To be the self-styled Diva of the Toy Piano is to invite skepticism, if not derision. Although that diva, Margaret Leng Tan, brandishes her title with an occasional gleam of irony, even that coyness adds to the suspicions that only an oddball would dedicate a life to making music on what is essentially a xylophone encased in a tiny piano’s body. Undeterred by such doubts, Tan has for the last two decades made a career out of an experiment: to transform a child’s toy from an object of bemusement into a medium for unexpected musical insight and expression. A beautiful woman now in her later sixties, Tan combines the technical skills of the classically trained Julliard pianist she is with the kooky solipsism of an avant-gardist who is not the least bit afraid to share her mania with others. After many years of playing pieces for prepared piano (fixing nuts and bolts and the like to the strings and not only playing the keys but strumming the strings inside the instruments), she bought her first toy piano in 1993 in a New York junk shop. She has now amassed a collection of more than two dozen instruments.
Last Sunday Tan came to Berlin’s Music Instrument Museum, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of keyboards—from 16th-century Italian harpsichords, to the first pianos of the 18th-century, to the technological follies of the industrial age—for a recital unadventurously entitled “The Art of the Toy Piano.” I think “The Toy Piano Thumbs Its Nose at Art’” would have been more apt and alluring. After all, the instrument was intended for kids to be used and occasionally abused. The wielder of a toy has license to kill rarefied aesthetic notions.
A citizen of Singapore and long-time resident of Brooklyn, Tan had hoped to have both of her touring instruments on the stage—an upright and a grand piano, the one not two feet high, the other not two feet long. The grand was misplaced in transit, and, much to her chagrin, still hadn’t turned up by the time of the concert, though it had apparently been located. Maybe some Düsseldorf airport drug-sniffing dogs had confiscated it for an after hours jam session.
Practically since its invention, the keyboard has been used to activate bells. The Gothic carillons of European cathedrals were rung by a single carilloneur with keyboards for both hands and feet. These still functioning instruments inspired complex music-making that resounded over the town square, over the city walls, and out into the fields beyond. Many organs of Bach’s time had a set of bells played by the pedals; these rang out hymn tunes in the service or sparkling melodies after it. The distant, and by comparison massively dissipated, descendant of these tower carillons and organ glockenspiels is the toy piano, created to be tinkled upon by bourgeois kids of the later 19th century.
The inventor of the modern toy piano was a German immigrant by the man of Albert Schoenhut, who came up with the idea of using metal bars rather than the glass bells he had a job repairing in Wanamaker’s Department store in Philadelphia. Launching his own enterprise in the 1870s, Schoenhut found a lucrative niche, and branched out into other musical toys. By 1900 his Philadelphia factory had some 400 employees. The enterprise continued to thrive until it went bankrupt in the Great Depression, and was then revived after World War II. You can still by a brand-new Schoenhut, now fabricated from pressboard and plastic instead of real wood and ivory in the fancier models of yore.
The instrument’s teeny keyboard activates hammers that in turn strike metal plates producing, in the case of the best toy pianos, a clear ringing sound that develops quickly but also has an appealing bloom. Inevitably, the sonority evokes the naïve even sentimental. It’s an aura of slightly bewildered fascination that Tan does not try to dispel, except perhaps when she is gabbling away about her six dogs or complaining about the expense of the rights to Eleanor Rigby which prevented her from putting it on her DVD (“They wanted $50,000 for one minute”). Continuously she bounces between artistic concentration and child-like distractibility.
Given her chosen instrument, “sitting down to play” takes on a whole new meaning. Tan carries herself with superbly erect posture and moves with immense grace across the stage, even as she rather battily comments on her own entrance and greets her public. When she gets around to playing she has to lower herself to a bench that is ten inches high. There’s a reason why Schröder doesn’t have a bench for his toy piano, but sits right on the floor. On this perch, whose main purpose is to contribute to the visual effect of an ensemble of literally petit bourgeois furniture, Tan must find an ergonomically viable but elegant position that will allow her to touch the keys with finesse. When not playing from memory, she reads the music off the floor, which sends her head forward and down as if in reverent prayer. When freed from the music, her eyes look heavenward like Rubens’ Saint Cecilia at her keyboard. Such is Tan’s poise, that she doesn’t seem so much to dwarf her toy piano as to make it part of her.
