The story goes that late 16th century Tudor composer Thomas Tallis wrote Spem in alium, Latin for “in no other is my hope,” for Queen Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday. Forty different voices for forty sublime years. A fine gift and show of faith in a moderate Queen at the height of the English Renaissance, the motet is a complex polyphonic composition that is certainly ambitious. But it also has an inherent air of supplication in its sentiment. The singers sing of devotion to a god who can be gracious, yes, but also angry at times. The singers know their place in the order of things.
In a borrowed Spanish chapel in the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan, Janet Cardiff reimagines Tallis’ most famous work. She has exhibited this piece before but never in a setting that lifts the work to transcendent heights. Cardiff is one of the most exciting sound artists alive today. Her installations have been featured at MoMA (main building), the Tate Liverpool and the National Gallery of Canada. Her work features a fascination with space and sound and how voices can transform an environment. There is often a void in her pieces that can only be filled by those who experience it.
The idea is that a greater unity is created through separation. Cardiff has individually recorded the voices in The Forty Part Motet with a high quality microphone, up close and personal. The singers can be heard chatting and warming up before the piece starts, which is one of the most poignantly naked moments (and most whimsical) in the 14-minute conceptualization. The speakers are lined up near the walls of the chapel and when the singing begins it can feel like a gathering of the most mellifluous and benevolent ghosts in the world. Many close their eyes. Some hold their lovers. Others walk through the respective meditations to get closer to each mind and heart on fire and lean into the warmth. All are moved. Deeply. Spiritually.
You might imagine that every time you hear The Forty Part Motet it’s different, and you’re right. It all depends on where you stand. And therein is the secret to this work and to Cardiff’s art-making in general. Somehow we are able to gain insight into what it is that makes us human. For Cardiff it is our proximity to each other—the voices that have come before us, the voices that are here now and even the echoes that will lead us into the future—how we all blend and stand out simultaneously, miraculously. How our voices create music, sanctity…even love.
Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet is on a constant loop at the Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel through December 8th. metmuseum.org
photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago