Tallis' Forty Loudspeaker Motet

B&W speakers and no singers in St Peter's Parmentergate Norwich for Janet Cardiff's performance piece.

One of the most innovative music performances at the Norfolk and Norwich Music Festival didn't involve any live musicians. Janet Cardiff is a Canadian artist who specialises in performance art using audio recordings, and she brought her Forty Part Motet to the deconsecrated church of St Peter Parmentergate in Norwich. This work is the ultimate surround sound experience. It uses a specially commissioned recording of Tallis' Forty Part Motet Spem in Alium using forty discrete audio channels (via DAT) for each of the voices. Forty B&W DM303 are located around the periphery of the nave of the beautiful, but empty, church. The speakers, each on a tripod stand, are grouped in eight blocks of five reflecting the five SATB voice groupings in Tallis' score. Some very beefy Tascam power amplifiers bring the performance to life, and continuing my thread of the importance of the performance space the wonderful acoustics of the empty church add a unique sonic signature to the performance.

Being able to move around 'inside' the choir and listen to individual voices was an extraordinary experience, and the sound images produced in the tutti passages were amazing, and quite a tribute to the B&W speakers.

Is this a realisation, an interpretaion, or a dumbing down of one of the great polyphonic masterpeices? Is it in the same category as the much debated Officium (at least Janet Cardiff didn't add any 'dooby dooby doos' to Tallis' score). Does walking around 'inside' the choir add anything to our comprehension of the work? Comments from all as ever welcome. But to really understand this stimulating installation it is probably best to let the artist herself explain what she is striving for. Here is the description from the Abbey Media web site......

Janet Cardiff’s new large scale work, Forty Part Motet, is based around the music Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, and is a sculpturally-conceived sound piece, in which forty separately-recorded voices are played back through forty speakers. Janet Cardiff’s work combines sound, movement and environment; the viewer/listener often proactively moves through the space activating sounds and unfolding narratives. Forty Part Motet allows the audience to experience sound from the viewpoint of the choir by physically involving them in the piece. When listening to live music the traditional position is to be at the front, looking on. In Forty Part Motet each speaker unit becomes a mouth; the audience unravels the composition by intimately moving amongst the speakers and hearing harmonies change as if singers were standing next to them. It allows sound to be heard as a changing construct, to be interpreted quite differently, to be carefully considered in a sculptural way and experienced at it's best.Janet Cardiff is based in Lethbridge in Canada and her work has included media such as film, video and audio. She participated in the Munster Skulptur Projekte in 1997, exhibiting in the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, 1999 and was commissioned by Artangel that year to produce The Missing Voice, an audio walk for Brick Lane and Spitalfields in London. She is currently spending her time in Berlin where she has been awarded a year long scholarship by the DAAD. She will also be representing Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2001 in collaboration with George Bures Miller. Further upcoming exhibitions include "010101" at the San Francisco MOMA, 2000 and a survey of her work at PS1Contemporary Art Centre in New York, 2001.Thomas Tallis was the most influential English composer of his generation and is one of the most popular renaissance composers of today. He was a chorister at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and served as an organist to four English monarchs - Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queens Mary and Elizabeth - as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Owing to his extraordinary eminence as a musician he retained his appointment despite the fact that he was an avowed Catholic during the Reformation. It is suggested that one of his greatest works, Spem in alium, a composition for 40 parts, was written on the occasion of the 40th birthday of Queen Elizabeth I to emphasise humility, because of her suppression of the catholic faith.Field commissioned Janet Cardiff to realise this new work to tour a range of venues across Britain and abroad in 2001.The Arts Council of England and Canada House have awarded Janet Cardiff for the project. The work is co-produced by Field with the Salisbury Festival and Salisbury Cathedral Choir; BALTIC in Gateshead; the New Art Gallery in Walsall and NOW in Nottingham. Further assistance from B&W Loudspeakers and Tascam UK.

Size does matter! this is the Tascam supplied 'choir' for the Forty Part Motet. Both photos taken using available light on my son's mobile phone!


Anonymous said…
I have always had a wish to be able to sit amidst an orchestra or chamber ensemble to hear what the piece sounds like from within, or how hearing certain instruments more vivdly than you might as a passive audience member may change your emotional experience of the piece. It seems as though this is what was achieved by the motet.

Then I also thought of a TV program that I saw on using the orchestra as a model for corporations, and they placed corporate execs among the different orchestra sections while a symphonic piece was played. The howler was when they asked a couple of the executives what they heard and they exclaimed: "All we could hear were the violas!"... whereupon the violists burst into peals of laughter at the irony of it all.

As for the question of "dumbing down" in the classical music field, I seem to have a different perspective: I am rather tired of the slapping together of so-called classically trained singers into hordes and assaulting the audience with mediocre versions of opera, art song and pop--too much "can belt-o" and not enough "bel canto".

The other annoyance is the subject of sexually charging the release of a classical artist with semi-nude poses on the album cover; is this relevant to the music? To the interpretation? For me, this is the truest sense of "dumbing down", appealing to the reptilian brain.
Anonymous said…
Just came back from MoMa in NY after experiencing the installation. I only have one word: WOW. I walked into the room completely unprepared and not knowing what the installation was. I left completely inspired and transformed. And that what art is supposed to do, no? Anyway, had to google it to find out more. Thank you for a great write up!

Recent popular posts

A street cat named Aleppo

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Classical music's biggest problem is that no one cares

Philippa Schuyler - genius or genetic experiment?

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh

Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich all sound like film music

Third rate music on Naxos' American Classics?

A tale of two new audiences

The art of the animateur