My first guitar had strings that looked like colored fishing line and a white plastic body emblazoned with a photograph of Luke, Bo, and Daisy Duke, and the General Lee. I wanted a real guitar. That The Dukes of Hazzard guitar was just another in a line of toy instruments that started with a purple and green dinosaur-shaped piano and ended with a Mickey Mouse-printed tambourine that didn't look anything like the one Boy George played on MTV. Now I regret throwing them out. That damned guitar could probably fetch enough on eBay to cover a car payment or at least a new set of strings for the real guitar gathering dust in the corner.
If only I had realized the potential of my arsenal of plastic toys. Beyond the monetary aspect is the inspiration that has made Margaret Leng Tan the avant-garde piano diva she is. The Julliard-trained and John Cage-mentored pianist plays toy pianos, including a 37-key miniature baby grand, that she embellishes with standard piano and her own arsenal of musical toys such as accordions, rattles, a boombox, and assorted drums. While less skilled performers might see such elements as mere gimmick, her intention is art. Indeed her rendition of Raphael Mostel's "Star-Spangled Etude #3," which borrows liberally from the American anthem and ends with sirens, police whistles, and shots from a cap gun, is more political statement than kitsch.
Leng Tan is both performer and performance artist, playing compositions written for her and her toy pianos along with self-transcribed pieces written for other instruments. Her 1997 album The Art of the Toy Piano ranges from The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." The concert repertoire she's bringing to the MAC combines album cuts with the piece that first inspired her: Cage's "Suite for Toy Piano." Toy pianos haven't been just for kids since he wrote it in 1948. Unfortunately, I was too busy using my Barbie makeup to look like Cyndi Lauper to notice.