Back when lockdown felt more like a novelty than a grind, I made a mental list of what I missed most. Visiting art museums was near the top. I returned to them eagerly in the summer, happy to book a ticket for a time slot and wear a mask throughout the visit. During a carefully planned trip to Ottawa in late August, soon after the National Gallery of Canada had reopened, I toured its permanent collection the same way I met friends in parks, with renewed gratitude for foundational connections.
My steps inevitably led me to the Rideau Street Chapel, the late 19th-century fan-vaulted interior that was rescued in 1972 from a convent school slated for demolition and reassembled inside the gallery’s new building in 1988. That’s where Forty-Part Motet, Janet Cardiff’s 2001 sound art installation, is located. It’s one of the most popular works in the gallery’s collection and I’ve visited it more times than I can remember, but now the pandemic revealed it in a new light.
To create the installation, Cardiff recorded 40 different voices in Britain’s Salisbury Cathedral Choir as they sang Spem in Alium, a devotional work by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. Then she assembled an oval of speakers, one for every voice track. The effect is that the visitor who walks into the sacred space – the work has been installed in many plainer galleries, too, but the Ottawa chapel feels particularly appropriate – can move from speaker to speaker, picking out one voice at a time in the motet. Ah, here’s the bass; there’s a soprano.
Obviously, each black speaker box mounted at ear-height on a black metal stand represents one voice, one person. Still, it had never occurred to me before that each is a physical representation of a human figure, as well as an aural one, a sculpture representing a head on a body, as well as the technical means to produce a work of sound art. As I entered the chapel, I realized I was standing in the centre of a group of people: Because real people are more distant these days, I now recognized the speakers as the choristers’ avatars.
Besides becoming more aware of the work’s physical presence, I learned things about its sound track, too. The work is only 14-minutes long, but because it plays in a loop, I’ve never been aware of listening to the whole: Visitors tend just to catch a few minutes of whatever section is playing when they walk in. That day, I happened upon the intermission and listened in on the sopranos chatting together. They sounded young and a bit giddy, and they didn’t know their mics were on. In one delicious moment, they talk artlessly about this artist who is recording the choir sing. And then the break is over and the music starts up again. (I learned later that the soprano sections were sung by different groups of children and then mixed; Cardiff recorded a total of 59 individuals to produce the 40 parts.)
That little bit of chatter created a moment of remarkable intimacy; there I was eavesdropping on the young singers, magically transported into their world. And then their speaking voices, their contemporary personalities, fell away and they moved back into their roles as singers delivering the ancient music. Suddenly, I saw that as the point of Forty-Part Motet, that the work is about the relationship between individuals and the group. Cardiff has said she wanted listeners to be able to climb inside the music by letting you get closer to individual singers than you ever would in a concert. But by deconstructing the motet she also reveals the whole is larger than the sum of the parts, that each wave falls back into a great sea.
Concert halls are shuttered these days and churches, if they are holding physical services at all, have to forbid singing. Notoriously, choir practices and karaoke evenings have been identified as superspreader events. In that context, the virtual aspect of Forty-Part Motet feels particularly poignant, an experience for our distanced times with a message for 2021 about working together to produce harmony.
The National Gallery has now closed again, but there’s lots of video footage of Forty-Part Motet on the gallery’s website, as well as a 3-D tour. But sadly, and paradoxically, technology cannot reproduce the live, physical experience of cozying up to 40 separate speakers.
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