There aren’t many artists who will demand you solve a philosophical paradox before the conversation can proceed, but Margaret Leng Tan doesn’t think twice before slapping me with a Zen riddle. “Let’s see if you can figure it out: ‘Taking a nap, I pound the rice’.”
Margaret Leng Tan in Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. Credit:Pier Carthew
We’ll get back to the rice preparation, but for the uninitiated it’s enough to note that Tan knows her Zen. She is probably the most important living interpreter of the music of John Cage, whose use of silence, chance and error were deeply rooted in Buddhism and other Asian traditions. Her vast repertoire also includes towering figures such as George Crumb and Ge Gan-ru, many of whom wrote work especially for her.
Tan herself, meanwhile, offers her job description as ‘‘sit-down comic’’.
“Because that’s all I want to do. I want to be an entertainer. I don’t like this idea of the really serious concert pianist; that’s so passe.”
In person Tan is alternately imperious and self-effacing, precise in her words and prone to digressions. She’s disarmingly funny while always serious in intent.
The contradictions in Tan’s persona might be cultural, the cross-fertilisation of the rarefied and protected childhood she enjoyed in Singapore and the in-your-face hustle of the New York she arrived at in 1962. She was just 16 when she moved there to study at the prestigious Juillard, where a decade later she became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts.
She’s in Melbourne preparing for her solo performance Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, a multi-dimensional work in which biography, concert, humour and abstraction bleed together. She loves performing in Australia, she says, because audiences are so expressive. “So different to Singapore audiences. Asian audiences are much more reserved. It’s not that they don’t enjoy it, but when I play George Crumb the critics have said I play it as though the fate of the world depended on it. And they clap like this.” She softly pats her hands together. “Oh dear god.”
The seed that would become Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep was planted in 2015. Tan had heard somewhere that if you’ve got a great title you’ve got to write the book, and for some years she’d known what the title of her own memoir would be. “Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep. It’s so me. But it’s also funny. I started jotting down little anecdotes on scraps of paper here and there and stuffed it all into a folder for that rainy day when I would to sit down and put this all together.”
That rainy day never arrived, and Tan’s heavy touring schedule meant she rarely found time to sit still for long. “I was thinking I’d do it when I got old, but then I suddenly realised I’m already old and I still haven’t done it.”
A new idea struck her: create a sonic memoir.
She was at Brisbane Festival that year and mentioned the idea to the US-born, Brisbane-based composer Erik Griswold, with whom she’d worked before. “I said to Erik, ‘You know I’m getting much more into theatre these days. I’d love to collaborate with you on a piece that’s not just music but also multimedia, and that also has an opportunity for me to actually act.’”
The idea soon reached Tamara Saulwick, newly appointed artistic director of Melbourne’s Chamber Made. “I thought it could be an interesting fit for Chamber Made,” Saulwick says. “We did a bit of a blind date where we all came together in Singapore to meet with Margaret, Erik, myself, and dramaturg Kok Heng Leun. We came together for three or four days just to talk and to see if we were the right team for Margaret, and whether the project Margaret was proposing was right for us.”
With the addition of a lighting designer, video artist and costume designer, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep now features a wide range of collaborators from across three continents. It’s a surprise given that, by her own admission, Tan doesn’t play well with others. “I’m a real control freak and I’m very autonomous in the way I work. I never play with other people if I can help it. The idea of playing a concerto is an absolute nightmare. The fact you have to sit there with 80 other people and be under the tyranny of somebody else’s beat, to me it’s the worst form of composition ever created.”
If she can simultaneously play bicycle bell, horn, train whistle and toy piano, why does she need anyone else on board?
“This collaboration was for me a real revelation. Erik’s OK because I knew him from before and asked him to be on the team but Tamara and Heng Leun, they all had to win my trust and confidence before I was ready to relinquish control … For me to forgo that control is no small feat.”
Tan’s need for control goes deep. She has lived with obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as she can remember.
One of the ways her OCD manifests is obsessive counting: every step she climbs, how many times she rinses after brushing her teeth. Music was a place where this compulsion became a strength: “What a joy, what a relief to be able to count in a creative way that’s so organic and wonderfully natural!”
Perhaps the greatest paradox defining Tan is this: How can someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder also be one of the greatest proponents of John Cage, a composer indelibly associated with chance and randomness? “Don’t forget that Cage’s use of chance was extremely controlled,” she says. “That’s the paradox. He said it was a discipline as strict as sitting cross-legged, the methodology of using chance for him.”
But she admits that OCD can make it difficult to put her aesthetic philosophies into practice. That’s when the riddle comes out. Taking a nap, I pound the rice.
“Don’t think of pounding the rice literally. Think of it as activity. In that period of rest, the mind continues to work. The subconscious continues working and when you wake up the job is done.”
If you’re faced with a thorny problem you can’t quite nut out, she says, back off until the next day. You’ll very often find the solution is there waiting for you. “But you see with OCD you can’t let go, so you have to push it through and push it through and that’s where it gets like banging your head against a brick wall. Because you really should just let it go and sort itself out.”
Tan worked closely with Cage for the last 10 years of his life, and she has written about how his thoughts and philosophy helped her make “a truce with my OCD”. Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep offers another way of exploring the relationship between her mind and her art.
The show’s creators agree that the show is now less a sonic memoir than a sonic portrait, a version rather than an encapsulation. “It’s not a play. And it’s not a biography,” says Saulwick.
“We also want to see Margaret do her thing,” says Griswold. “We’re talking about her story but it’s probably 70 to 80 per cent music, all new pieces that I’ve created for it.”
Composing as a form of portraiture is hard enough, even without Tan’s controlling tendencies. For Griswold the key lay in how, in Tan’s hands, music blurs into the realm of choreography.
“Part of the challenge is trying to find an expression that really communicates in Margaret’s body. I think that over the years of working with her I’ve gotten to know her physicality from seeing her perform in all of these different environments. So that is at the forefront of my thinking. I go, OK, this is how I would play it, but how would Margaret play it?”
The work he has created for Dragon Ladies sits somewhere between the concert and the theatre. “It has to fulfill both of those roles. It has to connect to these overriding themes that are shaping the show, but it’s also a showcase for one of the greatest avant garde pianists in the world.”
“And after a while I’ll forget you wrote it,” Tan says, laughing. “Because I make it my own. I’m so convinced of my interpretation of it that I’ve forgotten somebody else wrote it. But that’s the way it should be, shouldn’t it?”
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is at Arts Centre Melbourne on February 28, as part of Asia TOPA.
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