Forty Part Motet
Janet Cardiff’s sound sculpture, titled Forty Part Motet, is an audio installation creating a 14 minute long choral experience. The installation is setup in a fairly dark room as a contribution to the complex audio that will consume the entirety of the audience’s experience. The audience will hear the sixteenth-century choral work Spem in Alium by Thomas Talli upon entering the room. The piece involves 40 bare speakers setup on basic metal stands. The 40 speakers correspond to the 40 unique singing voices in the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, each speaker representing a separate individual in the choir. The speakers are then positioned in 8 groups of 5, forming the choir of the five vocal ranges: bass, baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano. Together, the 40 speakers form a circle, allowing the audience to experience the incredible complexity of Talli’s piece as each speaker is positioned inward toward the center of the circle. This positioning creates the rich and dynamic harmonies present in the sculpture. The audience is able to walk around in the interior space, therefore experiencing the movement of the music, with the newfound capability to dissect every note and every voice. The 3-dimensional sound experience allows the audience to position themselves in hundreds of different spots, with a completely unique experience in each one. Cardiff compared the music of the piece to, “water in a river” as it flows and moves through the audience. The sixteenth century piece unifies the 40 voices while it simultaneously highlights each individual. As described in the previous evaluations of the installation, the music of the piece is both “achingly beautiful” and “transcendent.” While the score itself is a stunning composition, the placement of the speakers paired with the acoustics of the room create an experience of overwhelming beauty as the sound waves create a stimulating sensory experience. The juxtaposition between the angelic music and the simplistic speaker technology anticipates the potential of audio in an art space in the 21st century.
This piece creates a newfound intimacy with technology and the complex components of audio. Society has become accustomed to technology, and therefore the audience feels comfortable approaching each speaker to dissect the sound and digest the entirety of the experience. Comparatively, an audience member of a church choir would never approach the choral and therefore the audience has been neglected the opportunity to break the experience into the fragments made up by the individuals of the choir. This causes the audience to question their differing comfort levels with technology and human interaction. Technology has become so rooted in everyday life that a speaker has become a more approachable subject than the artist it represents. With Cardiff’s use of the familiar speaker systems, the concert experience is transformed into a piece meant for both entertainment and exploration. Elegantly put by Alva Noë’s critique of the piece, the sculpture creates a
As the audiences travels through the interior space, they begin to remix the piece, highlighting certain singers while others fade into the background. As the audience evaluates the individual, they are able to consume every note, and therefore every mistake. The speaker takes on an individual’s voice and therefore the speaker begins to take on the singer’s identity. This process of humanizing the speaker contributes to the emotional component of the piece. Society has preconception that technology is emotionless, cold, and unconnected to traditional practices. This piece dares to defy all aspects of the generalization as it creates an overwhelmingly emotional audio experience with the hauntingly beautiful structure of sound.
In Martin Backes, What Do Machines Sing Of, a black screen stands tall on a black stand, with the face of the screen facing a microphone propped up to equal height. As the words of a song float across the top of the screen, a horizontal bar on the bottom of the screen depicts the “mouth” of the piece. The bar fluctuates size along with the melody of the music, portraying a computational version of karaoke.
As the computer begins to sing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” a robotic hum delicately plays the tune of the ballad. Similar to Forty Part Motet, a wave of emotion strikes the audience, yet shortly following those sentiments are ones of disconcertment because the subject evoking these emotions is a simple piece of technology. These pieces attempt to heighten the perception of technology and question the emotive capabilities of tech in the 21st century. These two pieces allow simplistic visual arrangements to balance the technical components of the audio and the complex concepts behind an emotional experience piloted exclusively by technology.
The piece seamlessly ties together 40 channels to create one cohesive sound. A similar feat can be witnessed in Mendi and Keith Obadike’s Ring Shout (for Octavia Butler) as four speakers lay separate on the four walls of the room. The audio tracks blends text from Butler’s unpublished novel with audio recordings of the Earth’s electromagnetic atmosphere, a shuffling ring shout rhythm, and sine tones translating Butler's name to an audio track
These four very different channels placed on the circumference of the room create the same dynamic audio experience in Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet. While the experiences are very different in their tone and audio style, the installations allow the audience to experience each component of the track depending on where they stand. This structural style gives the audience control of their own experience, while also exemplifying the unique capabilities of a sound sculpture.
The harmonies of the piece depict the incredible unity of the choir. Each speaker produces audio that becomes a cog in a very well-oiled machine. Created in 2001, the sculpture maintains cultural importance by depicting the beauty of 40 voices that find power in their cohesion. 2001is a year marked by the severely escalated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the tragedy of 9/11, and the U.S. decision to withdrawal from the Missile Treaty. With the world split into opposing teams, Cardiff’s piece is a refreshing reminder of the harmony present in collaboration. The transcendent music is a product of 40 voices that sing their part, not for a solo or spotlight, but because they are part of something much bigger than themselves. This sculpture highlights the power of changing perspective in a point of heated political adversity, while also providing a point of absolute escapism as the beauty of washes over the audience.
Cleveland Museum of Art
Mobile Museum of Art
Tacoma Art Museum
National Gallery of Canada
High Museum of Art