Hope in Any Other
January 2, 2017
Earlier this year, I remember seeing a closing notice for Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty Part Motet at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture in San Francisco. I was a bit surprised to realize that it has been fifteen years since Motet debuted at MoMA PS1 in New York City in the anxious weeks after 9/11. At the equally anxious end of 2016, I’m thinking I would like to experience Motet again.
After its debut, the installation was reprised early and often —appearing within four years at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal; Tate Liverpool; the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Notwithstanding, the appeal of the work remained and remains undiminished; Motet has been installed in over 50 other venues since then. If you have somehow managed to miss experiencing Motet since it became a truly international event, here is a description:
In creating the piece, Cardiff recorded the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a motet composed by the Englishman Thomas Tallis in the 16th century. The title of Tallis’ work—Spem in alium—is a fragment of a biblical passage translated as “hope in any other,” and underscores the motet’s roots in sacred music. Rather than record the choir as a whole, the artist recorded each of the 40 singers individually. The installation consists of their recorded voices, edited by her now artistic partner and husband George Bures Miller, played back through 40 corresponding speakers arrayed in an oval, creating a space large enough for people to gather within it.
Prior to the commencement of the 11-minute composition, Cardiff and Bures Miller recorded three minutes of the choir waiting for the conductor’s signal to begin. You can hear the rustling of sheet music, conversations between choir members, and the shuffling of their feet. Once Motet begins, a listener moving in front of the speakers can clearly detect not only the individual voices and, for the most part, their genders, but also the choir’s different vocal sections—the basses, baritones, tenors, altos, and sopranos. The layered waves of melody, emanating from one section, then another, suggest a spatial arrangement like a flock of birds taking wing, then careening this way and that, and finally disappearing into thin air.
Even if I had been very familiar with Spem in alium, I would have found Motet to be a startling aural experience. Cardiff’s “reworking,” as she calls it, of Tallis’ motet made me feel as if I had never really heard music before, or at least never understood it as a spatial as well as auditory phenomenon. My near-epiphanic experience reminded me of the architect Stanley Saitowitz’s description of first visiting Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion: “I came to understand space the way a fish might understand water, if it could.”
One aspect of Spem in alium could be said to be essential to both Tallis’ and Cardiff’s work. Like most motets, Spem in alium consists entirely of human voices without musical instruments, endowing it with a quality that is both ephemeral and physical. It is precisely this paradox that Motet captures. Each of the 40 speakers is installed at eye level, giving the individual voices a recognizable body. Furthermore, the pre-performance chatter and background noises give each body a palpable personality, unexpectedly bridging the distant past of Tallis’ composition with the recent past of Cardiff’s reworking.
Motet has another quality that distinguishes it from most works of contemporary art. As those that have experienced it or have read about it know, Motet regularly causes people to burst into tears. I was taken aback by this reaction, even as tears welled up in my own eyes.
What causes this unexpected emotional reaction? Cardiff’s Motet does have a spatial and a visual dimension, but it is an experience that is, of course, driven by sound. That a relationship between emotion and music exists is not hard for most people to accept anecdotally. There is also a good deal of science behind this notion indicating that music has a profound effect on the limbic system—the part of our brain in which complex mental functions are intertwined with emotional responses in a single neurological loop.
It has been observed that witnessing something terrible and witnessing something wonderful provoke the same reaction: the need to tell someone, to communicate that which has been experienced. In other words, the experience has been so great that it becomes a sort of burden that needs to be shared. This idea gives some meaning to what have otherwise become hackneyed phrases: “haunting beauty” and “aching beauty.” Both adjectives imply a sort of distress that accompanies the experience of something beautiful. In the case of Motet, I think there is a good case to be made that the resultant tears are a kind primal shout, a non-verbal expression of the distress caused by an unexpectedly transcendent experience, laced with an equally unexpected empathetic response to the palpable presence of the 40 singers.
A case can be also made that the venue colors the visitor’s perception of Motet. The first time I experienced it was in a white-walled gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, which was one of the more neutral of the five spaces in which I have seen the piece installed. The least neutral was the 16th-century Artiglierie in the Venice Arsenale. Motet’s presentation there is the one I remember most clearly. Somehow, Motet pulled the entire space into its composition, embedding the memory of the architecture with the memory of the piece.
I would imagine visitors experience a heightened emotional resonance, given Spem in alium’s roots in sacred music, when Motet was hosted in various religious settings. These have included, amongst others, the Fuentidueña Chapel installed at the Cloisters in New York and the Rideau Chapel at the National Gallery of Canada.
This resonance might provide a further explanation of the notably teary response to Motet. In the The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, the geneticist Dean Hamer proposes that a specific gene predisposes humans towards spiritual experiences. Inasmuch, we may be very susceptible to suggestions of religiosity or spirituality, even if our own frames of reference are secular, agnostic, or atheist. Could it be that one of the really unsettling aspects of Motet might be the stimulation of what Hamer identified as vesicular monoamine transporter 2, an inherited spiritual gene that we didn’t even know we had?
The world of contemporary art rarely produces a popular “classic,” particularly in a medium as ephemeral as sound art. Yet the piece has taken on a life of its own. From a curatorial perspective (perhaps, even, from the artist’s perspective), the enduring ubiquity of Motet is a challenge. In her review of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s The Murder of Crows, which was presented at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012, Karen Rosenberg tempered her praise by comparing it somewhat negatively to the “clarity” of Motet, which was being reprised at PS1 at the same time.
It is true that both Murder and Motet reflect the artists’ trademark tropes: masterfully recorded voices, sounds, noises, and music played back with strategically placed speakers that give a spatiality and an intimacy to the work that can completely transform the spaces within which they are being performed. Yet Murder, in its dark chilliness, is much more representative of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s work.
This leads me to a final thought on the public’s lachrymal reaction to Motet. It may well be that one of the most unsettling things about the piece is related to our expectations in a contemporary art setting. Are we more conditioned to respond to the dark chilliness of The Murder of Crows than something as beautiful as Motet? While that may sound cynical, there is, for me, a kernel of truth in that view.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to decide what it was that I found most moving about Motet: a certain wistfulness about our culture’s disinterest in producing many things like Spem in alium. The Dadaist polymath Tristan Tzara famously said, “I have a mad and starry desire to assassinate beauty—the old kind, of course.” In that regard, Tallis’ Spem in alium is definitely the “old kind” of beauty, the beauty of a different, distant age.