The stage is populated with her two pianos—the errant grand replaced for the Berlin concert by an instrument from the private collection currently on display in the Berlin museum—and various other toys: jack-in-the-box; horn; bright plastic tambourine; a bicycle bell, diminutive glass cymbals; among other oddities and accessories that were brought into play over the course of the concert.
Tan’s program opened with John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano from 1948. She met Cage in 1981 and counted him as a friend and close colleague over the last decade of his life. Cage wrote the Suite not for the mighty three-octave toy piano she favors, but the nine-note bare-bones model with painted—rather than raised—black keys. Thus the Suite is a purely diatonic set of five epigrammatic movements, originally conceived to accompany a dance piece by Merce Cunningham. In her introduction, Tan praised the work for its originality and the variety of its effects, embracing change-ringing permutations, obstinate repetitions, and quizzical arabesques. In spite of Tan’s claims that Cage was “an excellent and inventive composer” who made imaginative use of the instrument, I wondered whether his was an evocation of child’s play or child play’s itself—and I don’t mean that as an aspersion on the piece. I was reminded of Thelonious Monk’s famous remark that “there are no wrong notes on the piano.” That’s even more true on the toy piano, if only because there are fewer right ones.
From this towering Cagean classic of the teeny toy piano, Tan moved to Mozart’s famous Rondo alla Turca. An enthusiastic curator from the museum was drafted to strap on some bells, pick up the cymbals, and tap his foot on the tambourine to energize the Janissary music built in to the piece by Mozart. Spurred on by the clangs and clashes, Tan gamboled across the tiny keys, not with unerring accuracy, but with plenty of Turkish delight.
Paradoxically perhaps, real classics like the Mozart on the toy piano set higher standards than required by the grown-up Steinway. To convince an audience that performing this music a few inches off the ground on a child’s contrivance is more than a gimmick, the performer has to demonstrate confident mastery over the musical technology at hand. Tan’s intermittent stumbling makes one doubt the enterprise. The authenticity of a kid improvising with undirected glee on a toy piano needs to be superseded by the sprezzatura of adult virtuosity. Yet Tan seemed often to be struggling against her beloved instrument, and these difficulties could only be partly attributed to her unfamiliarity with the inferior replacement grand which she used for the left hand in the Mozart, her right hand skittering about on her trusty upright. Still more infelicities marred her treatment of Beethoven’s Sonata in C Major, op. 2, number 3 performed by Schröder in the 1971 classic cartoon Play it Again Charlie Brown. In front of a big screen showing the video, Tan played in perfect synchronicity with Schröder, her ringing metal bars replacing the real piano on the original soundtrack. Thing is, Schröder didn’t make any mistakes, and Tan made too many.
Tan found more hospitable terrain when she proceeded to more contemporary offerings of a Hans Otte lullaby, a Philip Glass waltz, and a Beatles classic. She maintains that the instrument, for all its simplicity and the manifest clunkiness of its actions, is as expressive as the mighty Steinway grand, which she played along with her Schoenhut in a Blues Tango by Toby Twining. A committed if not always consummate show-woman, she put a fake rose between her teeth, exchanging it for a fake cigarette half way through, as love-sick bells cut through the diaphanous accompaniment of the “real” piano. These two pianos—big toy, little toy—in duet demonstrated that the ear loves to feast on contrasting registers, a diversity that even the most nuanced pianists cannot pull from the modern concert grand. The rose and the cigarette, like so many other toys, are fun, and I am all for more frivolity in concerts. Nonetheless the recourse to stagey gimmicks tends to exacerbate the sense that the toy piano is more at home in the salon or the romper room—both fabulous places for music making—than the concert hall.
Tan closed with a world premiere of Milos Raickovich’s Waiting for C-A-G-E, a tribute to the composer/trickster that rounded out the concert by honoring this champion of the toy piano’s centenary. The piece’s almost mocking stabs at earnestness were lifted by Tan’s ringing tones into an ambiguous musical space where angelic bells consort with the dark impulse to make a recalcitrant child’s toy strive for transcendence. Even in that ethereal realm one can still not escape the truth that, whether the piano is as big as a Sherman tank or as small as a skateboard, the devil is in the details.