Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty Part Motet, currently on view at the Cloisters in New York City through December 8th, is a rarity—a revelatory work of art that can inspire busy museum-goers to stop, listen deeply, and even bring them to tears.
I sat through five cycles of the work myself this week, and I was far from the only visitor who spent more than an hour in the Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel enjoying repeated listenings of Cardiff’s brilliant piece. A number of listeners wiped away tears, and many smiled to friends, strangers, or themselves. For the entire hour during the exhibit, and the hour following, I was too stunned and overwhelmed to speak.
Honestly, these were the kinds of reactions I had expected to see at James Turrell’s show at the Guggenheim this summer, but instead, I had to travel over 100 blocks uptown to find true revelation.
This special exhibit of The Forty Part Motet is the first piece of contemporary art ever shown at the Cloisters, and it was organized by the Metropolitan Museum as part of year-long celebration of the Cloisters’ 75th anniversary in Tryon Park. Here is the Metropolitan Museum’s description of The Forty Part Motet:
Regarded as the artist’s masterwork, and consisting of forty high-fidelity speakers positioned on stands in a large oval configuration throughout the Fuentidueña Chapel, the fourteen-minute work, with a three-minute spoken interlude, will continuously play an eleven-minute reworking of the forty-part motet Spem in alium numquam habui by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585). Spem in alium, which translates as “In No Other Is My Hope,” is perhaps Tallis’s most famous composition. Visitors are encouraged to walk among the loudspeakers and hear the individual unaccompanied voices—bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano—one part per speaker—as well as the polyphonic choral effect of the combined singers in an immersive experience. The Forty Part Motet is most often presented in a neutral gallery setting, but in this case the setting is the Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain, on permanent loan from the Spanish Government. Set within a churchlike gallery space, and with superb acoustics, it has for more than fifty years proved a fine venue for concerts of early music.The mysteries of The Forty Part Motet unfold gradually, and there are many small surprises. I listened to the piece five times, sitting in a single position on two of those occasions. It was only when I began to move through the installation, leaning my ear close to a speaker, that I discovered the three-minute spoken interlude. The singers talk amongst themselves, whispering and chatting. An attentive listener can pick up bits of conversation here and there. (Cardiff is masterful with sound and is also adept at creating multiple narratives and layers of meaning, as I discovered when I saw The Paradise Institute at MoCA in Cleveland this spring.)
From the center of the Cloisters’ chapel, the spatial qualities of Tallis’ achingly beautiful motet are revealed. It is rare that we find ourselves entirely immersed by a choir or orchestra. In a typical concert setting, the architectural qualities of music can be lost with the performers on stage and the audience sitting directly in front. It is shocking to realize how little each choir or orchestra member can hear while performing, for each performer is locked into a single position on stage within the larger group. The sounds that are closest, or loudest, easily overwhelm the aural senses.
But in Cardiff’s installation, we have the luxury of sitting in the center of the circle of voices, or of moving through the music, picking out one bass, one tenor, one soprano at a time. The piece changes in relation to our location within the chapel, so it is always shifting, never repeating itself.
It’s remarkable the feeling of intimacy that can be achieved by simply standing beside a high-definition speaker. Each speaker becomes much more than a piece of electronic equipment; instead, it is a stand-in for each individual in the choir. Moving through the installation, we gradually discover the polyphonic textures and spatial qualities of Tallis’ work. There is a fascinating contrast between the beauty and timbre of each voice and the powerful effect these voices form as a whole. The sum is not greater than its parts—the parts are, actually equal in their beauty.
It is entirely fitting that The Forty Part Motet should be exhibited in the Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel, for it’s the interplay between sound and architecture that elevates this work from “moving” to “pure genius.” Cardiff’s piece is a masterful exploration of space. Each voice is located in a certain place within the room, but it is our movement through the room and through the circle of voices that creates the mesmerizing experience. This is why it’s impossible to replicate. You simply must have the sensation in person.
Cardiff’s work also raises fascinating questions about spirituality, our value as individuals, and our role within a community.
Sacred spaces, like sacred music, are for everyone, regardless of personal belief. Whether we are visiting a small chapel like the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters or a grand cathedral like St. Patrick’s or St. John the Divine, spiritual architecture has the capacity to speak to us. So often, the grandness of these spaces makes us feel small. Personal problems and minor inconveniences take a back seat in the presence of soaring spires, rib vaults, and flying buttresses.Hearing Cardiff’s installation in such a perfect setting is nothing less than a transcendent experience, and it left me with a powerful sense of being part of something larger than the self. But the true brilliance of the piece is that the “something larger” is entirely up to the listener. No single listening experience will be the same, nor will the interpretation.
Like a religious service, Cardiff’s installation at the Cloisters brings a small group of people together in a single space to share a communal experience, but with a notable exception: there are no priests or preachers, no music directors, confession booths, alter boys, or congregation. With the specific context of religion and hierarchical structure stripped away, what remains is a highly personal, aesthetic, spiritual experience (with “spiritual” being defined by each individual listener).
Where else but the museum can individuals of diverse economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds gather to have such a moving, collective experience? Churches, mosques, temples, monasteries, stupas, and synagogues are certainly options, but what about those who don’t identify with one particular religion? Where should they go?
To doubt the existence of God or to shun organized religion does not mean an individual isn’t spiritual. “Religion isn’t about believing things,” says writer Karen Armstrong. “It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.” The transformative impact of The Forty Part Motet suggests that both change and sacredness can be reached through a number of entry points, including through art.
Janet Cardiff’s entrancing installation possesses that rare quality that separates great art from the mediocre: it evokes the sacred without telling us what to think. It is specific, but also open-ended. As the filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch once advised, “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” The Forty Part Motet does just that—it allows us to do our math, and in the process, we discover not only ourselves, but also each other.
The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff is at the Cloisters in New York City through December 8, 2013. The museum is easy to access from the Henry Hudson Parkway, and there is ample free parking by the museum. Another insider tip: although the suggested admission price is $25, visitors can pay whatever entrance fee they choose at both Metropolitan Museum locations.
For more information about the installation at the Cloisters, please visit the Metropolitan Museum’s website. You can learn more about Janet Cardiff’s art work and her collaborations with George Bures Miller on their website and in the below publications.
There is no video, sound recording, photograph, or written description that can come close to conveying the power of Cardiff’s installation, but Thomas Tallis is a sublime composer, and I highly recommend his music. One of the best recordings of Spem in alium is by Philip Cave on Linn Records. Recorded in Hampstead’s St. Jude-on-the-Hill church, this recording features fine voices and acoustics, plus top-notch production, and it received an “Editor’s Choice” distinction from Gramaphone, as well as other rave reviews. You can sample and download the album below or right here.
I’ve also included a video above so you can hear the piece in its entirety, but don’t miss your chance to experience Cardiff’s work in person. There simply is no substitute.
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Listen to the 40 Part Motet & Learn More about Janet Cardiff
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An Update on the Palisades Building Project
As I posted earlier this month, the Cloisters was recently added to the World Monuments Fund’s list of endangered cultural sites. I picked up this flyer during my visit to the museum on Friday so I could pass it along to interested readers…