Janet Cardiff, The Forty-Part Motet

Janet Cardiff’s “remediation” of Thomas Tallis’ motet Spem in Alium was at Wellington’s City Gallery last year. I gave a talk about Cardiff’s work, which interrogated – with celebratory spirit (if such a contradiction is possible) – the ways in which Cardiff’s piece leaned heavily on both Tallis’ work and on the spectral powers of the loudspeaker, while also creating something which for many auditors of the installation was clearly quite moving. Here’s the talk, with slides inserted but minus audio examples:


Dugal McKinnon

[AUDIO] Tallis, Spem in Alium, opening

“This is where we must begin; with the magical power of replication, the image affecting what it is an image of, wherein the representation shares in or takes power from the represented — testimony to the power of the mimetic faculty through whose awakening we might not so much understand that shadow science known as magic… but see anew the spell of the natural where the reproduction of life merges with the recapture of the soul” —  Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity

To start with the obvious. Much of the power of Cardiff’s work derives from the beauty of Tallis’ Spem in Alium. Whatever else follows in this talk must in some way always come back to this fact. The Forty-Part Motet piggy-backs on the exquisite polyphony of Spem in Alium, a work which still speaks to us more than 400 years after it was first performed. Cardiff chose her object well.

We listen to music to be moved. To be transported. Enraptured. This is the experience of transcendence. Transcending the me-ness of me, the this-ness of this, the thing-ness of being a thing, a body-mind, in an unremittingly physical world.

[SLIDE] Music causes me to forget myself and my true state; it transports me to another state that is not my own — Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata

But what is this other state that is not my own? And what was my true state? Surely in listening to music as beautiful as Tallis’ we feel that what we are transcending is not our true state but whatever it is that prevents us from existing in our true state. For some of us this might be a momentary slackening in the bonds of mind or spirit and body, a glimpse of the Platonic ideal. For others it might be forgetting anything other than corporeality, an ecstacy of embodiment. Whatever the case, from my observations of the audience for Cardiff’s work, from anecdotes passed on by others, it is clear that some kind of transportation or transcendence is taking place when people experience Cardiff’s The Forty-Part Motet.

But notice that a shift in the object of this discussion has been enacted. I started with Tallis and ended with Cardiff. The ecstacy of The Forty-Part Motet is not the same as that of listening to Spem in Alium. Listening at home, to a recording, you might be inclined to recline, perhaps to roll around, perhaps to moan while doing so. In fact, it’s most likely that we’ve all done something along these lines while listening. Privately. Publicly the story is different. It would be wonderful if such onanistic contortions happened at choral performances at, say, St Paul’s Cathedral on Molesworth St (perhaps I’ve just been there at the wrong time…). Which makes it all the more astounding that barely restrained ecstacy has been witnessed at Cardiff’s public sound installation here at the City Gallery.

So what is going on?

Let’s not forget that that there is a straightforward answer – Spem in Alium is beautiful. Cardiff’s reframing or re-presentation of it is indeed an apt , sympathetic to its source and the potency of Tallis’ music to create, as Gregory O’Brien put it – borrowing from Heidegger – a clearing, a heightened awareness of simply being. But there is always more complex answer and mine does not, you may be disappointed to hear, allow me to unreservedly celebrate The Forty-Part Motet. This is not necessarily because of what Cardiff’s piece is, but rather because of what it channels or manifests. In ascultation – listening diagnostically – I hear symptoms.

We’re not listening to a live performance. We’re listening to a multi-channel recording. We’re not witnessing a performance in the here and now. We’re looking at 40 identical loudspeakers, a display of technocratic abundance, from which emanates the sound of a performance recorded in Salisbury almost a decade ago. What could be more ordinary than this? Every day of our lives we experience sound in this acousmatic, that is, disembodied technological form. Doubtlessly we all had to negotiate a flood of acousmatic sound in making our way to this auditorium.

