Review by Daniel Olson-Bang
Fordham University

A question comes to mind when hearing Canadian installation artist Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” (2001), at the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York until December 8th: why did something this good and this inevitable, take this long to conceive and execute? It may be that Thomas Tallis’ late-medieval motet “Spem in alium” was waiting for technology to catch up with it, and waiting in fact for Cardiff’s installation.

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) wrote during a period of compositional gigantism and unprecedented religious upheaval. Composing at times for the Catholic church in England under Bloody Mary, as well as for the nascent Anglican church under Elizabeth I, Tallis’ music is necessarily varied. This Latin motet,[1] consisting of forty independent vocal lines, seems to have emerged out of a rivalry with the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio, who had composed a forty-part mass first performed in 1568 or 1569.[2] Tallis’ response is the more famous “Spem,” which seems to have been composed around 1570, to be performed in the round with eight grouped choirs of five voices surrounding the listeners. The size of the piece and the vast number of singers needed to sing it means that few choirs perform it, and few consequently hear it. Nevertheless, “Spem in alium” is arguably the most famous piece by one of England’s best and most prolific choral composers.

Cardiff Exhibit at the Cloisters

Photos by Boyda Johnstone

In order to create the installation, Cardiff collaborated with the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, UK, to create a recording of the work. In contrast to other reverb- and echo-heavy recordings of the piece, Cardiff padded the walls of the cathedral, close-miking each individual singer, who was as acoustically isolated from the others as possible. From this musical performance, Cardiff creates the installation, which has been featured in places as diverse as the Rideau Chapel National Gallery of Canada and MoMA’s PS1, and which is currently at the Cloisters. Notably, it is the first contemporary art exhibit at the Cloisters. There, forty voices are played through forty high quality speakers arranged at eye-level in the twelfth-century Fuentidueña Chapel. The result is a granular, human sound emphasizing the contours, details and even physicality of each distinctive voice.

The skeptic might say that Janet Cardiff’s “installation” is no more than a digital playback of a beautiful work in a beautiful space. The majesty of the piece, and its effect on the listener, thus belongs to Tallis, the argument goes. Yet such a claim misses how transformative “The Forty Part Motet” is, precisely because of Cardiff’s meticulous artistic choices, which together create an unprecedented interactive experience.

In fact, Cardiff’s installation as it appears in the Cloisters raises fascinating questions for the listener. “Performed” in a space at once sacred and secular—a church transported across an ocean and reconstituted as a now-secular work of art—one wonders, is this (still) a performance of a sacred work? Are we in a “church”? Does playing the piece in a continuous loop for months on end change the nature of Tallis’ creation fundamentally? Has it been “made new,” given a new context and, in the process, a new meaning?

The effect of the music on listeners is remarkable. Upon entering the circle of speakers, the scene is of dozens of people, many of whom stand stock-still, transfixed. Others stand next to certain “voices,” while still others (the rare ones) chase the polyphony as it leaps from voice to voice, from speaker to speaker. If few can hear the piece performed live, no one has experienced “Spem in alium” in this way. Akin to a “choose your own adventure” game, listeners experience the piece as they will; even a subtle turning of the head transforms the music. What Cardiff wants most is for listeners to interact with the music “in an immersive experience,” as she puts it, to circulate around, hearing distinctive voices all around them in the space. Most people stay for more than one performance of the 14-minute piece. I stayed for five performances of it, and I only wish I could have stayed longer.

Cardiff Exhibit at the Cloisters

The other significant aspect of Cardiff’s installation is how much it owes to a contemporary sensibility. Tallis’ era did not understand authorship as we do, and the goal of the kind of polyphonic choral music he composed emphasized the blending of voices into a whole, with no voice having prominence over any other. Cardiff’s version owes all to the opposite, modern tendency toward the singular, unique voice, as well as to the idea of the autonomous listener, who can choose how, when and where to experience the music. In fact, in a little-noted aspect of the piece, the recording includes several minutes of pre-recording conversation, sotto voce, by the choir. What first seems like a cough of someone in the museum turns out to be one of the “performers” located near the apse. Other microphones reveal joking conversations about Tallis, or brief lessons by the men of the choir to the children on the right way to sing a part. These voices are meant to be imagined as people: this is a dialog of modern listening preferences with a composition from another era entirely.

Is Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” an artistic creation or merely a quality recording of a great piece of music? This question is one that anyone who experiences it must answer. It is well worthwhile for anyone, medievalist and postmodernist alike, to experience it in the beautiful setting of the Cloisters, and to answer the question herself.

For a slideshow of the exhibit, click here.

[1] A piece of vocal music consisting of several musical “voices,” or vocal lines.

[2] “Spem in alium numquam habui.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 18 Oct. 2013..