Posted by: Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr. | 1 November 2010

Walking Among 40 Voices


If you plan to be anywhere near New York City between now and November 13, I would strongly encourage you to see an amazing musical-art installation at the Time Warner Center, near Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle.

Janet Cardiff's installation “The Forty-Part Motet”

Janet Cardiff’s installation “The Forty-Part Motet”

Artist Janet Cardiff’s 2006 installation called “The Forty-Part Motet” is being temporarily resurrected. As you can see in the attached photo, she has placed 40 speakers in a circle, each one projecting 1 of 40 singers performing Thomas Tallis’ 16-century polyphonic masterpiece Spem in alium.

We usually think of “full choral” works as having 4 (SATB) or maybe 5 (SSATB) parts. This work, mammoth in its unprecedented 40 parts (8 choirs of 5 voices each, SATBarB), stands as one of the pinnacles of Western choral music. (Legend has it that it was written for the birth of Elizabeth I, though there appears to be no confirmation of that.)

Adrianne and I had the great fortune of hearing Spem in alium with a forty-voice choir at the Salisbury Festival inside gorgeous, reverberant Salisbury Cathedral some years back. Talk about a thrilling, mesmerizing, overwhelming, reverential, goose-bump-producing experience!

Well, in Ms. Cardiff’s installation, you can literally walk through the “choir” and listen to the amazing counterpoint of voices, phrases, and lines. So amazing is the impact, apparently, that almost five years after its 3-month run at its first home, NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, people still come in and ask to see it.

If you’ve never heard the short 10-minute piece, and even though NO recording can ever come close to capturing the effect of hearing this piece “live,” you can listen below (earphones recommended, and be sure to keep listening to the final 1 minute’s amazing line-upon-line coda).

I wish I were in New York this week!!!

(Taverner Consort and Choir, Andrew Parrott, directing)


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