Forty-Part Motet Returns to the National Gallery of Canada


Janet Cardiff, Forty‑Part Motet (2001), 40‑track audio installation, installation dimensions variable. NGC

Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet has been presented in gallery spaces and unusual places around the world to rave reviews—including The Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. But there is nothing quite like coming home. Forty-Part Motet—part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection—has briefly returned from its travels to be exhibited in the Gallery’s historic Rideau Chapel until August 2014. It is a location the Canadian artist feels is uniquely suited to the installation.  

“The chapel at the National Gallery is all made out of wood, so it has quite a warm sound to it,” Cardiff told NGC Magazine. “Churches were designed with big Gothic arches for a reason, and that is because acoustically the reverb in the space works really well with singing voices.” Forty-Part Motet features more than forty choir members recorded individually or in groups of three, singing a reworked version of Spem in alium numquam habui, by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585). Spem in alium [“In No Other is My Hope”] is considered Tallis’ most famous composition.

The recordings are played back through forty high-fidelity speakers on stands, allowing gallery-goers to move from speaker to speaker, sit in the middle of the installation, or even lie on the floor with their eyes closed for an all-encompassing musical experience.

"Most people experience this piece now in their living rooms in front of only two speakers,” she notes. “Even in a live concert, the audience is separated from the individual voices. Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them, singing a different harmony. I wanted to be able to climb inside the music."

Forty-Part Motet has been featured in galleries, museums and other locations that Cardiff says make the installation a new experience every time it is viewed. Every space it’s in changes it,” she says. “Some white boxes are too small, and you just hear the music. If there aren’t any windows, then it sort of loses something. It changes it acoustically.”

But Cardiff says location can also alter the viewer’s emotional response to Motet. “Having light streaming in from the ceiling or windows has a physical effect on you, which creates a different emotional effect than if you are in a white box with fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, and not such a high ceiling. The piece changes so much in every different space.”

The National Gallery is pleased to welcome Forty-Part Motet back to the Rideau Street Convent Chapel. Saved from demolition in 1972 and unveiled at the Gallery in 1988, the Chapel is considered a unique and priceless gem of Canadian architecture.

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