Janet Cardiff’s eerie sound installation, The Forty Part Motet (2001) in the Fuentidueña Chapel in the Cloisters is one of those New York events that is drawing immense crowds, and is worth every minute of the trek up to the top of Manhattan, and the long line to enter. The Forty Part Motet is the performance of Tudor composer Thomas Tallis’ (ca. 1505–1585) Spem in alium numquam habui (1556?/1573?) by the choir at Salisbury Cathedral. Cardiff placed a microphone on each individual chorister, recording his voice as an individual. She then places 42 speakers in a circle around the acoustically magnificent Chapel, inviting visitors to wander around from speaker to speaker (placed at ear level) or sit on a bench in the middle of the circle over the course of the 14 minute installation.
Despite the sacredness of the space and the music, and the spiritual nature of the experience, this nevertheless felt like a sound installation in a museum space. The crowds, respectful of the sacred music and the space it created were, as always in New York, dense. This translated into an interruption of the resonance, as the fullness and movement of music was interspersed with the sound of shuffling, whispers, coughing and the odd sneeze. I am certain that I experienced a different installation from the one at PS1 in 2012. For at heart, Cardiff’s piece is about the movement of music – as it shifts and changes across registers and voices, around, across, in and out of the circle formed by the speakers. And, The Forty Part Motet is about how the movement of music creates the space of the chapel. For this reason, the same installation would sound completely different if the chapel was empty, without people.
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the meaning of Cardiff’s installation lies in the particularity of the visitor’s experience. This is made clear when we stand before different speakers, from one hearing a deep bass voice, from another the delicate treble of a young choir boy. In the distance, we might hear a tenor or a baritone, but then as we move to the next speaker, that voice in the distance recedes, is out of ear shot, not only because the music has progressed. The piece takes on different forms and shapes as we move to the middle of the circle, and the voices are heard in concert. The Forty Part Motet thus becomes defined by the listener, just as the music defines the space of the chapel, and our perspective of the twelfth-century apse which is on loan from San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia in Spain. Indeed, the apse is wholly altered by the music as it interacts with the sunlight that beams through the window.
There were moments, no more than glimpses, when a voice usually a few feet, a few speakers away sounded off. Is this an illusion? Is this something created through the separation of the voices, each with its own speaker, and then the alternate coming together, in tune, as the voices reach our ears? Or is it that the voices sing different parts of the anthem and that juxtaposition at post-production makes them sound off? Or perhaps the explanation is more simple, perhaps the choristers are amateurs who hit a wrong note? It’s unclear why the odd note is off, but to be sure, I was not the only one to hear it.
Lastly, my other question for Cardiff was why this particular piece? Is there something about it that lends itself to the concepts of movement of music, creating space, in its interaction with a medieval chapel? Of course, the piece was not made specifically for this space, but it was chosen by someone as the first modern artist to be invited to exhibit in the cloisters.