Recordings of choral music can be discouraging: soft and diffuse, like the music is coming through cotton balls, evaporating like fog. Even live performances can prove disappointing when lyrics are lost to the acoustics of a venue, and you experience a wash (rather than a wall) of sound. I think the best place to hear a choral performance is inside of one — but then you have to work for your pleasure.
That’s what so fantastic about Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty-Part Motet,” now on view at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. The Canadian artist presents the wickedly complex work of 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis with brilliance and clarity.
Tallis wrote “Spem in Alium” (“I have hope in none other than Thee, O Lord”) for eight choirs of five singers, each singing a unique part – that’s 40 distinct vocal lines. Cardiff recorded the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing the piece, putting each voice on a separate channel. For the installation, each voice gets its own speaker – arranged in a circle, you can wander between the voices, checking in with various singers, catching the interplay of melodies. Stand in the center and the voices combine into something truly transcendent.
You can really feel the changing shapes, colors, and textures of the music – qualities so rich and real you almost see them: “It reveals the piece of music as a changing construct,” Cardiff explains. “I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.”
You can get a taste of “Spem in Alium” (performed the traditional way) in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s “Discovering Music.”
– Jenny Lawton