margaret leng tan

A Matter of Style

When I was a baby composer, just entering the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of my primary musical ambition was to learn to write music in “all different styles.” As a budding musical theatre fanatic, I had noticed that many of the shows by my heroes had songs in different styles—a tango here, a hoedown there, a bossanova, an Andrews Sisters-type song, a waltz—and I wanted to be able to do the same thing.

The composition department at CIM was all about art music, though, and, being a good student, I instead threw myself into those challenges. The word “style” did not apply to individual song types; instead it was a matter of finding one’s own individual style, one’s own compositional voice. That process begins with imitation of composers and pieces one admires; the idea is that one then explores out from there to eventually claim a little piece of stylistic turf to plant a flag on.

Even at the time (the early 1980s), one had to look awfully hard to find a stylistic patch that didn’t already have someone’s flag planted on it. In the subsequent thirty years, as the number of composers has increased, it’s become well-nigh impossible. The analogy with our nearly-fully-explored planet seems pretty accurate to me; it’s not that there aren’t unsettled areas, but they’re either extremely hard to get to or not any place you’d want to live.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that any music a composer writes now will be derivative of something; the only question is what. Some composers are turning to open assimilation of disparate influences. Mashing up two different styles that no one else has thought of mashing up before is the functional equivalent of finding your own turf—your music will sound different than everyone else’s (for a while). Some have avowed that the entire world of musical style is their oyster, and they can and will pick and choose musical style elements from anywhere. Even the ironic distance that used to be de rigeur for such quoting seems to be no longer necessary. Perhaps this has been influenced by the rise of sampling in pop music—it’s been okay to base your music on someone else’s for a couple of decades now.

So I guess I was just a few years early wanting to become a master of pastiche (the craft of writing in a style not one’s own). I’m left wondering what the difference is, if any, between the approach I grew up admiring in the musical theatre scores of the 60s and 70s and this post-postmodern globalization of musical style. Certainly the questions of colonialism and the ethics of appropriation that one sometimes hears “classical” composers fretting over never seem to have made it onto the radar in the world of musical theatre, so maybe there is some difference behind the scenes, as it were.

All these years later, when I do write musical theatre, it tends to be pastiche of various pop styles (see the demo for the musical All About The Kids that I’m slowly working on with Erik Johnke, if you’re interested). And while I don’t overtly (at least consciously) borrow stylistic elements, I’m not above borrowing a tune from somewhere else. Later this year Margaret Leng Tan will be performing her terrific dramatization of my piece for toy piano and toys Twinkle, Dammit! An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song on a music festival in Singapore. Here’s the video of her premiere performance of the piece on the 1st International Toy Piano Festival in New York a couple of years ago:

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Toy Toy Toy!

Last Saturday night I descended into the bowels of the DiMenna Center in New York City to see my piece Twinkle, Dammit! being played as part of the 3rd night of the 1st ever UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. (It featured the 4th annual competition winners, but it was the 1st festival. I don’t know if it’s going to be repeated, or if so how soon.)

The lobby featured toy piano exhibits such as this one:

and this one (the Edible Toy Piano, or Resistor JelTone):

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What you hear in the background is a robot toy piano by playing Erik Satie’s Vexations (“to save wear and tear on valuable human pianists”). Both the Edible Toy Piano and the Vexbot are by Ranjit Bhatnagar.

The real action was inside the hall, though. When the doors opened, we saw four different toy piano “stations” positioned across the stage floor, one for each of the four artists performing, one with the toy piano on a table, the others one the floor with tiny stools next to them. Scattered among them were laptops, microphones and other sound gear, and toy drums, a melodica, a toy glockenspiel, a rattle, a rubber hammer, a jack-in-the-box—the theme of this year’s festival was “Toy Piano and other Toy Instruments.” The lighting was low and the house lights stayed on for the concert; a couple of the performers played barefoot, all of which which gave the evening an informal feel of which I heartily approved. (Barefoot concert music is new to me, which probably just means that I hang out uptown too much.) It was far better attended than a lot of new-music concerts, too.

First up, Takuji Kawai played three Japanese pieces. Perhaps this is just a cultural divide at work, but to me they all three seemed overly serious and self-indulgent. Besides which, the toy piano he played, a very different model than any I’ve heard before, had a very pure sine-wave-like sound; compared to the slightly raucous sound of the toy pianos everyone else was playing, it was distant and unengaging.

Phyllis Chen, the competition and festival’s founder, was up next. Highlights of her set included this year’s competition winner, Rusty BanksBabbling Tower to Tower for toy piano and cell phones (the program note pointed out that this was either the world’s cheapest or most expensive live audio processing, depending on whether you count just the cell phones or the towers and networks) and the 2009 competition winner, Toy Toccata by Fabian Svensson. I have to say that my reaction to hearing Toy Toccata  was one of open-mouthed envy; it isn’t often I hear a piece and think “Damn! I wish I’d written that!”, but I did this time. It’s a virtuosic tour-de-force on a very simple concept, with a terrific shape and build, and Phyllis played it like her hair was on fire.

David Smooke played his improvisation Water/Ice/Steam, a piece which was performed almost entirely inside a toy piano (with portions of the sound looped electronically), bowing the bars with fishing line, hitting them sticks, vibrating them, rattling them. It was a fascinating sonic landscape which, however, went on far too long, gradually losing impact until I was just waiting for it to end. (It was greeted with enthusiastic whooping and hollering, though, so maybe it was just me.) David raised an interesting question in introducing his piece: he said that although he didn’t know why, it was important for him that the audience know that the electronic gadget under the toy piano was only recording and playing back the toy piano sounds, not providing any others. I think that has to do with issues of authenticity, which is a fascinating can of worms to open in the context of an instrument that is a “toy” version of another instrument. Not to mention what it says about the use of electronics in live music performance. But I digress.

Then it was Margaret Leng Tan‘s turn. I really liked Für Enola by James Joslin, for toy piano, jack-in-the-box and spinning top (winner of the competition’s Most Ingenious Combo award)—the jack-in-the-box and top were a brilliant new spin (sorry) on indeterminacy, which went with the I Ching-inspired musical organization of the rest of the piece. Another standout was Phyllis Chen’s gorgeous Carousel and Cobwebbed Carousel; the first added to the toy piano a hand-cranked music box with a custom piano-roll-type punch-card; the second used the same punch-card, but fed into the music box backwards. The strange, slightly-out-of-tempo feeling given by the hand-cranking of the entirely mechanical punch card was creepy, haunting and lovely all at the same time, and Margaret mirrored it perfectly in her playing.

And then there was my piece, Twinkle, Dammit! (An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song), one of two which Margaret presented as part of her explorations into becoming a “sit-down comic.” (The other was Jed Distler‘s One Minute Ring, which is probably much funnier if you know Wagner better than I do.) I’ll leave you to judge my piece; I’ve blogged about the process of working on it with Margaret here. All I’ll say is you can hear the audience laughing… (I stopped the video before Margaret’s thunderous and richly deserved applause because I had to put the camera down on the floor to go join her onstage. But believe me, it was there!)

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I hope to visit The Land of the Toy Pianos again—it’s a strange and wonderful place.

Twinkle, Dammit!

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).