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Duck calls and toy pianos: Leng Tan.

Enjoy the Silence
By B.A. Nilsson

Margaret Leng Tan
Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, Aug. 24

While driving to Wood- stock, I listened to a recording of John Cage抯 piano music. Later that evening, the concert taught me the lie of that statement. I no more listened to the recording than I listened to the car抯 engine or the drumming of rain on the vehicle桰 gave the recorded music a slice of my divided attention, that抯 all.

It抯 a similar falsehood to call Cage抯 𚠅3敂 a 搒ilent piece, although the composer himself used that designation. The piece is about listening梠r, more accurately, the awareness of listening. But let抯 not pigeonhole it there. It抯 about concertgoing. It抯 about perceptions of High Art. It抯 one of the funniest pieces ever written. And it just turned 50. Happy birthday!

Margaret Leng Tan paid tribute to that anniversary with a concert almost to the day (Aug. 29) on which David Tudor premiered 𚠅3, and at the same venue.

The original audience was not very warmly receptive. One of the original auditors suggested that the musicians be run out of town. Cage himself recounted the experience of hearing the rain on the roof of the theater gradually supplanted by whispers from the audience梐nd then the sounds of people leaving.

Nobody left this time. In fact, the crowd sat obediently, adding little noise except for the sound of a water bottle hitting the floor梐nd the inevitable crinkle of cellophane, now a legal requirement at all concerts. No longer can this piece be considered a joke on the audience: It抯 a listening experience the power of which was demonstrated during the work that followed, Somei Satoh抯 spare, tonal 揂 Gate Into the Stars.

Much of Cage抯 legacy is the liberation of music from constraints of time and predictability (not to mention harmony and conventional instrumentation). As he noted about another of his works: 揟he performance should make clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action梩hat the music, so to speak, is his, rather than the composer抯.

There抯 no Cage School, but lots of Cage influence, as in Alvin Lucier抯 揘othing Is Real, in which Leng Tan recorded a dreamy, single-voiced paraphrase of 揝trawberry Fields Forever and then played it back through a speaker-enhanced teapot.

Philip Glass 揗odern Love Waltz, arranged by Leng Tan for toy piano, clearly influenced Jed Distler抯 揟hree Landscapes for Peter Wyer (for toy piano), which still had its own witty identity.

Leng Tan specializes in toy piano (an uncrowded field), and paired it with a number of other instruments throughout the program. Toby Twining抯 jazzy 揂n American in Buenos Aires had the player accompany herself on traditional piano (one hand at each); Laura Liben抯 揝he Herself Alone twins the toy piano with a toy psaltery through a haunting melodic progression.

Add toy accordion, toy percussion and a melodica to an array of tumblers, plates and tuna-fish tins and you have the instrumentation for Guy Klucevsek抯 揝weet Chinoiserie, starting with a bash at everything. With chopsticks. Drumming, this time bare-handed, was the basis of Jerome Kitzke抯 揟he Animist Child, along with a wordless vocal, while Raphael Mostel抯 揝tar-Spangled Etude No. 3 reinterpreted 揟he Star-Spangled Banner with siren, whistle, cap gun, and delightfully tasteless toy trumpet.

Henry Cowell was a reluctant mentor to Cage, and earlier developed his own piano alternatives of banging and string strumming, as demonstrated by four works (揟he Tides of Manaunaun, 揂eolian Harp, 揟he Banshee and 揂dvertisement.) Cage抯 own prepared piano technique was featured in an early, almost pleasant work, 揃acchanale.

What may have seemed pretentious and offensive to that 1952 crowd was delightful and appropriate today, never better displayed than in Cage抯 bizarre 揥ater Music. The score (posted for all to see) is time-delineated, with various tasks assigned to the performer.

This includes tuning in radio stations, the first of which featured traditional classical music. Leng Tan shot it with plangent piano chords, blew a duck call into a bowl of water, shuffled a deck of cards. The radio changed from being music to a mere element of music. When she next tuned into a ranting religious broadcaster and duck-called against his tirade, the notion of radio became ridiculous, and nobody could resist laughing.

Which was as good a reminder as any that classical music in the 20th century had its moments of fun and moments of great awareness, and offers a legacy we need more than ever today.

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