Encircled by Sound: Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet”

A choral singer visits a contemporary sound installation inspired by a centuries-old piece of music.

They stand mostly in clusters, looking like a roomful of zombies, until I peer into their faces. Then I see expressions of rapture, peace, and delight, some so overcome by emotion they’re in tears. One man raises his arms up and out, in a posture of adoration. Another listens with his head tilted upwards towards the heavens. Whenever I catch someone’s eye we smile, an acknowledgement of mutual understanding. We now share a secret. 

I have just walked into the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art nestled inside Fort Tryon Park in a neighborhood above Harlem called Washington Heights. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the park has so many irresistible paths leading into one magical, verdant scene after another that by the time I reached the castle-like peak of the museum, I was already filled with enchantment.

Stacy Horn

I could hear the music even before I reached the ticket booth. Twenty more feet and I am inside the Chapel, enveloped in sound.

On loan to the Museum since 1957, the more than three thousand limestone blocks that make up the apse of the twelfth-century Chapel were dismantled from the church of San Martín in Fuentidueña, Spain, and carted over land and sea to be reassembled here. I am aware of the light coming in the arched windows and a large wooden cross hanging from the arch at the other end of the gallery, but I really only get a general feel for the room. I am too caught up in the music.

The installation I have come to see is titled “The Forty Part Motet” and it is the work of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff. Cardiff is known for her audio-based “walking pieces,” and “The Forty Part Motet” is perhaps her most famous. In 2000, Cardiff recorded the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing “Spem in alium numquam habui” (In No Other Is My Hope), a forty-part motet written in the sixteenth century by the English composer Thomas Tallis. Eight choirs of five voice parts each alternately take turns and come together to sing this text (it’s sung in Latin, this is the English translation):

I have never put my hope in any
besides you, O God of Israel,
who grows angry, but then,
becoming gracious, forgives all the
sins of men in their tribulation:
Lord God, creator of heaven and
earth, look upon our lowliness.

During the recording, each singer was individually miked. In the installation, each of their voices comes out of one of forty speakers arranged in an oval in the Chapel, separated into the eight choir groups, with a soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass in every group. The piece lasts for 11 minutes, and after a three minute intermission it begins again, over and over, in a continuous loop.

After the first loop I hear a loud cough. It seems to echo throughout the room, and I quickly realize it is coming from one of the speakers. When the music ends, you can hear the singers talking to each other during the break. In some cases I only get snippets of conversations, “If I’m very hungover...” or “he’s completely balmy, but very sweet.” In others, the exchanges are more complete. Like these two singers:  “Why do we have a microphone?” “So they can hear you waving your arms about.” “It’s probably switched off anyway.” No such luck. 

Another two critique their performance. “In 19 we’re going too fast.” “When we turn the page from 19 to 20, that last bar to the first, we always get that wrong.” I laugh. Every singer knows the perils of a page turn. I am particularly intrigued by this exchange from Choir 8:  “Touch your brain with your fingers,” a man says, followed by laughter from the singers around him. “As his life essence ebbs away through the hole in his head,” the man continues. More laughter. In that instant, Choir 8 becomes my favorite. Although their fun took place 13 years in the past, I want to join them. 

Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago

If you regularly sing in a choir, at some point you can’t help but wish that everyone in the world could experience the best part of choir singing, the total immersion in harmony. When you’re in the audience at a choral performance, the singers are in front of you, often far away. It sounds wonderful, but there’s no getting around the fact that it doesn’t sound as great as what I hear standing in the choir, and, more to the point, it doesn’t feel as great. Cardiff has said that her installation was designed to give the audience the closest possible approximation to what singers typically experience. She couldn’t have selected a more perfect piece of music. Due to the sheer number of glorious harmonic moments, “Spem in alium” has perhaps the greatest chance of successfully putting any audience member in the middle of dizzying, glittering, aural bliss. 

First, there’s the arrangement of singers. Choirs either sing with all the voice parts standing together in sections, or all mixed up. My choir, for instance, sings in quartets. I’m a soprano, but in any given rehearsal or performance, I might have an alto or tenor or bass to either side of me, rarely another soprano. “Spem in alium” is organized in quintets. Singing in this way intensifies the experience of harmony. Different voice parts swirl all around you, coming in and out of ever-evolving harmonic combinations, making sounds that cannot be heard or felt any other way. It’s a surge of beauty that does not come from any one individual voice or voice part, but from the blend of voices. When everything lines up just right you’re vibrating with such a wondrous feeling of musical rapport that you’re almost afraid to move.

Cardiff has said that her installation was designed to give the audience the closest possible approximation to what singers typically experience. She couldn’t have selected a more perfect piece of music.

“Spem in alium” is also ideal because of Tallis’s sheer contrapuntal genius. It’s not just the harmony but the glorious complexity of all the harmonies. Forty voice parts. It should have been a cacophonous mess. It begins with a single voice, then others join in. Different choirs take over while others fall silent; sometimes they all sing together. As all the voices alternately unite, then pass each other by in seemingly endless combinations, new harmonies are revealed. The array and number of musical lines dancing around the room, each imbued with intelligence and direction, and evoking the heart of the text—hope and mercy—are breathtaking. It’s a polyphonic tour de force.  

This is why when you walk into the Fuentidueña Chapel you’ll see people pinned to their chosen listening spots, some practically hugging the speakers in an effort to get closer. They’re encircled by sound in a way that perhaps many have never experienced before. They aren’t just listening to a masterpiece; like singers they’re also physically feeling a masterpiece, vibrating from head to toe with harmony. Some weep because it’s a new experience for them. Others, I suspect, because they’ve had this experience before—maybe in a grade school or college choir—but it’s been a while. 

