Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet is a musical piece of art that was staged at the National Gallery of Ontario’s Rideau Chapel. I have never heard or seen it, although obviously have heard of it, and something about it must have appealed to my subconscious mind as the other night I dreamed about it
It’s a relatively simple concept: Janet took Thomas Tallis’ 1573 composition Spem In Alium, a 40 part motet composed for eight choirs or five voices, and had it recorded by a cathedral choir with each of the 40 voices being recorded onto a separate track. These 40 voices are then played back through 40 speakers set around a room or hall.
It’s a deconstruction, if you like, of the music. If you stand in the middle, you can hear it as a whole. However, as you make your way around the room, each speaker gives a disjointed performance, proving that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The artist herself says, "While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position. With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music. I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis. You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all of the singers are singing.”
But I particularly liked what A Washington Post article (2005) by Blake Gopnik had to say: “In "40 Part Motet," you get a shock when you realize what strange things go into building beauty. But also a reaffirmation of the miracle of art: Fragile human effort, almost painfully awkward, can come together into something worthy of divinity.”
Building Beauty. I was stuck by that. Because it’s kind of what my life is like. Surrounded by what can sometimes be harsh and often discordant noise (the third interruption by a child while I’m soaking in my bubble bath; the barking of the dog at an innocent leaf blowing across the driveway, the rattle of an overloaded washing machine, all of these at once, etc.), it’s easy to crave solitude and the peace of a white room.
But maybe the lesson Janet Cardiff wants us to learn is that together, all these things make a masterpiece of beauty and perfection.
We just need to see it whole.