with film by Herbert Matter (1949-50)
The Perilous Night (1944) with the Perilous Night by Jasper Johns
Four Walls (1944) with film
featuring choreography and performance by Merce Cunningham
4’33” and Water Music (1952)
In a Landscape (1948)
Music for Piano No. 2 (1953)
Suite for Toy Piano (1948)
One2 (1989)

The Tides of Manaunaun (1912)
The Banshee (1925)

George CRUMB:
Makrokosmos I: The Phantom Gondolier (1972)
Makrokosmos II: Morning Music; Cosmic Wind (1973)

Three Landscapes for Peter Wyer (1994)

GE Gan-ru:
Gu Yue (Ancient Music) (1986)

Philip GLASS:
Modern Love Waltz (1977)

Sweet Chinoiserie (1996)

Mirabella (1995)

Gymnopédie No. 3 (1888)

Somei SATOH:
Litania (1973)

TAN Dun:
C-A-G-E (1993)

Satie Blues (1995) with Great Small Works’ A Mammals Notebook: The Erik Satie Cabaret
Nightmare Rag (1995)

To Stare Astonished at the Sea (1994)

Strumming the strings of a grand piano like a harp and performing Beethoven on toy piano are among the surprising scenes in Evans Chan’s documentary, Sorceress of the New Piano (2004). The film celebrates the trans-cultural career of Singapore-born, New York-based pianist Margaret Leng Tan, hailed by The New Yorker as “the diva of avant-garde pianism”.

Featured performers and critics include Joan La Barbara, Edward Rothstein (The New York Times), Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times), and Joshua Kosman (San Francisco Chronicle) sharing their thoughts on Tan’s artistry and musical lineage.

With additional featured appearances by composers John Cage, George Crumb, Raphael Mostel, Toby Twining, Lois V Vierk, Somei Satoh and Ge Gan-ru.

Incorporates vintage footage of Merce Cunningham’s dance, Jasper Johns’ art, and a Marcel Duchamp film; Sorceress also highlights Tan’s latest transformation as the world’s premiere toy piano virtuoso.

What the critics have to say:
Best Music Documentary Nominee:
Silverdocs: AFI-Discovery Channel Documentary Festival (2005)

Best Documentary Nominee: San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival (2005)

“an exemplary documentary”
– 2005 TimeOut Film Guide

“an exciting work of art in itself”
-Tim Page, The Washington Post

“a charming, very human film”
– John Schaefer, host of WNYC’s New Sounds and Soundcheck

  (2007)   (50 minutes)
The Maverick Piano is an excursion into the sonic world of the avant-garde piano, as Margaret Leng Tan gives complete performances of the following 6 pieces:

John CAGE:
In a Landscape with Great Small Works
In the Name of the Holocaust
Music for Piano No. 2
featuring prints by Cage

Dream and Indeterminacy (excerpts)

GE Gan-Ru:
Gu Yue (Ancient Music): Pipa

Gymnopédie No. 3 with Great Small Works

Satie Blues with Great Small Works

The film represents the grand piano in various transformations:

  • as a conventional keyboard instrument (Cage: In a Landscape)
  • prepared piano, also played with fists/forearms (Cage: In the Name of the Holocaust)
  • as a stringed instrument, both plucked and bowed, juxtaposed with images of Cage’s artwork (Cage: Music for Piano No. 2)
  • strummed while played from the crook of the piano (Ge Gan-ru: Ancient Music/Pipa)
  • in combination with the toy piano (Twining: Satie Blues, and Satie: Gymnopédie No. 3 arranged by Margaret Leng Tan, in collaboration with Great Small Works)

Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish.

Language : English, with English, German, French, and Spanish subtitles.



