The Forty-Part Motet

Special installation at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the White Light Festival through November 13.

The idea is so simple that it’s easy to underestimate. The installation divides the individual voices of a choir onto separate speakers that surround visitors as they listen to a performance of a sixteenth-century motet. One can sit in the center of the oval, awash in the music, or one can walk up to the speakers and hear the choir atomize back into individual voices. There’s not much to it.

Yet however simple an idea it is, multimedia artist Janet Cardiff executes it beautifully. For starters, choosing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium was a stroke of genius. The motet features forty parts or, more precisely, eight quintets, with intricate polyphony both inside and among the fivesomes. At the center of the room, you hear the music moving around the oval, in front of you and behind you, introducing new ideas, echoing old ones, until suddenly all the voices sound at once in an almost overwhelming deluge of sound.