Too often the Cloisters, located in northern Manhattan, is an afterthought for visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is several miles to the south. This fall, smart culture lovers would do well to make a pilgrimage to the Cloisters, the Met's medieval art and architecture space, in order to hear Janet Cardiff's sublime sound installation The Forty Part Motet.
As a physical presence, it seems odd: 40 speakers, all mounted at a uniform height of about five feet in an oval ring. But they are mounted not just anywhere; they are in the Fuentidueña Chapel a limestone "gallery" that includes the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain. (It is on permanent loan from the Spanish Government.)
Once listeners step inside the oval, they can hear each individual voice, as well as the blending of those voices in the motet "Spem in alium numquam habui," by 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis, a polyphonic choral piece regarded as this composer's most famous piece.
Cardiff, a Canadian, created the installation in 2001. But how is it “contemporary art,” as the Met bills it, rather than simply a different presentation of a recording?
“Sound is a spatial construct,” said Nancy Wu, an educator for the museum and former violist, who called the installation “a revelation.” Anne L. Strauss, Associate Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, said Cardiff was “trying to get inside the work,” while listeners become “enveloped by the sound.”
The work is performed without instrumental accompaniment by 40 singers - bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano – of Britain’s Salisbury Cathedral Choir, one per speaker. In the Cloisters, it becomes a movable 360-degree experience, very different from listening to a choir on a stage, even one within a medieval church. The world premiere was at Salisbury Cathedral; it has since been heard around the world.
The Cloisters is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The Cardiff presentation continues through Dec. 8