Favourite art: Janet Cardiff – Forty Part Motet, 2001

Forty Part Motet

I saw this piece at Tate Liverpool in 2003. Meandering around, I did not expect to be find a piece of art that would move me to tears. I realise looking back that this was a pivotal piece, where I learned the power of sound, in an art context, as different to listening to music.   It remains, nearly 20 years later, one of my favourite works of art.

“I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space” – Janet Cardiff

The installation

The installation consists of 40 speakers on stands that form a circle. The speakers stand at approximately ear height to the viewer.  A recording of Thomas Tallis’s ‘Spem in Allium’, sung by Salisbury Cathedral Choir is playing. I defy anyone not to be moved by this piece of music, religious or not.

You enter into the circle and walk around and listen to each speaker. Each one has the voice of an individual singer; you hear each different voice. All of a sudden it is not just a choral performance but a performance of separate people, it becomes personal, individual. It feels incredibly intimate, like standing next to a loved one as they speak. As you move around you can hear different combinations and harmonies.

The Forty parts of the Motet consist of eight choirs, each containing four male voices; bass, baritone, alto, tenor and child sopranos.

“Even in a live concert the audience is separated from the individual voices. Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing in a different harmony. I wanted to be able to ‘climb inside’ the music connecting with the separate voices. I am also interested in how the audience may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.”*

The recording is on a loop of 14 mins, 7 seconds. If you don’t hear it from the start. Wait. When it comes back around you hear snippets of conversation at the beginning which builds until a single solitary voice starts singing, it is utterly sublime.

I would love to see this piece again. I can imagine that in different settings it will resonate differently.

About Thomas Tallis

Tallis was a sixteenth century English composer, he wrote this piece for Queen Elizabeth I for her fortieth birthday in 1575 for eight choirs of five voices. This piece of music deals with transcendence and humility, both important issues to a Catholic composer during a time when the Catholic faith was suppressed by the Sovereignty.

About Janet Cardiff

Janet Cardiff (b 1957) is a Canadian artist. She works mainly with sound and sound installations. Gaining recognition for her audio works in 1995. She often collaborates with George Bures Miller, her husband, for instance ‘Forest for a Thousand Years’. She lives and works in Canada.


*Janet Cardiff: untitled statement in Elusive Paradise: The Millennium Prize at the National Gallery of Canada, Ontario, 2001 (brochure)

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