Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet”

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Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” installed at the The Met Museum’s Cloisters in New York City

Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” is a 21st-century art installation that reworks a very old choral composition — Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in Alium,” written over 500 years ago. In 2000, Cardiff, a Canadian artist, recorded 40 individual vocalists singing “Spem in Alium,” each on a separate microphone. In “The Forty Part Motet,” 40 speakers are arranged in a large oval, each playing one singer’s part.

The effect is otherworldly. Stand in the center of the oval and the choir surrounds you, fully immersing you in the music. Walk around the edge, though, and you can press your ear to an individual speaker, hearing the individual’s voice in the crowd — breathing, going off key — more intimately than you ever would in life. “It feels like it’s on the back of your neck when you’re listening to it,” says Cardiff. “There’s a sense of safety in technology, but at the same time there’s a sense of connection. You don’t lose the connection of the human voice, but you get the safety of not having to stand right next to that person.”

For many people, the effect is emotional and unsettling. “The work becomes shorthand for how we know the world to work,” says Peter Eleey, curator at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 (where “The Forty Part Motet” was first shown in the United States). “We have these things we encounter in collective forms — going to movies, or a football game, or voting, where we feel ourselves inscribed within the collective. And then at the same time, as we move about our lives, we mostly feel isolated from that.”

(Originally aired October 25, 2013)

Video: "Spem in Alium" performed by The Sixteen


Music Playlist

  1. 40 Part Motet

    Artist: Janet Cardiff
  2. Spem in alium numquam habui

    Artist: Thomas Tallis
    Album: Recorded at Janet Cardiff's "The Forty Part Motet"