Sorceress Of The New Piano; The Maverick Piano
  Margaret Leng Tan (Pn, Toy Pn)

  Mode 194 (DVD 140:00)
Director: Evans Chan
Music By: Cowell, Crumb, Cage, Glass, Tan Dun, Satoh, Ge Gan-Ru, Mostel, Twining, Vierk, Klucevsek, Montague, Distler

It was George Crumb who first proclaimed Margaret Leng Tan a sorceress, no doubt responding to the intensity and sonic magnetism of her performances. Somei Satoh imagines her as a shaman, summoning musical ghosts. Obviously, there’s something happening here, and watching Sorceress of the New Piano will give you a chance to experience it for yourself. Margaret Leng Tan has consecrated herself to liberating the piano’s hidden potential through bowing, plucking, preparing, sweeping the strings, crooning or shouting into its resonant interior, always serving the vibratory essence of music. The three C’s—Cage, Crumb, and Cowell—who so often stipulate these extra-pianistic effects, provide her with a platform from which to embrace the wider dimensions of sound. But being a priestess of the new piano hasn’t prevented Margaret from exploring and making her own an instrument not usually associated with serious composition, let alone incantatory depths: she has become the preeminent toy pianist of our time, performing the “baby’s” surprisingly varied repertoire with a virtuoso’s technique and interpretive flair. Happily, her commitment hasn’t banished her sense of fun, as you’ll discover watching her perform with Schröder, Charley Brown’s musical friend. And the mile-wide smile with which she acknowledges an audience’s applause is proof that she retains a child-like pleasure in music and performance.

Sorceress of the New Piano (2004) interweaves biographical details, Margaret’s vivid and perceptive observations, footage of a dancing Merce Cunningham, and a Marcel Duchamp film with excerpts of works by the three C’s and numerous other “mavericks.” The music covers a vast range of expression, from the  “ominous harmonies” and overwhelming sound mass of Satoh’s Litania, to the inspired mixture of “pure” piano tone and toy piano chimes in Satie’s Gymnopédie No.3;from Ge Gan Ru’s paradoxical fusion of antiquity and modernity in Ancient Music, to the diatonic ripples of Montague’s Mirabella. Prominent critics—Edward Rothstein, Mark Swed, and Joshua Kosman—offer insights and soprano Joan La Barbara joins Margaret in Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. The Maverick Piano (2007) documents six of Margaret’s complete performances, showcasing the full gamut of techniques that make her concerts such engrossing experiences: Evans Chan illustrates the music with art by John Cage, printmaker, and with several short artistic films. In another multi-media highlight, Margaret accompanies Great Small Works’ fancifully conceived theatre piece A Mammal’s Notebook: The Erik Satie Cabaret, in which the company pays homage to Satie’s unique blend of whimsy, irony, and beauty using mime, a bowler hat-clad cast, and a giant puppet: it’s entertaining and evocative.

Sorceress of the New Piano and The Maverick Piano present a superb portrait of a charismatic performer, as well as an exciting compilation of “new piano” music. A feast for both the eye and the ear, they will enhance knowledgeable listeners’ appreciation of the imaginative compositions of the three C’s et al, while providing a stimulating introduction for those new to this esoteric, but highly accessible niche. And where else will you see Beethoven performed on the toy piano? (Watch the trailer at Highly recommended. — Robert Schulslaper, Fanfare, Nov/Dec 2008

Sorceress of the New Piano was on Robert Schulslaper’s  2008 Fanfare “WANT LIST” 

Margaret Leng Tan / Evans Chan
    Sorceress of the New Piano; The Maverick Piano

  Mode 194 DVD
    George Crumb called Margaret Leng Tan a sorceress of the piano and Evans Chan’s two films on her show why. The first presents her in a wide variety of situations: concerts, with a theater group, with composers, other artists, and friends, and in family photographs or at home with her four dogs. We not only see her with Crumb and John Cage (who with Henry Cowell make up her “three Cs”), and with Somei Satoh, Ge Gan-Ru, Joan La Barbara, and other composers she champions, but we hear their music, although often as background. We also hear from three critics who admire her work (if not always the music) and get to see Merce Cunningham and three dancers in 1944 in all-too-brief fragments from Four Walls.
  It’s a compelling portrait of a musician, Juilliard-trained in the classics, who has preferred to create her own niche as an essential artist pushing boundaries well beyond the usual realm of the piano recital. As she says, “As long as it’s not a gimmick and you put your heart and soul into it, then the world will listen.”
  In Maverick Chan has created a visual tapestry to accompany Leng Tan in full performances of six works used in Sorceress: Cage’s “In a Landscape,” “In the Name of the Holocaust,” and “Music for Piano No. 2,” Ge Gan-Ru’s “Gu Yue (Pipa),” Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 3,” and Toby Twining’s “Satie Blues.” Evocative and at times even dreamlike, the film imaginatively supports the music without ever losing the necessary focus as Leng Tan not only plays the piano (conventional, “prepared,” or “toy”) with her hands and forearms, but plucks, strokes, or even bows the strings. Thus the two films together make up a much fuller portrait of this multifaceted artist.
  — George Dorris, Ballet Review, Summer 2008
  Margaret Leng Tan
    Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan

  Works by Beethoven, Cage, Cowell, Crumb, Distler, Ge, Glass, Klucevsek, Montague, Satie, Satoh, Tan, Twining & Vierk.
  Mode 194 DVD
    We all know about the three Bs (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms). But as experimental pianist and toy piano specialist Margaret Leng Tan explains in the opening moments of this DVD, she has moved on to the next letter of alphabet: ‘I’m interested in the three Cs – Cowell, Cage and Crumb,’ she proudly asserts. They’re her ‘holy trinity’ of composers who have moved the language of the piano forward.
  This generously packed DVD anthologises two films about Tan by director Evans Chan. Sorceress of the New Piano, made in 2004, is essentially Tan’s Life and Times, from her Singapore childhood to her arrival in New York City to study at Juilliard as a 16-year-old. Her sister is on hand to explain Tan’s difficult childhood as a ‘highly strung’ teenager who suffered from manic insomnia and whose life changed upon discovering the piano. Tan’s story continues to be one of discovery – meeting John Cage licensed her already existing hunch that it was indeed possible to express an Asian sensibility through Western means. For Tan, there’s BC and AC – Before and After Cage.
  The film is filled with examples of Tan’s performances, including a superb version of Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs with soprano Joan La Barbara and prepared piano music; Henry Cowell’s clustery The Tides of Manaunaun and inside-the-piano The Banshee also receive impressive workouts. The last part of the film focuses on Tan’s discovery – that word again – of the toy piano, and her faith in it as a fertile mode of expression is touching and inspiring. The other film on this DVD, The Maverick Piano, was filmed in 2007 and includes complete performances across the entire spectrum of Tan’s enthusiasms, from the conventional piano set-up of Cage’s In A Landscape to toy piano works, via the prepared piano. The Tan life in a nutshell.
  — Philip Clark, International Piano Magazine, July/August 2008
  Margaret Leng Tan
    Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan

  Two films by Evans Chan
  Mode 194
    The Singaporean-born pianist Margaret Leng Tan lives in a sound world like no other – a world entirely of her own choosing, and which she inhabits to the near-exclusion of all others. When at 16 she was awarded a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, she was headed for a traditional career as a concert pianist. No-one can have dreamt of the career she has had instead. The first woman ever to be awarded a doctorate by Juilliard, she has now long enjoyed a worldwide reputation as the foremost pianistic champion of the (mostly) American avant-garde, being particularly associated the music of what she calls ‘The Three Cs’, Henry Cowell, John Cage and George Crumb, the last two among her closest associates. In this consistently interesting, engaging and artfully constructed film, we hear much from her about her life, perspectives, ethics and instruments (including a fleet of toy pianos), and much informative and insightful commentary from composers, critics and colleagues. Not the least of her gifts his her capacity to win over sceptics – critics and otherwise. We see much of her in performance, both in and out of the piano, as it were, we learn a good deal about the music, including why not to dismiss it, and glimpse a distinct but not extravagant theatricality which may prove off-putting to some. The composers represented include, in addition to three Cs, Philip Glass, Tan Dun, Stephen Montague, Ge Gan-Ru and Raphael Mostel, as well as Beethoven and Satie (on toy piano). Tan’s seriousness (untainted by solemnity and leavened with gentle humour) is self-evidently genuine. Her significance – and more importantly, perhaps, the significance of the music she champions – is likely to remain controversial.
  — Barrie Staines, Piano magazine, July-August 2008
  Margaret Leng Tan
    Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan

  Two films by Evans Chan
  Mode 194
  Margaret Leng Tan: Sorceress, Maverick, Dog Whisperer?
    The two films collected on this Mode DVD explore the multifaceted career and fascinating life story of new music pianist Margaret Leng Tan. Sorceress of the New Piano is a biography, while The Maverick Piano presents Tan performing some of her signature repertoire by composers John Cage, Erik Satie, Toby Twining, and Ge Gan-ru. Mode tends to favor this double-barreled type of presentation, and for good reason; hearing the works discussed in a bio subsequently performed in their entirety is far more satisfying than having to settle for sound bites.
  Tan is best known for her work in two distinct areas: prepared piano and toy piano. Both are given ample coverage here. Tan expounds about the “Three C’s” of contemporary piano music: Cowell, Cage, and Crumb; she demonstrates their hallmark techniques and eloquently discusses the aesthetics of each. Ample footage is featured of her rehearsing and conversing with both Cage and Crumb, who are clearly delighted by her dedication and formidable performances. The pianist was particularly close with Cage, who encouraged Tan in her quest to transform herself into someone with unique talents to offer to new music.
  Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (1948) inspired Tan to champion the diminutive instrument, expanding its repertoire with commissions and transcriptions. She suggests that the toy piano has far more capacity than the novelty instrument or “gimmick” status to which it has previously been relegated. That said, Tan is not above using the toy piano as an agent provocateur, as one can see in her performance of Raphael Mostel’s “Star-Spangled Etude #3.” Dressed in a foam “Statue of Liberty” headdress, Tan brings a pistol, whistle, and siren onstage, using Mostel’s simple piece incorporating patriotic tunes to craft a performance artwork about post-millennial militarism.
  The DVD includes interesting biographical information, detailing Tan’s long struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The pianist acknowledges that the perfectionist mindset which has made her such a compelling performer and new music advocate are byproducts of this challenging illness. Another intriguing aspect of Tan’s life is her work with animals; she took a hiatus from performing early in her career to prepare helper dogs for the hearing impaired. Sorceress/Maverick is a compelling document; like Tan, it seems capable of winning over even the most conservative listeners to the wonders of the avant-garde.
  — Christian Carey, sequenza21, 29 June 2008
  Margaret Leng Tan
    Sorceress of the New Piano, The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan

  Two films by Evans Chan
  Mode 194
    ‘Sorceress of the New Piano’ (2004), 90 min., is a fascinating documentary by Evans Chan about new music specialist Margaret Leng Tan. Margaret is well known for her toy piano performances of music by John Cage and others, but also for pieces that use extended techniques such as prepared, plucked, bowed and/or strumming the piano. I always find it fascinating to see what all those mysterious and strange sounds are and how they are made. Not just an overview of Tan’s impressive work with the music of modern composers Cage, Henry Cowell, George Crumb, Jed Distler, Ge Gan-ru, Philip Glass, Guy Klucevsek, Stephen Montague, Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Toby Twining, Lois V Vierk and others, but also a great introduction to modern “new” classical music. Cameo guest commentaries by various composers, critics and performers. Bonus film The Maverick Piano (2006), 50 min., features six full-length performances of pieces by Cage (In a Landscape with Great Small Works, In the Name of  the Holocaust, Music for Piano No. 2), Gan-Ru (Gu Yue “Pipa”), Erik Satie (Gymnopédie No. 3 with Great Small Works) and Toby Twining (Satie Blues with Great Small Works). I know there’s a lot of music documentary and live performance DVDs out there, but there should be more like this one. (Guest review)
  — David Beardsley, Downtown Music Gallery E-Newsletter Review,
        May 23 2008


Also by Margaret Leng Tan on Mode Records:
  Sonic Encounters – works of Cage, Crumb, Hovhaness, Ge Gan-ru,
      Somei Satoh (mode 15)
  Cage: The Piano Works 4 (mode 106)
            The Piano Works 7 (mode 158, CD or DVD)
  Crumb: Makrokosmos, Volumes 1 and 2 (mode 142, CD or DVD)
  Also by Evans Chan on Mode Records:
  Crumb: Makrokosmos, Volumes 1 and 2 (mode 142, CD or DVD)
  Evans Chan Profile
  Joan La Barbara Profile
  Margaret Leng Tan Profile