What do people experience when they first walk into a room hosting Janet Cardiff’s installation, “The forty part motet”?

Firstly, lots of speakers in a room, standing in ovular formation.

A wide view of the artwork - multiple speakers in an oval

After a few moments you realise that the sound coming from each speaker is subtly different. You hear a cough to your left, that isn’t on the right. A snatch of chat in front of you. Hints of a vocal warmup behind. A distant direction – “I’m going to try and run this without stopping.”

Silence falls.

Then, from one speaker, just one voice. An alto. “Spem”.

Another voice joins within a few seconds. A brief duet.

Then another. And another. In a few seconds more the sound grows to the speakers on your right. Still more voices join in.

By now you’ve realised the sound is moving around the room in a circle. You’ve probably noticed that each individual speaker is playing the recording of one voice. If you’re really paying attention you may notice that the speakers aren’t in a constant oval – it’s eight groups of five. Eight choirs. Each grouping holds a speaker with the voice of a Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass.

A speaker representing one voice in the artwork

By now, you’re being swept away by the song. It rises and falls, stops and starts. Brief glimpses of exposed high soprano lines rise out of the whole. What started with one voice is more than forty separate voices, each pursuing a different tune, yet coming together to create one sound which, experienced from the centre of the room, is transcendental.

Then you approach individual speakers. Individual voices. The whole becomes separate again. Complex, yet utterly harmonious.

The piece – Thomas Tallis’s Spem In Alium – was written for forty individual voices in the sixteenth century. This modern technology could be taking you back more than 500 years to Arundel House, home of the Duke of Norfolk, and the first performance of this choral masterpiece (though that performance almost certainly featured instruments alongside the singers).

You’re discovering two masterpieces in one – a masterpiece for Tallis as the composer, but also for Janet Cardiff, creator of this audio installation.

3 minutes of introduction is followed by 11 minutes of singing. It ends as suddenly, though far more dramatically, as it started. Just for a moment, the silence at the end grips you tightly.

Then, after a few seconds,you can relax, and it starts again. Only now you want to know more – who made this, how was it made, and what is that incredible piece of music? The information provided on the wall isn’t nearly enough, so you leave curious.

I experienced all of that, and yet more.

Since 2005 when I first heard this piece performed at a late night BBC Prom in the Royal Albert Hall, I’ve had something of an obsession with Spem In Alium. A motet of epic scale, performed extremely rarely in the noughties but now becoming more popular (in no small part because it features in one of the Fifty Shades books).

Shortly after I first heard Spem, I learned about Janet Cardiff’s installation, but by then I was too late – this Arts Council England funded recording of Salisbury Cathedral Choir was already delighting people overseas. There were times when it was in the UK and I simply didn’t know, but for fourteen years I have wanted to be in the room with those forty voices and today, at York Art Gallery, I finally was.

I didn’t cry. I’m surprised by that. I’m definitely a crier. Performances and recordings of Spem in Alium have moved me to tears many times over the years. But not today – perhaps because excitement and joy, fascination and wonder overrode all over emotions.

I spent two hours listening to that recording – eight times in all. The first time round I got all to myself. By lunchtime, I was able to enjoy watching others interact with the installation. A child’s complete surprise when the first alto begins to sing. An elderly man standing in the centre of the room, eyes closed, being gently rocked from side to side as the music swirled around him. Three friends who listened for a while, smiled, left, and then came back fifteen minutes later to experience two full performances. The gasps and giggles as people realise the music was moving around them.

Then the crowning glory at the end of the recording, people asking – “what was that piece? I must make a note of that.”

I can’t begin to imagine how many times that recording has been played in 14 years, or what aging technology it runs on, but to my ear it could have been recorded yesterday.

Sound cables disappearing into a wall

Two works of pure joy. Art at its transformative, transportational, transcendental best.

‘The forty part motet’ is at York Art Gallery until March 10 2019.

Robin sitting in the middle of the artwork
Categories: Music

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