Janet Cardiff's 40 Part Motet

Feature

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Cloisters is a faux-medieval abbey in a park in Manhattan, and it houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval art collection. For the first time in its history, a work of contemporary art has been installed there: Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet. It’s a complex reworking of a famous choral composition written 500 years ago, Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in Alium.” In 2000, Cardiff recorded 40 individual vocalists singing “Spem in Alium,” each on a separate microphone, and the piece presents their voices through 40 separate speakers.

The effect is otherworldly. Stand in the center of the large oval of speakers and the choir surrounds you, fully immersing you in the music. Walk around the edge, though, and you can press your ear to an individual speaker, hearing the individual’s voice in the crowd — breathing, going off key — more intimately than you ever would in life. “It feels like it’s on the back of your neck when you’re listening to it,” says Cardiff. “There’s a sense of safety in technology, but at the same time there’s a sense of connection. You don’t lose the connection of the human voice, but you get the safety of not having to stand right next to that person.”

For many people, the effect is emotional and unsettling. “The work becomes a shorthand for how we know the world to work,” says Peter Eleey, curator at the museum PS1 (where The 40-Part Motet was first shown in the United States). “We have these things we encounter in collective forms — going to movies, or a football game, or voting, where we feel ourselves inscribed within the collective. And then at the same time, as we move about our lives, we mostly feel isolated from that.”

 

Video: "Spem in Alium" performed by The Sixteen

    Music Playlist
  • Spem in alium numquam habui
    Artist: Thomas Tallis
    Album: Recorded at Janet Cardiff's "The Forty Part Motet"

Contributors:

Jamie York

Comments [7]

Stanley from Boston

For those who are familiar with the piece, I would offer a few observations about Cardiff's choices:

1. It seems that she used the same voices for 8 voice parts, meaning, for example, that the same tenor
sang all 8 tenor lines. So there are 40 lines, but not 40 singers.

2. The soprano lines seem to be sung by three boys in unison. They are not always together. In fact,
in Choir 5, two of them are singing and one of them is occasionally coughing.

3. In the few minutes between the end of the piece and its reinitiation, there is chatter from the speakers.
We can hear the conversations between the speakers between various takes of the recording.

4. When there are a hundred people in the room (as there often is), it is hard to stand in the middle and
hear the full effect. One option is to snuggle against one of the speakers but the totality is lost.

5. The piece is slow, finishing in about 11 minutes. Sometimes it seems to drag.

Dec. 02 2013 09:04 AM

Thank you, Scott Barton, for your verse which so nicely reflects my experience listening to Spem in Alium last Tuesday at the Cloisters.

Nov. 27 2013 06:18 PM
jen from Florida

Scott L. Barton captured it.

Nov. 26 2013 09:45 AM
Teri Centner from Washington, DC

Is there any way to find out if the installation will be moving to another venue after December 8th?

Nov. 25 2013 05:54 PM
Scott Barton

On "The Forty Part Motet" at the Cloisters, November 2, 2013

I think that I have never seen
One hundred people all convened
In rapt attention and in awe,
Although no habit, rule or law
Decreed that they should silent be.
Somehow, to his or her degree,
Each one became a devotee
Of God - or grace - or mystery
That none had power to resist
Amongst the voices that dismissed
The world, the cares, the feeling plain,
As sacred overcame profane.
The forty speakers each proclaimed
A voice, not perfect, but when framed
Within that chapel made of stone,
Together, perfect love intoned.
The crucifix, for those inclined,
Could only add to hearts and minds
Their thanks; While seated on the floor,
Or standing, each seemed then restored,
With eyes cast high, or down in prayer,
Or simply glad that they were there,
Each one made new within that space
By such experience of grace.

Scott L. Barton

Nov. 03 2013 06:01 PM
Fred Unwin

We have had two installations by Cardiff in Cleveland during the past year. The Motet was at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Paradise Theater was at our Contemporary Art Museum. The exciting part of the Motet for me was the time between the singing when you could hear individual voices talking as you walked by the speakers. The exciting part of the Paradise Theater event was hearing a voice just behind you, over your shoulder. and behind you. I really never thought about creating space with just sound but Cardiff did it!

Oct. 27 2013 10:11 PM
nancy strader

in the early 90's I attended a "sound/arts event" in Harvard Yard The artist had placed speakers in a number of the trees in the main Yardand as the listener approached,could hear a voice talking softly. I do not remember whether the voice was reading a text or speaking in conversation, but each tree had a different voice. There was a muted background sound in the space, soft and mysterious. Listeners walked slowly from tree to tree as the dusk turned to darkness and the lamps illuminating the walkways. I am sure there is information available through Harvard University's records or the Boston Globe, it was very moving, though hard to explain why.

Oct. 27 2013 01:21 PM

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