The Ultimate in Surround Sound Comes to the Winnipeg Art Gallery

Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Photo: Ernest Mayer, WAG

In January 2013, Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet takes centre stage at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), kicking off a three-year partnership with the National Gallery of Canada.

“NGC @WAG is a very exciting partnership,” says Helen Delacretaz, Chief Curator at the WAG. “The focus of the program will be on contemporary art, and this work by Janet Cardiff allows us to launch this initiative with a major piece of international stature.” 

Cardiff’s aural installation is based on the sixteenth-century motet Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis. Written for eight mini-choirs of five voices each—soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass—the original work toggles between individual voices, small groups, and full choir. Because of the complexity of the vocal interactions and the technical demands the piece places on singers, Spem in Alium is rarely performed live.

Cardiff has reworked the original composition to brilliant effect. Each part has been separately recorded, and is played back through one of forty speakers positioned throughout the gallery space. As visitors move around the room, they hear individual vocalists or various choral combinations, in what amounts to the ultimate in “surround sound”. Produced in 2001, Forty-Part Motet is universally considered one of the most successful interpretations of the motet ever produced.

“At its core,” says Delacretaz, “the piece is incredibly simple. Yet the effect is immensely powerful. When I first experienced it, I enjoyed the participatory nature of the piece—that your experience is dependent on your actions. As you walk around the periphery of the piece, your experience changes, depending on the choral involvement of the singers where you’re standing. As someone who has never sung in a choir, the work allowed me to embed myself into the choir as if I were a participant.” 

As Cardiff herself notes, “Most people experience this motet in their living rooms in front of only two speakers. Even in a live concert, the audience is separated from the individual voices. I wanted to be able to climb inside the music.”


Forty-Part Motet (detail) in the Rideau Chapel, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The installation of Forty-Part Motet at the WAG will not be without its challenges. “The WAG is a modernist structure, and the main galleries run contiguously around the periphery of the building,” says Delacretaz. “Because of this, we don’t have the required sound barrier for the piece, and must construct a number of walls to build a contained space.”

She goes on to say that, “Visitors unfamiliar with the work may be a bit perplexed to walk into a space that is unadorned by 40 upright speakers, but once inside they’ll hopefully be swept up by the powerful score and transformed by the experience.”

In addition to Forty-Part Motet, which will be featured at the WAG from January through April 2013, the [email protected] partnership will also include Christian Marclay’s film-themed installation The Clock—for which he received the prestigious Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale—opening in Fall 2013.

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