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Deborah Secular for Spectator

“The Forty Part Motet” offers a modern spin on choral performances in the Cloisters’ first contemporary installation.

High above the Henry Hudson Parkway, Janet Cardiff's "The Forty Part Motet" replaces the honking horns of New York City with a chorus of angelic voices.

This sound installation is a recreation by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir of Tudor English composer Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium." Played from 40 different speakers assembled in a circle inside Fuentidueña Chapel, each speaker plays a single voice that, like the individual members of a chorus, blends together in the space and envelops the listener. Visitors have a certain autonomy in how they experience the piece, free to either stand in the middle enveloped by the full composition or to walk around the mounted speakers as if walking through the chorus itself, wandering through the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts, each allotted its own individual speaker.


Previously housed in a bare and simple room in the Museum of Modern Art, the installation now comes to the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it forges a unique relationship with its environment. Completed in 2001, "The Forty Part Motet" is the first contemporary work ever shown at the Cloisters, and the space offers visitors the chance to experience the moving choir performance surrounded by images and reliefs religiously and historically connected to the music. The voices, singing in adoration, echo off frescoes and statues depicting the spiritual themes of the composition, which add new elements to a piece that is usually relegated to a neutral gallery space.

The stirring crescendos and haunting diminuendos mix with the imagery and atmosphere of the chapel to create a deep sensation. As the 11-minute piece draws to an end, coughs, giggles, and conversations slowly filled the room. At first, it sounds as if a surprising amount of people have filled the small chapel. But it soon becomes clear that speakers are now recreating everyday voices that you might hear at a museum or at the start of a theatre performance. This is the modernist three-minute introduction to Cardiff's piece, which runs on a continuous loop, and the unexpected introduction makes an interesting addition to the piece, housed in a space usually associated with silence and reverence.

Not only does Cardiff give new life to Dark Age songs and spaces, but she also provides a unusual way to experience a choir performance. Whether one chooses to meander through the gallery or else position himself in the midst of the voices, "The Forty Part Motet" offers visitors a moving and unique experience. At no charge for Columbia students, this enthralling and unique exhibition is well worth the visit, especially alongside other medieval works of art and architecture.

The museum is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Admission for non-CUID holders is $25 (1 to 168th St., then A to 190th St.).  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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