ReviewJanet Cardiff's audio installation lets you inside the music
Posted by Alison Gillmor, reviewer | Monday February 4, 2013
Janet Cardiff, "Forty Part Motet", 2001 40-track audio installation (National Gallery of Canada)
Get into the music--I mean, really into the music--with The Forty Part Motet, an extraordinary sound installation now open at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
As part of the WAG's ongoing centennial celebrations, this 14-minute work by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff is on loan from the National Gallery of Canada.
The Forty Part Motet doesn't look like much: 40 speakers on black stands arranged in an oval. It centres on sound, in particular the ethereally beautiful choral work Spem in alium by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis.
Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001. 40-track audio installation (National Gallery of Canada)
Here's a fun fact, When Cardiff created this piece in 2001, Tallis was mostly known to classical music lovers. Since then his popularity has been boosted by the SM-porn sensation Fifty Shades of Grey, in which Spem in alium provides the background music for an, um, unusual erotic encounter.
The experience of this work goes beyond listening, though. It feels as if you are actually inside the music, with the sound building to an effect that's not just aesthetic but emotional, even physical. It's no surprise that The Forty Part Motet has been a huge audience favourite wherever it's travelled.
The work starts very quietly, so quietly you might not realize it. The sound replication is so realistic that when you first hear the random coughing, throat-clearing and whispered chat you might assume it's the ambient noise of fellow gallery-goers. In fact, this is a recording of the members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir as they prepare to perform.
And then the music begins. It starts low, then swells, sustains for long minutes that still seem too short, and then subsides.
After a brief silence, the choir members, who a few moments ago seemed to be angels, gradually revert to being regular human beings. They shuffle, laugh and talk as they re-enter the mundane world.
Cardiff seems to be examining how sound sculpts space, as this nondescript gallery with acoustic-tile ceiling becomes, momentarily, a kind of sacred place. You also craft your own experience of the music by the way you move.
Stand in the centre of the oval and feel the massed harmonies of the whole choir acting and reacting in big waves of sound. Approach a single speaker and trace the precise line of an individual voice.
The artist also explores how sound shapes time, and vice versa. While it lasts, the music seems to hold you in some otherworldly suspension. Just to be still and listen for 14 minutes is a rare experience in our jittery, over-stimulated, multitasking culture.
As with much of the work Cardiff has done with her partner George Bures Miller--their piece The Paradise Institute was installed at Plug In in 2002--The Forty Part Motet also speaks to the ways technology is shaping our culture.
The technology of this piece is made very clear in the black speakers, which stand like impersonal, identical mechanical sentinels around the room. There's a strange disconnect with the lifelike realism of the sound, with its warmth and vibrancy and humanity. The work's incredible beauty is also just a bit uncanny.
There will be a free public opening of The Forty Part Motet at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on February 15th.