Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Voice Motet: sound as matter

Installation in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters (©Wilson Santiago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Installation in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters (©Wilson Santiago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Susan Brodie - Toi Toi Toi

By Susan Brodie: Toi Toi Toi!

Forty speakers on six-foot tall stands,monopods clustered in groups of five, encircle the empty apse of a medieval stone chapel. From the speakers, low murmurs, hums, and coughs taper into silence. A lone alto intones the opening notes, gradually joined by single voices emanating from nearby speakers, sound reverberating against the stone as the texture thickens. So begins Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet, a sound installation by Janet Cardiff currently on offer in the Fuentaduña Chapel of the Cloisters in upper Manhattan.

To be more accurate, the motet isn’t reworked at all: it was recorded in a studio, as written, by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Each voice was individually miked on a separate channel (the treble parts had three children on each part to reinforce their lighter sound, bringing the total number of singers to 59), and each voice part can be heard through a single speaker as the piece is played on a continuous loop. Random sounds–like one chorister’s inscrutible comment ,”as his life essence ebbs away through the hole in his head…”–act as a sound buffer between performances of the motet. The viewer/listener is free to move among the forty speakers to vary his vantage point for experiencing the work, much as a gallery-goer can view a painting or sculpture from different angles and thus change his impression of the piece.

Tallis’s motet was a canny choice: it is scored so that individual voices sing in turn, moving from one side of the choir to the other, creating a wave of sound rather like a football “wave” moves through a stadium crowd. As sung in church, this spatial effect would have been experienced only by the singers and any celebrants close to the choir. Deconstructed in an empty gallery by Cardiff, the listener can approach the music in a more intimate way than congregants relegated to the nave have experienced. Anyone who has been to a rock concert understands the physical effect of masses of sound; the occasional explosion into full, bone-rattling tutti passages evoked that experience, reminding a 21st century viewer that ecclesiastical art was designed to overwhelm the spirit by flooding the senses.

The docent who introduced the installation couched her interpretation of Cardiff’s work in the material language of the plastic arts, describing sound in sculptural terms, manipulating the immaterial as solid matter. Coming to the work as a musician, I had trouble shifting to the perspective of a different medium. I listened to the piece four times, moving around the space, over the course of a couple of hours. I had previously encountered the work in a more neutral, modern space, and here I found that the chapel’s visual beauty distracted from the work as pure sound. As well, the vibrant acoustics muddied the spatial effects. The synergy was undeniably atmospheric, but I honestly couldn’t experience The Forty Voice Motet as anything other than a renaissance motet, albeit a particularly lavish one, in an ecclesiastical space. Perhaps a listener without the experience of analyzing and singing this kind of music would be more open to Cardiff’s “sculptural” aims.

That said, the installation provided a stunning experience and an irresistible transition from the city’s bustle to the serene world of the cloister and its glorious artifacts. If you’re in New York this fall, it’s definitely worth the trip on the A train.

At the Cloisters in Inwood, upper Manhattan, through December 8, 2013.