‘An auditory feast’: New Music icon Margaret Leng Tan’s biographical work Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep rocks 14 year old Gully Thompson’s musical world
Margaret Leng Tan is famed for being a virtuoso of the toy piano. Using toy pianos and similar objects such as children’s toys, her music is richly influenced by her mentor, avant-garde musician John Cage. As she says, Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, Chamber Made’s offering to Asia TOPA, is her “first full-fledged foray into theatre”. Biographical, whimsical and lively with experiment, this piece is not only a tribute to the work of John Cage and his legacy, but an auditory feast of biography told through the language of music.
The stage is set with a grand piano that has been prepared in accordance with John Cage’s invention of the “prepared piano”, with small trinkets such as toys, nails and tissues stuffed between the strings to create strange sounds when played. Beside it, a small toy upright piano and a collection of children’s toys, such as jack in the boxes and a toy telephone. In the centre, a large luminous strip drapes across the stage for projections and videos. All these elements comprise a modern, sleek minimalist design that, when the performance begins, serves as a beautiful backdrop for what takes place.
The biographical elements include Tan’s upbringing in Singapore, her experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disoder (OCD) and as her education at Julliard, where she became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts. Further into the show, the death of her mother in late 2018 is incorporated into the thread of the narrative. These chapters of her life are told with a series of projections, either through abstract images or, occasionally, edited excerpts of footage and photographs. Most notably, these chapters of her life are accompanied by minimalist music. Sometimes it’s jovial, with the nostalgic, almost chilling tones of childhood reflected through the toy piano. Often it’s sombre. But it’s always contemplative.
‘I’ve never seen a performance quite like this, nor a performer as refined in their ability to convey a story through sound’
As an example, Tan conveys in music her experience with OCD in her childhood and continuing throughout her life. She has described taking piano lessons as a child as a creative channel for obsessive energy through the mathematical aspects of music, specifically the counting of beats. As she puts it, “I could now count to my heart’s content in a totally creative fashion!” The creative outlet of counting in music is reflected in a piece named One (beautifully composed by Erik Griswold) which provides an interpretation of OCD. The levels of biographical, auditory and visual depth in this performance culminate with a piece that is extremely effective in immersing the audience in her experience, assisting them to understand the effects of OCD.
As someone who works in the field of music and composition, I like to think myself knowledgeable about the theatrical, dramatic and emotional effects this kind of biographical music has on an audience. However, I’ve never seen a performance quite like this, nor a performer as refined in their ability to convey a story through sound. I know that I, along with many others, will have their careers and musical practice greatly affected by the character and complexion of Tan and her work. I was captivated and intrigued by her playful nature, and by the work’s nostalgic and contemplative atmosphere.
The creative team must also be commended for their ability to translate the powerful nature of the subject of this show and its musical form. Erik Griswold’s music is outstanding in its ability to reflect the complex nature of Margaret’s performance and biography. The projections, animations and video art created by Nick Roux form a stunning visual field, through which the show expands its effect and power. All of these elements are refined and integrated by director Tamara Saulwick.
The combination of these elements – visual, auditory, occasionally choreographic, with movement like interpretive dance performed by Tan – create a sensory collage, something much deeper and more profound than is usually achieved in theatre. Theatre’s intimate quality is wholly present, with the connection between performer and audience pronounced: often humorous, sometimes melancholy, always bringing us closer to her life and her world.
The show ends with a tribute, or perhaps a rendition, of her mother’s death, with a simple video loop of Tan and her mother, as notably more sombre music plays, still contained within the practices of minimalism. Its complete lack of dialogue – the previous scenes use very little, but this contains no spoken words whatsoever – makes this scene incredibly striking, and it was perhaps for me the most emotional of all. The full strength of Tan’s musical ability prove its effect to be likely equal to, if not more powerful than, words.
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep is exemplary in its ability to speak to the audience on many levels and with different sensory experiences. It is the language of music realised. It’s a biography, the life story of the dragon lady, but it is also so much more. I know that the legacy of John Cage that she continues in her work will change the way I and many others look at the worlds of music and theatre. I can only describe this show here in words – to properly respond I would have to write a piece of music myself. All I can say is, thank you, Margaret, for teaching me your language.
Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, musician/performer Margaret Leng Tan, composer Erik Griswold, directed by Tamara Saulwick. Video art by Nick Roux, lighting design by Andy Lim, costume design by Yuan Zhiying, dramaturgy by Kok Heng Leun. Chamber Made and CultureLink Singapore, presented at Asia TOPA. Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse on February 28.