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.

Although the singers aren’t present, Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet is, in a very real way, more intimate than a live performance in a concert hall. Moving among the speakers, one hears the imperfections in the individual voices. The boy soprano with the endearingly breathy tone, the tenor straining just a bit to reach a high note, the baritone who takes almost unseemly relish in rolling his r’s—up close, you can hear everyone, strong and weak. And then, when you back away, the voices blend. The individual lines, stark and not always tuneful on their own, weave into beautiful harmonies, and as you walk through the warp and weft, the music is like a physical presence, different from every vantage point. Through some mysterious alchemy, the motet becomes an ever-shifting landscape, a sonic sculpture, and the whole of it is far greater than its parts.