Madame Speaker: Thomas Tallis gets rare 24-bit gallery treatment

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Janet Cardiff. (Photo via artinberlin's flickr stream.)
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For three months early in 2006, in a smallish corner gallery with a huge window overlooking 53rd Street, the Museum of Modern Art showed the artist Janet Cardiff's installation "The Forty-Part Motet." The piece is unlike anything else you've ever seen: A set of 40 speakers mounted on stands, arranged in an oval, each projecting one of 40 singers performing Thomas Tallis' 16th-century polyphonic masterpiece Spem in alum.

To stand in the middle of the oval was to be immersed in a shifting sound of incredible richness, and to walk up to one of the speakers was to realize that that sound is produced by the massing of dozens of individual voices. They were both poignantly human—we hear their whispers before and after the performance—and otherworldly, and the piece as a whole was as intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically satisfying as any work of contemporary art.

A longtime MOMA volunteer told me that visitors still regularly come in, almost five years later, and ask to see it. Starting this Thursday, they can be directed to Columbus Circle, where "The Forty-Part Motet" will be installed in a rehearsal room and recording studio at Jazz at Lincoln Center, in the Time Warner Center, as part of Lincoln Center's three-week White Light Festival.

The festival focuses on music's relationship to the spiritual, and the piece certainly has spiritual resonance—the text, which begins "I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel," is adapted from the Book of Judith—but for Cardiff the piece works on a purely intellectual level as well.

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"The music that really speaks to me is spatial," she said by phone from Berlin, where she lives when not at home in western Canada. "For me it's the spatiality of sound that interests me. That's what brought me to this particular piece of music. It wasn't necessarily the piece itself, it was the idea that you could physically see the music move around the room, in a synaesthetic way almost. Sound becomes this visible thing. But it's also this spiritual and beautiful piece of music, so it was kind of all things at once."

Cardiff, 53, specializes in installations that mix sound, narrative, and interactivity: she'll have you sit in an illusion of a golden-age movie palace, or have you hold down a pedal in front of a huge amplifier and let guitar riffs wash over you. She grew up in Ontario with just a little bit of musical education, but she remembers always being sensitive to sounds—she was the type of girl who'd always jump at a loud noise. She graduated from art school in the early '80s, but her work that decade—printmaking, multi-panel pieces, photography—never satisfied her. "It wasn't until I started working with sound that I really found my voice, per se," she said. "A little pun."

She did her first audio piece in 1991, becoming one of the early figures in what has become a burgeoning sound art movement, and conceived of "The Forty-Part Motet" eight years later. She was working on one of her signature audio walks—individual audio kits that take the viewer-listener on an idiosyncratic guided tour through an environment—when the singer she was collaborating with gave her a CD of Tallis' music, including "Spem in alum." "When I heard it," Cardiff said, "I just felt I wanted to hear the forty parts. That was what appealed to me about the piece, that it was so multidimensional and polyphonic."

The logistics of the piece turned out to be far more complex and expensive than she'd anticipated. The singers couldn't be recorded individually, since the piece needed the entire group to work, so Cardiff rented a hall and covered it in blankets to deaden the sound. Each of the singers—many of whom were members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir—had a microphone mounted on his or her neck, and everyone was placed as far apart as possible.

They got three takes in three hours, and spliced the best parts together. Cardiff debated using strongly anthropomorphic speakers, but settled on very ordinary-looking ones, mounted on stands. "It was an aesthetic decision," she said, "but it doesn't make an aesthetic statement. The music is the main thing." The piece was first installed in 2001 in the elaborate restored interior of the Rideau Street Chapel, which is preserved in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

It's since become her most popular piece by far, traveling to at least 50 venues, from medieval churches to MoMA's white box, in the last decade. "It has a life of its own," she said, laughing. "I call it the Energizer bunny. It just keeps on ticking." It's not a particularly profitable piece, as far as contemporary art goes; it's in an edition of three, one of which is owned by MoMA, in addition to an artist's proof and an exhibition version. "We've been offered many times to sell the artist's proof," she said. "But we get attached to our work and we don't want to sell it."

In each space it travels to, the piece is "tuned" by a tonemeister Cardiff hires, who adjusts the treble and bass to the given room.

"It's being installed now I think in a recording studio," she said of the Lincoln Center version, "so it'll have a soft feeling. It won't have the same feeling as if it were in a medieval church, which indicates that it might be interpreted as more spiritual. But I think no matter what, when you walk into this kind of music, and you're enveloped by 40 tracks of 24-bit audio, you just feel the sound vibes. You can't refuse them, you can't refuse the voices coming in and out of your body. The piece of music itself functions like waves, the repetition in the score is that one choir will sing a line"—the piece is structured for eight choirs of five singers each—"and another choir will overlap just like waves lapping in the ocean."

Who knows when MOMA will show the piece next, so this installation—which will be open for free every day from noon to 8pm until Nov. 13—is unmissable.