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Forty-Part Motet

Janet Cardiff, 40 Part Motet, 2001, Museum of Modern ArtOn one of his trips to New York last fall, Mark told us about Janet Cardiff's sound installation at the Modern and gave us a picture. Cardiff's piece, 40 Part Motet: A Reworking of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis is from 2001 (MoMA has an MP3 file, intended for children, on their Web site). Reactions have been varied. Justin Davidson, guest blogging at The Rest Is Noise, was positive and gave an enthusiastic co-review with art critic Ariella Budick (Davidson's wife) for Newsday:

Forty speakers set on stands ring the room like stick-figure choristers. The single voice that emanates from each is all too human and fallible - an adenoidal tenor here, a squeaky boy soprano there, a gurgling bass against the far wall. But that's the miracle of choirs: Whip together all these earthbound individuals and you get swirls of celestial harmony.

In Janet Cardiff's installation "40 Part Motet," sound coalesces into architecture. Cardiff has squeezed into a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art music that could fill a cathedral: "Spem in Alium," the late 16th century motet by the Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis. The music's structure is audible and clear. Cadences support the ceiling. Arches of counterpoint buttress the walls. The singing multiplies the space, endowing the severe white room with soaring vaults and stained glass windows.
For a contrasting view, read the pan by Chris at Zeke's Gallery in Montréal, who admits that he doesn't like Janet Cardiff's work. As it happens, he experienced 40 Part Motet at another installation of it, in a chapel that belongs to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. He gives it a grade of "G (worse than F-)":
It was my first time hearing it, seeing it, experiencing it. And I can say quite confidently, it is nice. Nice as in my grandmother. Nice as in chocolate chip cookies and milk. Nice as in a four week old kitten. Groundbreaking it ain't, cutting edge it ain't, thought provoking it ain't. And I think, actually I know, that while there are lots and lots of people who like art that is safe and nice (or else why would Thomas Kinkade or Jack Vettriano be so gosh darn filthy rich?) I most definitely prefer my art to be served with a pneumatic drill, a razor or a furrowed brow. [...]

Spem in Alium is a piece of music that was written for 40 voices. The piece of art that Ms. Cardiff created is called "40 Part Motet," so then why are 63 people credited with singing? Had the chat tag already gone to the engravers and it was too late to correct? Could it be that there is some electronic hanky-panky going on? Why seven choirs of eight voices and one choir of seven voices? Or were the sopranos told to whisper and that's why they had to be tripled up? [...] [W]hy if some company called "SoundMoves" recorded the sucker, it was sung by 63 other people, conducted by two others, written by Thomas Tallis, produced by Theresa Bergne, and the speakers were made by Bowers & Wilkens, then what exactly did Ms. Cardiff do in order to get top billing? Or is this a case of make work for some art historian 346 years from now?
Ottawa certainly has a more beautiful room in which to install it. The installation will be open in New York until March 21 and until April 17 in Ottawa.

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