The installation creates a number spatial and temporal experiences which emerge from the interaction of Tallis’ music and Cardiff’s acousmatic re-presentation of it. Indeed, the very sonic-spatial layout of the installation is central to the work even before the music starts. As there is no proscenium arch, no stage or platform, it is unclear as to how we should orientate ourselves. As I overheard one woman say, “Is there a particular way to sit?” Facetiously, I’m inclined to say that sitting is not the problem, it’s more the direction in which one should face that’s in question. In any case, this disorientation is key to a work that derives much of its impact from spatial experience, thus much of what follows will concern space. There are roughly three spatial phases or states experienced in The Forty-Part Motet which I’m going to refer to as nowhere, here and elsewhere. These are a means for me to articulate what makes the installation both productive of epiphanies, to paraphrase curator Heather Galbraith, and discomforting.

[SLIDE] Nowhere.

As good a place to start as any.

When the choir is in full flight, singing tutti, altogether, we are nowhere. These are the passages where the space we are in is acoustically obliterated by the sheer volume of playback. In a sense the acoustic volume of the installation at these times offers us an experience of pure spatial volume. This can be wondrous and is certainly the moment in which we experience the sublime – being uplifted and overwhelmed simultaneously. An experience of being fully immersed, drowned in sound, in which there can be no other space than the one we are in. This is the apotheosis of hearing, the totalising omnisphere of auditory experience. It is so pleasurable because it creates a sense of oneness, of wholeness, there being no difference between yourself and what you are hearing, which quite literally is the space you are in.

This is an experience very different to that of hearing a choir in a reverberant cathedral, in which we hear direct sound from the choir even as we are bathed in the wash of reflected sound. In this case we can still orientate ourselves sensorially and socially, for there is a hierarchy that is confirmed by the distinct positions of pulpit, choir and audience. But to be fully immersed in reproduced sound is to partake in a ritual experience particular to secular technocracy: that of not being able to orientate oneself and of giving oneself over to a spatiotemporal experience organised by  unknown forces. To frame this in terms of popular culture, both bygone and recent, The Forty-Part Motet is Spem in Alium given a makeover by the Wizard of Oz – who is heard but not seen – or the Matrix. That it is possible to give oneself over so completely to the installation is, it seems to me, indicative of the extent to which such unmappable experiences permeate contemporary Western consciousness. From surround sound to 3D cinema to the mall – the two are usually found in close proximity – our leisure time, our recreation, is often defined by experiences in which we can simply lose ourselves, as an antidote to a world that is spatially over-determined and time-impoverished.

Part of the genius of The Forty-Part Motet is that it takes this secular, consumerist, cinematic experience and re-sacralises it. Populating a surround sound environment with music that conjures a lost era in which this Earth was the work of the Creator grants us access to worldview in which transcendence, in the form of the afterlife, was a reality. That we yet thirst for such a worldview is perhaps evidenced by the strength of response to Cardiff’s work.

[SLIDE] Good thing there were seats or I might have collapsed. My legs became jelly and I teared up. Other people had their heads down, taking it all in. I have to imagine that walking into heaven would sound something like this — response to The Forty-Part Motet in City Gallery Exhibition Notes

Heaven, like extinction, is forever. In a time-poor society it is vital that transcendence be available on-demand. That The Forty-Part Motet plays on an endless loop is appropriate in this respect. Appropriate to an era, ushered in by film and sound recording, in which experiences can be repeated ad infinitum. In the world of consumer Capitalism, having enjoyed something once, we can enjoy it eternally, provided we pay for the pleasure. As a free experience, at least at the City Gallery, it could be said that Cardiff’s work re-sacralises commodity form because we don’t have to pay for a repeat experience. Rather, following the logic that art has replaced religion – and ignoring the fact that it is really sport that has replaced religion – we simply have to have faith in art and on the strength of this we will find time to enter the gallery. Inside, we can be assured that that will encounter an experiential environment that contains the possibility of an epiphany. If we do not have one, there is something wrong with us, rather than with the environment, which has been engineered to produce an epiphanic outcome.

