The Glories of “The 40 Part Motet”

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By Kevin R. Convey

Janet Cardiff’s “The 40 Part Motet,” a sound installation now up at The Cloisters in northern Manhattan, is a heavenly marriage of 12th century architecture, 16th century piety and 21st century audio technology – all of which combine to evoke timeless feelings of transcendence and, in some listeners, tears.

Cardiff, a Canadian-born sound artist, takes as raw material English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ Anglican praise-song “Spem in Alium.” Written for 40 voices – eight choirs of five singers – the piece is nine minutes of austere beauty, as carefully woven as The Cloisters’ renowned unicorn tapestries.

But it’s not just the mix of voices – ranging from delicate solo passages to resounding full-choir peaks – that gives Tallis’ piece its emotional punch. He wrote the motet in the mid-to-late 16th century after witnessing the sectarian bloodshed that drenched England following Henry VIII’s split with Rome. “Spem in Alium” (the title comes from the motet’s first line, which translates from Latin as “I have never put my hope in any other than You, Oh Lord …”) celebrates the power of enduring faith in troubled times. Speaking to our age as eloquently as it did to Tallis’, this feeling pervades the music even if listeners don’t know the history – it isn’t recounted within the installation – or understand a word of Latin beyond the title.

Cardiff hasn’t changed a note of Tallis’ masterwork, but still she manages to magnify its emotional wallop. She has recorded the voices individually, reproduced each one through a single B&W DM 303 loudspeaker placed at ear level upon a brushed-aluminum stand, and then arrayed 40 of them like a set of dominos ringing the nave and apse of The Cloisters’ 12th century Fuentiduena Chapel. The arrangement allows listeners either to stand in the center of the chapel and take the piece in whole – as Tallis’ audience probably heard it – or to wander among the speakers and hear how each singer and sub-choir contributes to the larger work.

As a setting intensifies the sparkle of a diamond, so the Fuentiduena Chapel amplifies the impact of Cardiff’s recording. Its ancient limestones and wooden roof create a reverberant space that projects the voices – and listeners — heavenward, while its crucifixes, fonts and frescoes conjure an atmosphere like that in which Tallis first was heard. That this chapel was built by Spanish Christians engaged in a long holy war with Muslims adds contemporary resonance to the experience, reminding us that conflict is every bit as timeless as beauty.

The impact of Cardiff’s decision to place the installation in the chapel defeats arguments she is merely piggybacking on a masterpiece. True, she would be nowhere without Tallis – in the same way Jasper Johns would be nowhere without the American flag, Roy Lichtenstein nowhere without comics. Cardiff says her aim was to reveal the “sculptural” quality of the piece – and, indeed, hearing soloists and sub-choirs toss the melody line around the chapel like a divine volleyball is a fresh and striking experience.

But Cardiff’s most thrilling achievement is to enable the listener to stand close to one speaker and hear how a single voice – plaintive, fragile, lost-sounding on its own – gains strength and majesty when it joins in common purpose with 39 others. This unmistakable metaphor is what gives “The 40 Part Motet” its quiet power.