When Old Music Equals Modern Art

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"Why is this art?"

That was my initial reaction when I read about The Forty Part Motet, a work by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff that consists of 40 speakers in an oval. Each speaker plays back a single voice from a choir performing a 400-year old piece of music by Thomas Tallis called Spem In Alium. That’s it. That’s the whole piece.

Yes, each speaker is on a stand, but this is not sculpture. The music is beautiful, but it has been beautiful for four centuries; Cardiff didn’t write it or arrange it. She simply recorded it. 


Hear an excerpt of The Forty Part Motet.


So, why is this art? The only way to answer that question is to experience The Forty Part Motet. Tallis’s piece was not for a 40-voice choir doing the usual four parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). He actually wrote 40 distinct lines, or parts -- one for each voice. So being inside Cardiff’s installation allows you to walk up to one “singer” and hear his or her part, then back away to hear several voices together, and perhaps wander past each voice in turn or just bask in the center of a glorious whole. 


Janet Cardiff's 'The Forty Part Motet (2001)' is now at Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters museum and gardens. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago)


The piece plays on a continuous loop, although there is a pause after each “performance,” during which you can hear the sounds of the people around you. I’ve seen the piece twice: once in London, and once here in New York at the White Lights Festival. And in that silence between loops, these are some things I’ve heard: The sighing sound of a person suddenly realizing he’d been holding his breath. Two people whispering “wow” in unison. A woman quietly sobbing. 


Janet Cardiff's 'The Forty Part Motet (2001)' is now at  Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters museum and gardens.


It’s a bunch of speakers playing music. But is this art? Step into the space where those sounds are aimed, and the answer is clear: Oh yes. Wow. 


The Forty Part Motet is at The Cloisters, in their 12th century Spanish apse, through Dec. 8, 2013.