June 25, 2017

Janet Cardiff's "Forty Part Motet"

With a few hours to kill in London before my train back to Edinburgh today; I decided to drop into Tate Modern for a bit. Primarily my main objective was to check out the Giacometti exhibition (which I highly recommend), but I ended up having a quick wander through the Switch House afterwards. I'm thrilled at how my decision worked out, as there is a work currently on display which is a personal favourite.

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001 - Exhibited Tate Modern 2017

Janet Cardiff's Forty Part Motet is an audio installation that reworks Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium of 1570. If you're unfamiliar with the piece, here's the first forty seconds of it, performed by The Sixteen:

The piece is considered one of the greatest examples of early English music, composed to be sung by eight choirs of five voices each, making a total of forty voices all coming together in perfect harmony. Commissioned for the opening of BALTIC in 2002 (and re-shown there in 2012), Cardiff's installation gives the work a very modern twist, which I think Tallis himself would have enjoyed.

To create the installation, Cardiff recorded the 40 individual parts with the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Each of the voices is played through one of forty speakers arranged in the space in the eight choir groups, encircling a seated space for the listener. Each of the tracks plays together beautifully, reconstructing the piece as if it were within in a live setting. However, instead of the lofty churches and concert halls where you'd usually go to hear the motet, you're placed into a gallery space.

Forty Part Motet at BALTIC. Image: BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

At BALTIC, Forty Part Motet was shown in one of its white cube spaces, behind a freestanding wall, so you would hear the piece without knowing what you were going to see. In the Tate display, it has found a space in a dimly lit, cavernous gallery inside the tanks under the Switch House. I much preferred this setting, the darkness of the space enveloping you along with the music; creating a more atmospheric and charged experience.

Forty Part Motet at Tate Modern

Being able to immerse yourself in this piece in the concrete depths of the Tate is pretty neat; but the best aspect of the work is the opportunity it gives to wander and weave through the speakers, focusing on individual voices and shifting your perception of the motet as you walk around the sum of its parts. This aspect gives the experience a more human feeling, breaking the traditional barrier that exists between the listener and the performer. If you're in Tate Modern over the summer, I wholly recommend taking twenty minutes out of your day to experience it.