Whatever the reason, it’s not surprising I’ve never seen the Cloisters this crowded. “The museum has been recording double, and, at times, more than double, the typical Cloisters daily door count,” Anne Strauss, the curator of the exhibit, tells me. “There have been lines to enter ever since ‘The Forty Part Motet’ installation went on view.” 

I spend hours at the installation, and at times, find myself chasing voices. I hear a singer that I love and run to that speaker, then hear other exquisite voices from elsewhere in the room. ‘Should I come back with the score, so I’ll know who is singing when?’ I wonder. ‘Oh!  There’s a great singer somewhere over there!’ And once again I run. 

Some people choose to listen in the middle for this reason. Technically that should be best, because that’s where the sound is the most balanced. However, while there is really no wrong place to stand, the middle is not my favorite spot. When I leave the intimacy of standing close to the speakers, the life goes out of the music a little, the intensity dimmed. I feel like I am in an audience again, and the connection to the singers and the music loses some of its strength.

Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago

At a certain point I look up to study where others are standing. That’s when I remember to turn around, with my back toward the speakers. When you sing in a choir, the person you hear most clearly is not the singer to either side of you, but the person singing directly behind you. If you have a great singer behind you, rehearsals and performances are sheer heaven. You still hear the beautiful whole, but one angelic voice floats above the rest. I run back around the room, revisiting my favorites, and listening to them the “right” way.  

I noticed one woman crying. We speak for a minute about how great the installation is, and then she says, “You have to excuse me, I must continue weeping.” I see a young man huddled into the speakers who moves on to the next choir at the end of every loop. In this one way, this experience is actually superior to singing in a choir. You can move around to different singers, try different groups, put different favorites—no, every favorite—at your back. 

“Are you a singer?” I ask the young man. “No. I just love the music.” His name is David Lockhart and he’s a long-standing fan of the Cloisters, he tells me later. This is his second time at the installation. I ask how he knew to listen with his back to the speakers. He’d read that the intent of the piece was to give the listener the sense of being within the chorus, so “it seemed logical.” He tried facing the speakers, but he “didn't feel the same vibrational effect.” Then he points out another way this experience offered something singing in a choir does not. He listened with his eyes closed, something a singer would never do. And when he did, he felt “as if the voices lifted me up and carried me across a vast field of light. It was deeply transcendent and quite intoxicating. At times, the experience was too intense and I had to open my eyes in order to ground myself and become reoriented to the physical space.”

At a certain point I began to wonder what it was like for the singers in the Salisbury Cathedral Choir in 2000, whose voices were transporting us today. You can hear the conductor, Simon Lole, tell the choir before they begin, “Unless there’s a calamity I won’t stop.” There were actually fifty-nine singers: 27 children (boys and girls) and 32 adult men, with the children singing in groups of two, three and four to a voice part. Rosie Oglethorpe and Sophie Bradley, who were 12 years old at the time, remember it as being “fun, because it was so different from our day-to-day singing.” But as regular members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, who sang in public several times a week, it doesn’t seem to stand out for them. When Sophie described visiting the installation herself, however, like every other visitor she found it “incredibly moving.” “Even more so,” she added, “to know that my voice contributed to it.” 

“The room where the recording took place was very cramped with about sixty people,” Lole told me in an email, “and we only had about two hours to record the whole thing, sound check and all.” Although some may have sung it before, “the men had just read it on the evening of the rehearsal.” The trebles (the soprano part) needed a few rehearsals, however. “Nothing is desperately difficult,” Lole explained. “But simply adhering to your own part against seven other similar ones is a challenge.”

If you are a singer and you’ve been trying to explain to your friends why you are in the thrall of your choir and can never miss a rehearsal, tell them to go to this installation, pick a set of speakers, and turn around.

I learned that one of the choir members, Rory Waters, a bass, died in 2010, when he was 56. Rory sang in Choir 1, the first set of speakers you come across when you walk into the Chapel. You can hear his voice in the first speaker on the right. I put my ear close to that speaker. Rory doesn’t talk much. He sounds like he has a cold, actually. But when Simon Lole summons the choir’s attention to get ready to begin, I hear Waters very clearly say, “Let’s rock.”

“There are eternal truths to be found in this music,” wrote Jameson Marvin, Emeritus Director of Choral Activities, Senior Lecturer on Music, Harvard University, about the sacred works of this period, “truths that when revealed, can provide solace for us, just as this music did for Renaissance citizens hundreds of years ago...Through that sound, performers and listeners alike are drawn, in contemplation, to a place of quiet, another world, a place in which energies can be renewed, spirits rejuvenated, souls refreshed.”

In the end, Cardiff’s "Forty Part Motet" gives both people who usually sing in a choir and people who usually listen from the audience an experience of music they wouldn’t otherwise have. Feeling music in this way connects you to the performers, the composer, and to anyone else who ever heard or sang this music before, placing you along a musical line of the past, present and future which, at the most heightened, transcending moments, is like channeling eternity itself. Who wouldn’t sob? If you are a singer and you’ve been trying to explain to your friends why you are in the thrall of your choir and can never miss a rehearsal, tell them to go to this installation, pick a set of speakers, and turn around.

Stacy Horn is the author of Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others. Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” is the first presentation of contemporary art at The Cloisters, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, through December 8, 2013.

Get News