Sculpting Sound: Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet

Janet Cardiff &George Bures Miller, FOREST (for a thousand years …), 2012. Installation view from dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany. © Cardiff & Miller. Photo: Courtesy of the artists. 

Sound has the unique transcendental power to write a phantom world over top of this world. The music of a voice, of a tree full of birds, of a choir, stirs visions in the listener’s head, especially perhaps in an empty hall with no choir, bird, or speaker present. Audio can extend into a virtual environment — a three-dimensional stage play performed atop our visible surroundings. It is that redefinition of our experience of space that most compels artist Janet Cardiff in her work with sound: “It can be sculptural.”

A singer with whom Cardiff was working in England recognized her interest in three-dimensional audio and gave her a recording of Thomas Tallis’s late-16th century choral masterpiece Spem in Alium. The composition is written for eight five-part choirs, each comprised of a soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass — forty voices altogether. Cardiff remembers playing the recording when she returned home. “It was such a beautiful piece of music, but on two speakers, it was just kind of mush,” she says. “I wanted to step inside of the music and actually hear each of the different harmonies.”

Janet Cardiff, Forty-Part Motet, 2001, 40-track audio installation, installation dimensions variable. Purchased 2001. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Janet Cardiff Photo: NGC

The artwork that resulted won the NGC Millennium Prize and has become an icon of Canadian contemporary art. Forty-Part Motet was recorded in Salisbury’s Medieval Hall with the renowned Salisbury Cathedral Choir. The fifty-nine singers (the soprano parts were sung by small groups of child choristers) were kitted with forty individual microphones that captured their performances as distinct channels. An array of forty loudspeakers, arranged into an oval around a gallery, plays back the rendition, each speaker dedicated to a voice in the Motet. Explosive at room size, the melodies shape and gesture like figures dancing about the space. By moving around, visitors can experience the harmonies individually or all at once from the centre of the oval. It is a rare opportunity, as Cardiff had envisioned, to step inside of the music.

Janet Cardiff, Forty-Part Motet, 2001, 40-track audio installation, installation dimensions variable. Purchased 2001. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Janet Cardiff Photo: NGC

The sound installation was first shown in 2001 in the National Gallery of Canada’s Rideau Chapel — a local example of Gothic Revival architecture, reconstructed and preserved within the Gallery. Over the years, it has been on view there several times and is now back on display. While the work has travelled widely, the chapel has become like its home.  Stationed in that dramatic setting, “it’s a very strong experience,” says Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. “I love bringing people into that space, letting them experience it, then reminding them that it’s contemporary art.”

Like much of Cardiff’s oeuvre — both her solo practice and her collaborative works with husband George Bures Miller — the Motet, Drouin-Brisebois says, responds to the query: “How do you take the viewer somewhere else?” Whether it’s replicating the spectacle of cinema-going, as in Paradise Institute (2001), or the experience of waiting out a downpour, like Storm Room (2009), Cardiff’s art immerses visitors, convincingly, into alternate worlds. 

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Storm Room, 2009.  Photo: N.M.Hutcgubson, Calgary Alberta © Courtesy the Art Gallery of Alberta

Cardiff began using sound to create these worlds in her first audio installation, Whispering Room (1991). Through sixteen speakers positioned around the room, visitors encounter a narrative, she explains, then the narrative breaks apart “in a cubist way.” In To Touch (1993), viewers use their hands to explore the surface of an old carpenter’s table, revealing a sonic environment hidden all around them. From early in her practice, she has been working with the same kind of ideas that animate her art-making today: audience interaction, alternative means of storytelling, and the spatial realization of sound. Each functions critically in later projects by Cardiff with Goearge Bures Miller like The Murder of Crows (2008) and FOREST (for a thousand years…), shown at  dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, The Murder of Crows, 2008, Installation view: Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2009. Photo: Roman März © Courtesy the artists, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, Luhring Augustine, New York

Beneath the Chapel’s dramatic fan vaults and before its gilt altarpiece, the spiritual tones of Forty-Part Motet are amplified. But it’s before even the first voice starts — alone and angel-like — on the word “Spem,” that the Motet begins to remodel our experience of the space. The mics catch vocal warm-ups and throats being cleared, conversations about conductors, their trip into town, and the terrible weather outside. The cold, technological speakers become human characters. If you shut your eyes, you’re there in the hall with them. Perhaps that’s why sound is so good at creating a world in our heads, Cardiff says. “You can’t really deny it.” You can never shut your ears.

Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet is on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s Rideau Chapel. The Poetry Machine and Other Works is on view at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco until July 5, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.

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