While you wouldn’t have guessed from her performance, Margaret Leng Tan did not look happy before she played John Cage’s Four Walls in the Barbican Centre’s Art Gallery this Thursday. The placement of the grand piano within the gallery’s exhibition The Bride and the Bachelors, nestled amongst visual artworks by Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, did well on aesthetics but gained nul points acoustically, with the lid positioned such as to point the sound straight into a massive granite pillar. Cause for annoyance for any musician, sure, but there was perhaps something oddly appropriate about this extra constraint placed on the performance.

John Cage, Strings 1-20, 1980,  Private Collection © John Cage Trust
John Cage, Strings 1-20, 1980, Private Collection
© John Cage Trust

As Tan’s own writing about the piece suggests (to me, anyway), Four Walls is among Cage’s darkest pieces, a 70-minute paean to introversion and the limits of one’s own mind. The piece makes use of the white notes of the piano exclusively, and seems trapped within these seven different notes, endlessly repeating the same patterns, following the same snatches of melody over and over again along the same circuitous paths. There are plenty of other completely diatonic works in earlier Cage – miniatures such as A Flower and the Suite for Toy Piano have featured on Bachtrack before – but while these often come across as enchanting, even ecstatic celebrations of simplicity, Four Walls is a piece which sounds restrained by its means, frustrated by its inability to think more broadly. Its endless extremes of register and volume sound like an effort to escape, never accomplished. The futility of projecting the piano’s sound straight into a wall was an unlikely, provocative counterpoint to this aesthetic of awkward restraint.

Tan is particularly closely associated with Four Walls: it lay unperformed for decades after its first performance in 1944 until Tan rediscovered it, and she has been championing it since the 1980s. It’s hard to imagine any performance of anything being much more committed or intense than this was; her deep personal involvement with this work was very clear throughout, and it made for a spellbinding 70 minutes.

Spellbinding though it was, I thought it was only fair to go for a wander around the exhibition during the second of the piece’s two “acts”, to experience the music more fully in the multimedia context in which it was taking place. The exhibition (part of a larger series of events entitled Dancing Around Duchamp) is designed as an exploration not just of Duchamp but also of the four associated creative forces Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham and Cage himself, and it’s a marvellously detailed look at the ways in which these artists interacted and affected each other. Cage, a visual artist as well as a composer, is well represented in the show – most of all, unsurprisingly, in the room entitled “Chance”.

Browsing this room and other parts of the exhibition during the musical performance, however, only served to make me wonder whether Four Walls is really a piece which contains much in common with the artworks on display: it pre-dates Cage’s experiments with chance by a few years, for instance. But still, what a setting for any music, and what a way to experience it, free to focus attention on either artworks, or music, or both.