September 4-12 2010


New Music Program Conception

Margaret Leng Tan: “The Art of the Toy Piano” (USA)

Margaret Leng Tan has established herself as a major force in the American avant-garde. Ms. Tan, whose work embraces theater, choreography, performance, has been called “the diva of avant-garde pianism” by The New Yorker. She is renowned as a pre-eminent John Cage interpreter and for her performances of American and Asian music that transcend the piano’s conventional boundaries.
Margaret Leng Tan has been hailed as “the queen of the toy piano” (The New York Times) and “the toy piano’s Rubenstein” (The Independent, UK). After discovering Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 1993, Ms. Tan became fascinated with the artistic potential of the toy piano and more recently, with other toy instruments as well. In her groundbreaking 1997 CD, The Art of the Toy Piano (Philips/Universal), she elevated a humble toy to the status of a real instrument. Critics acknowledge her as the world’s first toy piano virtuoso who has inspired composers to create a unique repertoire for a new instrument. Ms. Tan’s diminutive music-theater of nostalgia and humor has delighted audiences at festivals around the world. Her latest toy album, SHE HERSELF ALONE: The Art of the Toy Piano 2, has been released as a Mode Records CD and DVD (mode 221) to critical acclaim. It was awarded the Diapason d’Or from the French Diapason magazine in 2011. Cablevision’s Tan toy piano feature won the 2011 Bronze Telly Award.


Fanfare by John Kennedy

Fanfare is the prelude to The Winged Energy of Delight, a four-movement suite written for my toy piano by my composer-friend John Kennedy. He thought it would be fun to have me stage a grand entrance crashing my toy cymbals!   Composer, conductor and percussionist John Kennedy is a dynamic and energetic figure in American music. Kennedy has conducted celebrated performances of opera, ballet, standard orchestral and new music. His own compositions, from operas to chamber works, are praised for their new lyricism and luminous sound.                         


Suite for Toy Piano by John Cage

Written for Merce Cunningham's dance, Diversion, the Suite for Toy Piano is the first-ever serious composition created for the toy instrument. Its five short movements use only nine consecutive white notes and can ostensibly be performed on any toy piano, perhaps even one with painted black keys. One of the most charming and whimsical of Cage's compositions, the Suite is filled with Cagean irony and humor as in the exaggerated dynamic extremes from sffz to ppp. As if a toy piano could have such capabilities! Nevertheless, the pianist tries his best and from the effort subtle differences do emerge.

Eleanor Rigby by John Lennon/PauMcCartney 

American composer Toby Twining created the toy version of Eleanor Rigby for my 1997 Art of the Toy Piano album because I thought this popular Beatles song would be a potent evocation of 60's nostalgia when heard emanating from a toy piano.


 Carousel/Cobwebbed Carousel by Phyllis Chen
It seems natural to love music boxes as a toy pianist; both instruments have metal tines and rely on a resonating chamber to sound. Both Carousel and Cobwebbed Carousel are composed on the same punch tape strip but for Cobwebbed Carousel, the reverse surface of the punch tape passes through the music box mechanism. In this “counter-piece”, Margaret suggested that I attempt to capture the mysterious, darker aspect of childhood. Cobwebbed Carousel is dedicated to and written for Margaret Leng Tan with great admiration. - Phyllis Chen

Phyllis Chen is a pianist/toy pianist/composer currently living in New York City. Her work uses unconventional instruments and sound-making devices that are integral to the visual and theatrical components of her work. She created the annual UnCaged Toy Piano Competition in 2007 and in 2011 hosted the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival, the first of its kind in New York.                                                                      

F?r Enola by James Joslin

F?r Enola seeks to revert the toy piano back to its playful origins by accompanying it with a jack-in-the-box.  The score denotes when the box's handle should be turned leading ultimately to the release of the jumping jack. At this moment the performance pauses as a spinning top is spun, creating a stillness and suspense until it falls.  When it does so, the piece continues minus the awakening from a mischievous dream.


James Joslin (b.1987) is a composer and performer based in England where he is currently completing a degree in Music, Technology and Innovation at De Montfort University.  His compositions cover a wide field from toy piano compositions, pieces for instruments with electronics, and sound installations.  Most notably James’ composition, F?r Enola (for toy piano and jack-in-the-box), won the UnCaged Toy Piano Competition’s ‘Most Ingenious Combo’ award.     


Chooks!, Bicycle Lee Hooker by Erik Griswold

Chooks! and Bicycle Lee Hooker are from Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine, a six movement work Griswold wrote for me in 2004. “Chooks” is Australian for chickens. Bicycle Lee Hooker is a mini-tribute to the great blues musician, John Lee Hooker. A tour-de-force of multi-tasking, the piece explores the potential of making music with the humblest of toys - a bicycle bell, bicycle horn and train whistle heard in tandem with the toy piano.

Old MacDonald’s Yellow Submarine was generously funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s official entry at the 2010 International Rostrum of Composers conference.


