Colour and Connotation: the World of the Toy Piano



Margaret Leng Tan
The Spiegeltent, Hobart, 10 March 2015


Margaret Leng Tan’s Speigletent performance employed a battery of non-conventional sound sources including a spinning top, jack-in-the-box, an empty coffee tin, and of course her trademark toy piano. All bar one work was composed in the last decade, most specifically for Margaret, herself an acclaimed composer and a Julliard graduate.

Two fun, theatrical works bookended the concert. John Kennedy’s ‘Fanfare’ kicked-off the evening, Margaret entering the stage clashing a pair of toy cymbals. The body of the program contained several highlights. ‘Carousel’ and ‘Cobwebbed Carousel’ by Phyllis Chen employed a dream-like ostinato on a music box, overlayed with sparse toy piano. In James Joslin’s ‘Fur Enola’, a spinning-top is set in motion, creating fascinating sounds and rhythms as it slows to a stop. ‘Toy Symphony’ by Jorges Torres Saenz had five movements, the most interesting being the rhythmically vibrant  ‘Stick’s Tics’ for toy xylophone, ‘Night Music’ in which two boxes of mechanical crickets create an evocative soundscape, and the virtuosic toy piano ‘Toyccatina’. Monica Pearce’s title piece ‘Clangor’ for toy piano and pitched bicycle bells was also intriguing, if not entirely coherent structurally.

Less convincing were Ying-an Lin’s ‘Drunkard’s Dance’ and David Wolfson’s ‘Twinkle Dammit!’.  In the former, a toy piano and empty coffee tin are played as they might be by someone tipsy. It’s not a very original concept, written without great flair. The latter depicts a piano student who, frustrated at their inability to play ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, hits themselves with a colourful plastic hammer. Margaret’s performance was committed. But innumerate composers have bastardised nursery rhymes to better effect, and I found the concept trite. Closing the concert, Jed Distler’s one minute distillation of Wagner’s epic opera cycle ‘The Ring’ was witty and irreverent.

This concert left me conflicted. Talking to Margaret post concert, it was clear I was in the presence of a truly independent thinker. Her conviction in the worth of her art was striking. Yet, something about the evening sat uneasily with me. Everything about the concert seemed to exude claims of being ‘experimental’ or ‘boundary pushing’. But the music didn’t seem to me ‘avant-garde’ as the program claimed. It’s been 50 years since Pierre Henry composed ‘Variations for a Door and a Sigh’, nearly a century since Varese employed sirens in ‘Ameriques’. In comparison, a toy piano is hardly a revolutionary sound source. Nor, for that matter, is a coffee can. I didn’t find myself challenged in the way I’d anticipated.

Was I charmed? Frequently. Moved? Yes, during ‘Carousel’.  Was I changed by the experience? The spinning-top transfixed me, it was a unusually special moment. I was beguiled, amused, surprised; I was many things. But I was never challenged. And perhaps that’s the next stage in the toy piano’s coming of age: for composers to stop approaching it as something it no longer is, an instrument of the avant-garde.


Image supplied.


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