San Francisco Bay Guardian
Back in the mid-1980's, in Hong Kong, I would hang out at the American Library, checking out novels by James and Bellow, browsing Partisan Review and New York Review of Books. Occasionally, I looked at the library's tiny video collection. It was pure serendipity that one day when I picked out a John Cage interview video. The brilliant intelligence displayed by this bearded man dazzled me. My knowledge of modern music at the time hadn't gone beyond Stravinsky; I probably considered Cage a cultural philosopher, rather than a composer.
After moving to New York, I saw Cage at different music events about town. But there wasn't any direct personal link. It was in 1988 that I first heard Margaret Leng Tan, Cage's protégé, at a recital at Asia Society and I became a convert to her art. As a free-lance journalist, I made an appointment to interview her. Something clicked (probably the fact that we're both of Southern Chinese origin played a part) during the interview, we became friends. And it was a privilege to see her career take off with the release of her first CD, Litania, the same year.
Wim Wenders once mentioned his excitement at putting music and images together for his first short. Yes, the marriage between sound and image is, for me, one of the primary attractions of cinema. I filmed Margaret's performance of Cage's "In the Name of the Holocaust" for my first filmmaking workshop. After that, no matter how modest the budgets were for my films, Margaret's music circle provided undreamt of quality support to the soundtracks. I used three tracks from her Litania CD for my first film, To Liv(e), I used a toy piano recording of hers for Journey to Beijing. Through her, I met Milos Raickovich, who composed music for Bauhinia and The Map of Sex and Love. And it was Margaret's Hong Kong school friend at Juilliard, Nancy Loo, another terrific pianist, who performed and recorded Raickovich's compositions for my films.
This documentary does mirror some serendipitous moments of my life: Consider the fact that, as a New School alumnus, I ended up celebrating a crucial moment of the American avant-garde's musical lineage ' the moment when John Cage took Henry Cowell's course on World Music at the New School in the 1930's. That would become the foundation of Margaret's pianistic art. And I also remember, with some poignancy, the wet, unseasonably chilly summer night in Central Park in 1992, sitting next to Margaret and Merce Cunningham, for the stunning concert given by Cage himself -- virtually a sonic Zen master personified -- and Joan La Barbara. That turned out to be Cage's last concert.
I have learnt so much from Margaret -- about amazing sonic possibilities, about dedication, total immersion. She is one of the elite "Daughters of the Lonesome Isle," the title of Cage's 1945 composition for prepared piano ' the isle not of Singapore, but the Isle of Art between cultures and continents, and now, between centuries and millennia. The pleasure had always been mine to document one of her concerts, before we realized a decade had gone by. Finally, enough money was raised to complete this documentary. It is my wish, with Sorceress of the New Piano, that I've helped illuminate her artistry as well as the musical tradition that she has inherited and, as Borges said of Kafka, invented for herself -- and for posterity.
--- Evans Chan, Jan 31, 2004
following Sorceress of the New Piano's screenings at the Singapore, Hong Kong and Vancouver international film festivals:
One response to the documentary was that it is not as "avant-garde" as the music presented in the film. The irony is that some critics suggested that I had returned to my "avant-garde roots" in my previous documentary, The Life and Times of Wu Zhong Xian (2003). The choice of a filmmaker's aesthetic approach to each project is very much an intuitive response to the subject matter. In order to transcend the claustrophobia of what was originally a stage production, I attempted a more complex approach in Wu Zhong Xian. Hence the avant-garde compliment. However, confronted by Margaret Leng Tan's new piano, I was trying to be as straightforward as possible, because my intention was, as critic Tony Rayns pointed out, to "demystify" avant-garde music. Is bandying the term "avant-garde" in the early 21st century still relevant? As Margaret herself said on another occasion: "It sounds oxymoronic but Cowell, Cage and Crumb have become the "classic avant-garde." The fact is, the so-called avant-garde has already become a historic phenomenon, associated with what is, at times, a set of all too predictable, provocative gestures.
However, I think Margaret has shown precisely how her heroes' innovative piano techniques went beyond the mere "experimental." The three C's achievements lie in the integrity of their quest for a new pianistic language and their strong influence on the next generation. While all innovation starts off as experiments, what Margaret has demonstrated is, how refined the string and prepared piano effects are, or can be with the right performer; how, unapologetically these compositions remain as some of the most challenging, yet thoroughly enjoyable, 20th century piano masterpieces. When George Crumb talks about his own innovations during "George Crumb in Conversation", (the bonus interview included in the Makrokosmos I & II DVD which I filmed and directed for the Mode Records release) he compares his, or Cowell's and Cage's innovations as parallels to Brahms' discovery of the piano's bass potential, Bartok's percussivity, or Debussy's sonority. In other words, Crumb sees himself solidly within the tradition of Western classical music. To keep insisting that these work belong in the "avant-garde" camp is to persist in associating them with marginality, waywardness, and worst of all - what is commonly considered as unlistenable. I'm gratified that many audiences of Sorceress have told us that this is the first time they've discovered that contemporary music can also be beautiful and emotionally engaging. And I am glad that I was able to weave a story out of Margaret Leng Tan's adventures with the new piano.
--- January 5, 2005