Last summer, on a whim, I wrote a piece for a competition. The competition was for music for “toy piano and other toy instruments:” the 4th Annual UnCaged Toy Piano Competition and Festival. My piece didn’t win, but it drew the attention of one of the judges: Margaret Leng Tan, “the queen of the toy piano.” She decided that the piece, “Twinkle, Dammit! An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song,” was perfect for the new performance direction she’s exploring, which she calls “sit-down comedy.”
That was how I found myself in Margaret’s music room the Monday night before Thanksgiving, along with her two grand pianos, umpteen toy pianos, and one of her many dogs. The toy piano she’d picked for this piece was sitting on the floor between the two grands, and she sat on a (very) low stool behind it, with the music photocopied to one-quarter size so it could rest on top of the toy piano. She offered me a (full-size) piano bench to sit on, which I tried, but eventually chose the floor.
She had come up with a scenario (which she had told me about in a previous phone conversation). She had substituted a rubber hammer and a squeaky rattle for the rubber duck and train whistle I had specified in the score (which she had asked permission to do when she first contacted me). And, as it turned out, she’d also changed tempos, chopped rhythms in half, and added a left-hand part to a passage I’d written for the right hand alone.
Gulp. Was this still my piece?
Did I care?
Margaret’s vision of the piece is personal, idiosyncratic, and self-consistent. And very funny. Everything she’d done, she’d done for a reason—and by the time we got done rehearsing an hour and a half later, we’d made more changes, some of them her ideas, some of them mine. I’ve had a fair amount of experience collaborating in theatrical situations—and that’s what this was. I did my best to clarify what I thought she was trying to do, some of which involved musical choices and some of which involved physical/visual choices. (It’s not often I feel the lack of puppetry experience in my life, but I did that night.)
There are plenty of composers who have seen, and applauded, radical reinterpretations of their music. (I’ve even had it happen to me before; see Tamra Hayden’s acoustic guitar version of Song for an Accident). (She gets some of the chords wrong, but it’s still pretty cool.) But I haven’t heard any stories about that happening for the first performance!
I don’t know whether I’ll ever hear Twinkle, Dammit! the way I wrote it. (It’s not as though there are a lot of concert toy pianists out there.) I suspect that if I did, at this point…I might find it dull.
The 4th Annual UnCaged Toy Piano Festival is happening THIS WEEK in New York City. My piece is being played on Saturday night December 3rd, 8 pm at the DiMenna Center, 450 W. 37th St. Come if you can! If I can get a video, I’ll post it here as soon as I get it. In the meantime, please check out the edible toy piano (which will be featured at the concert).