Volume 4, Number 52 | Dec. 29 – Jan. 4, 2005


Forty Part Motet, 2001

MoMA Contemporary Galleries

11 W. 53rd St.

Wed-Mon. 10:30 a.m. –5:30 p.m.

$20; $16 for seniors; $12 for students

Free Fri. nights until 8 p.m.

Through Jul. 2006


Cathedral of Transcendence

Sixteenth century choral music meets 21st century media

On a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art, by the time I finished perusing the contemporary galleries, viewing the collection from top to bottom, my head was spinning. Questions of quality, importance, taste, politics, and art history had caused a certain art world-weariness to set in. Then I stumbled upon artist Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet.” It was an absolute tonic amidst all of this.

The piece seemed new, modern, lovely; it is elegantly installed in a back gallery, and the music is breathtakingly beautiful. This was a wonderful new art experience, something unlike anything I had experienced in the museum to this point.

To create “Forty Part Motet,” Canadian-born Cardiff re-worked Thomas Tallis’ 16th century choral piece “Spem in Alium,” originally composed to honor Queen Elizabeth I on her 40th birthday. Eight choirs of five voices each sing of transcendence.

Much of the gravitas of the piece stems from the fact that the Tallis “Forty Part Motet” is arguably one of the most soul stirring pieces of music ever composed and performed. Here the 40-person choir of men and boys are individually recorded to create this aural sculpture, with each sound speaker playing the part of one singer. By walking through the work as it is playing, one can get the effect of standing next to an individual performer, an experience usually reserved only for another member of the choir. One hears the odd deconstruction of this Renaissance piece into something strangely 21st century.

Cardiff has said, “I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis. You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other, and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all the singers are singing.”

To be able to sit in the center of the gallery for the 11 minutes that the piece runs, and to just be in the moment, is one of the most profoundly beautiful aesthetic experiences I have had, and one unrivaled by any other in the Modern.