This can be contrasted with real concert-going, which is subject to all the vagaries of human performance (it could be a bad night) and the demand that we spend a long period of time seated, often uncomfortably, through wastes of musical time waiting for the movement or moment which moves us. By contrast, The Forty-Part Motet offers on-demand ecstacy in a well signposted form:

[SLIDE] The duration of the artwork is approximately 14 minutes, consisting of 11 minutes of singing and 3 minutes of intermission

Yet, either as a singular concert experience or on repeat as Cardiff’s installation, Tallis’ music instances the power of music to transform our sense of time, provided we are willing to join the temporal resistance.

[SLIDE] Music, in relation to time’s hold on life, must either get in step, or refuse to march.  And it is precisely that choice that the auditor is given to hear when listening.  Sensitivity to the issue of choice, regarding music’s articulation of time, is not least what makes music dangerous, read either as a waste of time or as an experience of difference distinctive from time-bound “normality.” — Richard Leppert

[SLIDE] Here.

Air conditioning.

My favourite moment in the installation loop is when the music stops and for perhaps as long as 20 seconds there is nothing to hear but the sound of the gallery’s air conditioning system. Acoustically, for these moments there is no spatial transformation. We are simply in the gallery. Reality. The rudeness of this experience is produced by the wrench from a technologically mediated experience that has allowed us access to a state that is not our own, that has allowed us to leave behind the here where our bodies are, allowed us to forgot that time passes, to a place in which technology deafly continues humming its constant temperature. No wonder, at least in my witnessing, that the audience tends to vacate the gallery rapidly after the final cadence. But it’s not just the air conditioning that threatens to undermine the experience (and I’m perfectly willing to accept that many of you won’t share my interest in infrastructural noise…). The 20 seconds of acousmatic, but not acoustic, silence constitutes change in our awareness of this technologically mediated experience we’ve just had. The installation is a looped recording and because the loop is not seamless, silence alerts us to the fact that technology is in operation. Silence […] Silence threatens the possibility that the technology might fail. There is no signal, only noise. It’s much like those moments associated with analogue media, cassette and video tape, where the silence or static at the beginning of a tape is perturbing, raising the possibility that the recording may have failed, that the tape may in fact be blank.

A similar phenomenon occurs frequently in the installation at those moments when, having had one’s visual attention drawn to a loudspeaker by a particular voice or passage, this drops away again, leaving one staring blankly at a black box. By contrast, when sound emerges out of a loudspeaker or row thereof, this technology is magically charged, much in the manner that the phonograph appeared magical both to European and indigenous populations upon first encounter with it. This is what Stephen Feld has called schismogenesis: in schizophonically splitting sound from source we do not create death – as Roland Barthes would have it of the photograph – but rather new forms of life which can be miraculated from the grooves on a platter of shellac or the bits and bytes of a hard drive.

Victrola – Caruso

We might see ourselves as beyond such primitivism, but in fact I think that the illusion conjured by hearing a voice from another time and place remains in place, and moreover, retains a magical force. Presence in absence remains a remarkable thing, and its psychological power is evident in the drive to create ever more convincing illusions (3D film and surround sound being cases in point). Mimesis, or the faking of reality, is far from dead. To returning the epigraph with which I began, Michael Taussig says this of mimesis:

[it is] testimony to the power of the mimetic faculty through whose awakening we might not so much understand that shadow science known as magic… but see anew the spell of the natural where the reproduction of life merges with the recapture of the soul

Is this not exactly what The Forty-Part Motet accomplishes? The “reproduction of life”, in this case a performance of Spem in Alium, casts ‘anew the spell of the natural’ and in doing so allows the ‘recapture of the soul’. That we are eager to recapture our souls is evident in the strength of response to Cardiff’s work. In this sense The Forty-Part Motet is a ritual for a technocratic age in which ‘the natural’ has long since been lost, not to mention the sacred. Thus when the music stops and the recorded angels return to whichever parallel dimension they came from, we are confronted by the blankness of our technology – that it is nothing without us – and yet, addicted to illusions of all kinds and to the mesmerising power of repetition, we re-enter the mimetic world. The loop allows us deny what we are and where we are. Or, as Arthur C. Clark out it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Profiles of the future, 1961).

