Spem in Alium

Possibly one of my favourite art pieces that I had the chance to experience in person is Canadian Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet. Janet Cardiff’s work is really fascinating, and exactly the kind of art that I like; organic, immediate without being superficial, and involving. Her work requires you to participate in some way, whether it’s mentally, physically, emotionally, or all three.

Last year when I was visiting Montreal with my friend Paul (photos here), there was a large collection of Janet Cardiff’s work at the Musée D’art Contemporain de Montréal. The centrepiece of the exhibition was the Forty-Part Motet, which is based around a choral piece by composer Thomas Tallis entitled Spem in Alium.

cardiff.jpgThe piece is set in a very large room, with seating and mats directly in the centre. At the periphery of the room and encirling the seating are forty high-quality speakers, each one on a speaker stand which raises it to head level.

Just before Spem in Alium begins, you can hear each of the forty singers warming up, coughing, and talking. The beauty of the piece is that Cardiff has separated each singer into their own speaker, so you can walk around the room and focus in on one single voice, step back and listen to a small section of singers, or sit in the middle of the room and take in everything at once.

Spem in Alium starts off as a simple, quiet piece, but slowly becomes more and more multi-layered as more voices join in counterpart, repeating the same prayer, until the piece nearly overwhelms you in wave after wave of sound. By itself, it’s an astonishingly beautiful, emotional piece of music. In the context that Cardiff presents it in, it’s devastating. I’m not a deeply religious person, but if anything can communicate what it feels like to swoon in the sense of god, it’s this.

Before you read any further, listen to an except from the piece.

Cardiff’s work in this piece seems to have honed and clarified the emotions of Spem in Alium. The singing lasts for around 15 minutes, and by the end the overlapping voices build to such a crescendo that it is almost orgastic in its emotional impact. When Paul and I heard this piece, a large percentage of the people listening were in tears at the end. The sound was loud, bone-shaking, and arrestingly clear.

Some people lay on the floor and closed their eyes as they listened, while others sat. Paul and I walked around the room, focusing in on one single speaker, and one single voice, and then moving back into the centre of the room to immerse ourselves in the full spectrum of the sound.

Forty-Part Motet is more than just a gorgeous piece of music, or a fascinating way of working with sound: it is a perfect example of collaborative beauty. I’ve been thinking a lot about how experiencing this piece affected me, and how I seem to return to the memory of this experience again and again. If you ever get the chance to partake of Cardiff’s work, and Forty-Part Motet, don’t hesitate.

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