Forty parts of perfect

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet, 2001

It starts with a bit of whispering and low-level chatter from around the room but gradually the singing starts, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as different voices join in. Before I know it, the room is full of sound. Whether seated in the centre of the oval of speakers – one for each of the forty voices of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium – or wandering among the speakers picking up individual voices, this is not a soundscape it’s possible to experience in the concert hall.

It’s impossible to describe this work without falling back on words like sublime. For me, the sound of the voices is utterly overwhelming and I am transported far from the former school in Long Island City in which I encounter it. I’d be surprised if many wander through the space without stopping; certainly no-one did in the time I spent with the work. This is work that holds one’s attention for the duration (and probably a bit longer).

Sound art isn’t easy; there are few who make it well – Janet Cardiff and Susan Philipzs being notable exceptions – and even the most engaged art audience can find it baffling. The strength of this work lies in the power of Tallis’s music, the technical perfection of the recording, the simplicity of the installation and in Cardiff’s approach which gives the audience a unique chance to experience it either voice by voice or at the centre of a ring of sound. The result is genuinely moving.

Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet is currently a long-term installation at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City.

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