During a trip to New York, over this recent New Year’s, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, primarily to take in the Janet Cardiff sound art piece from 2001, “40 Part Motet. A Reworking of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis.” Cardiff has a huge white room to herself, essentially a gallery within the museum proper. The classic blank space contains 40 freestanding black speakers suspended on tripods, hugging the walls of the rectangular room. The speakers are loosely set in eight groups of five each. The piece is 11 minutes long, with a three-minute break in between each playing. It repeats continuously throughout the day. You can bring a good book and stay awhile, but you’ll miss all the action if you sit still.
What one hears is a motet written in 1575 by Thomas Tallis for Queen Elizabeth (I) on the occasion of her 40th birthday, but this is more than just an audiophile’s dream of classical immersion. Cardiff recorded each of the motet’s 40 parts on a separate track. “40 Part Motet” plays them simultaneously, one speaker per track, to be taken in en masse or individually. One can stand, or sit, in the center of the room and experience the piece as a performance in the round. Or one can move amid the speakers, hearing the piece from the performers’ point of view, focusing on single voices within a crowded field.
The voices are anything but homogenous. Each is distinct from the others, surprisingly so, with personality that evaporates in the mixing of parts when heard from afar. (And I heard at least one cough when I was standing by a single speaker. During the silent period, museum-goers entered into the room and put their ears up to the speakers, perhaps witnessing some of the chatter that preceded the recording session.) The temptation is to face the speakers head on, like the windblown guy in the Maxell advertisement, but it can be just as interesting to stand with the back of one’s head to two or three speakers, looking into the circle, to gain a sense of what it might be like for a member of the choir. I had one anxious flashback to singing with my own choir back in high school, to struggling to keep my place amid the various parts. Listening to “40 Part Motet” as sung by a single person is a bit like watching a Nascar race from a camera in one car’s cockpit.
The experience of listening in a museum keeps your ears, and your eyes, open for other sound elsewhere in the same building. The closest counterpoint at the MOMA to Cardiff’s “40 Part Motet” during my visit might have been a video installation by Dieter Roth. In his “Solo Scenes,” stacks of small video monitors, 131 in all, show continuous footage of Roth recorded in several locations during the final year of his life, between 1997 and 1998, as he just went about his daily routine: sorting through files, reading in bed, making a meal. What strikes you more than anything is how small a portion of his time was spent actually making art, unless, of course, you allow that the video installation had managed to transform all of his moments, waking and sleeping, into art. In any case, the way in which Roth’s “Solo Scenes” breaks a single subject, a man’s life, into over 100 constituent parts feels like an alternate take on Cardiff’s meticulous investigation of a single work.
Elsewhere in the museum, in a small room (a closet, really), set aside for Ilya Kabakov‘s claustrophobia-inducing installation “The Man Who Flew into His Picture,” the following posted statement by the artist commented on how the piece’s viewers contributed an aural context to the work itself: “Let others speak. They fill up the room with their voices, their discordant noise sounds in one’s ears, they are heard from outside and from within it.” That’s the case for traditional visual art, but in Cardiff’s “40 Part Motet” room, everyone did their best to remain silent. (More info at moma.org.)