Australian-American composer-pianist Erik Griswold performs in Clocked Out Duo with percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson. He not only creates works for prepared piano, percussion and toy instruments, but he also explores the possibilities of music boxes, found object percussion and microtonality. 


Mirabella (A Tarantella) by Stephen Montague              

Montague's toy Tarantella has all the hallmarks of the dance reputedly capable of exorcising the Tarantula's sting: great rapidity, perpetual motion and the use of 6/8 time. Designed to show off the virtuosic capabilities of my newly-acquired Schoenhut toy grand piano, Montague wrote Mirabella sight unseen (sound heard over the telephone), with strict admonitions not to exceed its three-octave compass.                                                                                          

American-born and educated, Stephen Montague has lived in Britain since 1974 and is widely renowned for his pioneering works combining live instruments with live electronics.


Norfolk in Summer by Naftali Schindler                                

The composer sketched the themes for Norfolk in Summer in the idyllic atmosphere of the Chamber Music Festival in Norfolk, Connecticut, inspired by the chirping of the birds, the tolling of the estate’s tower bell and Scriabin’s “mystic” chord. Norfolk in Summer received Honorable Mention in the 2011 UnCaged Toy Piano Competition.


Naftali Schindler is an American/Israeli composer who studied at the Yale School of Music and Boston University with Theodore Antoniou, Ezra Laderman, David Lang, Martin Bresnick, and A.J. Kernis. He has been commissioned by Alea III, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, folk re-imagined, Apple Orange Pair, and The Travers Siblings, among others. His works are influenced by various musical traditions from around the world and he performs throat-singing in the Tuvan manner.


Extended Lullaby by John Cage

One of Cage’s last works, Extended Lullaby (1992), was executed posthumously in 1994 as a musical sculpture of acrylic, spruce brass, and twelve 36-note Reuge music box mechanisms mounted adjacent to each other. The encircling acrylic tunnel serves as a modest resonating chamber. The dimensions of the piece are 17.8 x 182.9 x 12.7 cm. Extended Lullaby was produced in an edition of ten, one of which, belonging to the John Cage Trust, will be on exhibit at the Mus?e d’art contemporain de Lyon in a show entirely dedicated to works by John Cage that engage with the French composer, Erik

Satie (Sept. 28-Dec. 30, 2012).


The melody heard on the music boxes is a re-working of the cantus firmus and counterpoint of Erik Satie’s Vexations. Hence its chromatic, modal nature. Activated at random intervals the twelve unsynchronized music boxes, playing at different speeds, make for a delightful chaos that dissipates as the mechanisms peter out.


I have made a performance version of Extended Lullaby wherein I play one toy piano live against eleven pre-recorded tracks. I chose a toy piano closest in timbral quality to a music box…sweetly beguiling, yet faintly disquieting at the same time.



Dream and its companion piece of the same year, In a Landscape, evoke echoes of Erik Satie. Early examples of ambient music, they are precursors of the New Age aesthetic. Within Dream's restricted gamut of pitches also lie the seeds of Minimalism. Modal melodic tones sustained either manually or with the pedal, are transformed into harmonic resonances fusing and fading away. Given the toy piano's penchant for generating clouds of lingering overtones, I have taken the liberty of requisitioning my toy piano for two of Dream's three repetitions.

Dream was written for Merce Cunningham.       



An American in Buenos Aires by Toby Twining
Toby Twining’s An American in Buenos Aires manages, in the course of its brief duration, to weave seamlessly together three diverse genres, -  tango, Blues and the symphony orchestra. In 1995 Twining wrote Satie Blues and Nightmare Rag for me. These were, I believe, the first compositions to tap the potential of the toy piano and piano played together. Through his tango Twining continues to explore this novel combination. The resplendent “symphonic finale” rekindles echoes of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The toy piano holds its own and, indeed, has the last word.
Toby Twining has focused on expanding the musical palette with a new choral sound, micro-consonant harmony, and innovative instrumental techniques. Recordings of his music include Shaman and Chrysalid Requiem (Toby Twining Music: BMG Classics, 1993 and Cantaloupe Music, 2002, respectively), Satie Blues and Nightmare Rag (Margaret Leng Tan, The Art of the Toy Piano: Point/Universal, 1997), and 9:11 Blues (Matt Haimovitz, Anthem: Oxingale/Artemis, 2002). Twining was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011.



Waiting for C-A-G-E by Milos Raickovich

This miniature homage, arising from the letters of Cage’s name, is a Satiesque gem - a welcome addition to the trove of Cage tributes celebrating his centenary year.


Milos Raickovich, composer and conductor, was born in Belgrade (Serbia, Yugoslavia) in 1956.  He has lived and worked in Belgrade, Paris, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Hiroshima, and New York, where he now resides. Raickovich music has been released on CDs New Classicism (Mode Records), B-A-G-D-A-D, and Far Away (Albany).


Copyright©2012 Margaret Leng Tan