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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Forty-Part Motet

Janet Cardiff, The Forty-Part Motet, MoMA installation view, Autumn 2005With its recent installation of Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet MoMA has created what has to be one of the most sublimely beautiful spaces in Midtown Manhattan. (An installation view is at right.) It's not fashionable these days to use words like "sublime" and "beautiful" without scare quotes, but I'm simply at a loss for how to describe the work without them.

Cardiff's piece, for those not familiar with this well-traveled sound installation, is a recording of Thomas Tallis's polyphonic choral work from 1575, Spem in alium. Tallis's Latin text translates this way:
I have never put my hope in any other but in you God of Israel who will be angry and yet become again gracious and who forgives all the sins of suffering man. Lord God Creator of Heaven and Earth look upon our lowliness.
For this piece, Cardiff recorded each of the forty unique vocal parts individually. The installation consists of forty speakers arranged in an oval, each speaker playing back a voice of one member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Cardiff's advanced recording and playback technology creates the experience of a live performance that typical two-channel playback cannot. The elliptical installation gives visitors the ability to move around and through the sound in a way that is not possible when the piece is performed by a live choir.

Simply put, the recording stuns. If, as the choir crescendos, you don't feel a shiver rise somewhere inside you, you have to be emotionally tone deaf. Both times I've visited the piece in the last few weeks, I've fought to hold back an involuntary display of emotion. As I struggled to keep my eyes dry, I looked around the gallery space and saw others furtively wiping their eyes, hoping that no one else was noticing.

I've already decided that while this piece is installed over the next year it will become a regular lunch hour stop when I am working in New York. I'll be curious to see, though, just how my reaction to the piece will change the more that I experience it because in trying to determine what about the piece gives it such emotional power, I've realized that it's not anything in Cardiff's work.

Thomas TallisThe Forty-Part Motet takes all of its emotional punch from the choir's performance of Tallis's piece. Most serious singers include Spem in alium on the short list of works they want to perform some day because the piece creates a sound environment that is unique and that (prior to Cardiff's work) could not be adequately reproduced using recording technology.

In her piece Cardiff has harnessed the power of a live performance by using the skills of a master recording technician. She does not add to the effect of a live performance of Spem in alium; rather, she optimizes the recording of the performance to recreate the effect of a live event better than any recording engineer has been able to do to date. Unlike her other work where she creates original sound environments, here Cardiff has recreated a sound environment originally developed over 400 years ago.

Filtered through Cardiff's technology, the music sounds good enough to make listeners choke up. I can't help but wonder, though, if I will continue to have that experience over repeated visits. I still become emotional every time I hear the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony performed live. But that only happens for me a couple times a decade. I wonder if listening to Cardiff's recording of Spem in alium once a week over the next year in this walk-in sound chamber will dull my sensibilities to the work. I question whether the technological mediation of my experience of the piece of music will get in the way of my continued appreciation for the performance that has been recorded.

The magic of a live performance (recreated so well here) may be just that--magic created by real people in a passing moment in time. When that performance repeats exactly every fourteen minutes all day every day, the magic may dissipate. Only time will tell if Cardiff's piece has the staying power of the original, unmediated Spem in alium. I hope that it does, but I'm not sure that it will.



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