Elsewhere, or “3 minutes of intermission”

The section of The Forty-Part Motet that has not yet been discussed is the section of speech, coughing, sneezing etc that precedes, or perhaps follows, the performance of Spem in Alium. Spatially, this is perhaps the most interesting segment of the installation as it is that in which there is the greatest ambiguity between the space in which we are listening and the space of the recording. In one way this is again to do with presence in absence, phantoms which appear to cohabit the gallery with us. This is a recurrent device used by Cardiff, and it is frequently commented on, but I’d like to look at other aspects of this section.

Firstly, there is the fact that the acoustic of the recording space is clearly audible. To my ears this is a more subtle and powerful illusion as it upsets our sense of the space we are in. It is a more reverberant space than the one housing the installation and thus more dominant perceptually. The result of the placing one space within another is discomforting in its disorientating effect: there is a disjunction between the space I see and the space I hear. The visual space is smaller than the dominant acoustic space. In this case schismogenesis does produce kind of schizoid experience – that of not being able to locate yourself where you know you should be.

There is also the voyeuristic quality of this section. The reality TV phenomenon of a glimpse into the life of the choir. Not very glamourous to be sure, but interesting enough to entice people up to the black boxes in order to find out who’s inside and what they’re gossiping about. There much that could be said about this, but I’ll stick to one observation: this segment of the installation contributes further to the secularization, or at least the familiarization, of sacred culture as represented by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir’s performance of Spem in Alium. Church choirs conjure the illusion of angelic voices, as the acoustic properties of Cathedrals create an ambient ether of sound out of which the holy spirit speaks to the flock. In The Forty-Part Motet there can be no such illusion. Angels do not clear their throats, but choristers do. What then is responsible for the holy spirit that speaks to us in the installation? By now you can predict the answer. Technology. I’m inching closer to making the phenomenon that I think is responsible for my inability to fully enter into Cardiff’s work.

The voyeuristic aspect of the installation is also representative of its analytic dimension. Analytic not in an intellectual sense, but rather in the manner in which the recording has been made. One microphone per singer. One loudspeaker for each singer. This allows us to perceive detail that we otherwise wouldn’t perceive.  It reveals the grain of the voice, the imperfection of delivery. It reduces the blend of the ensemble because the close micing of the singers does not fully capture the ambient response of the performance space and yet the listening space does not have an acoustic suited to music. As interesting as this is and as much as it allows us to access phenomena that we otherwise couldn’t perceive, it also effectively dismembers the choir. Here the multichannel microphone–loudspeaker ensemble has become a forensic instrument, calling to mind Jean Baudrillard’s comments on “Japanese quadraphonics” (you will of course recall that there are 40-channels used in the installation and that Cardiff is Canadian).

A bewildering, claustrophobic and obscene image… music in four dimensions, not just the three of 
the environing space, but a fourth, visceral dimension of internal space… Pornography is the quadrophonics of sex. It adds a third and 
fourth track to the sexual act. It is the hallucination of detail 
that rules. Science has already habituated us to… this excess of the real in its microscopic detail, this voyeurism 
of exactitude – a close-up of the invisible structures of the cell
 – to this notion of [SLIDE] an inexorable truth… that
 can only be revealed by a sophisticated technical apparatus. End
 of the secret. —  Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (1979/1990)

If this were not a clear enough description, then perhaps a picture – have no fear – will help by way of analogy.

Albrecht Dürer, Artist drawing a nude




Baudrillard says “End of the secret”. I disagree. Rather it is that the secret has changed. No longer is the real the secret, but rather the secret is the technology that is used to capture, analyse, and dissect, and re-present the real. To mimic it, even to the point of replacing it. As far as The Forty-Part Motet is concerned, we could say that a hyper-reality has replaced the real (Spem in Alium, in other words). But there is another point to be made, which is this: that many of us may be more enchanted by the sonic effect of the forty black boxes and concealed reproduction technology of The Forty-Part Motet than by Tallis’ Spem in Alium – despite the fact that they are in a sense one and the same. This, then, is why I cannot unreservedly experience The Forty-Part Motet, for if it is a ritual for a technocratic age, it is necessarily also a lament for a humanistic age.

Creative Commons License
Janet Cardiff, The Forty-Part Motet by Dugal McKinnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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