The Forty-Part Motet

I haven’t posted here since mid-September; it’s now November. I have a couple

of excuses (I got married, had a honeymoon, am moving house, have been posting

at MemeFirst), but it’s still a very poor show. Maybe all the goings-on in my

real-world life have rid me of the need to get minor issues off my chest at

great length. We shall see. As the number of blogs explodes along with the number

of people who use RSS readers, we’re increasingly living in a world where infrequent

posts of decent quality are to be preferred to mediocre new entries coming along

on a daily or even hourly basis. So I’m not feeling particularly guilty.

All the same, it’s worth posting something, if only to prove to myself that

I’m still alive and capable of writing one of these things. And one of the things

which has been on my mind over the past few days is The Forty-Part Motet,

a work of art that has recently been installed at MoMA. Todd Gibson has already


about it at length, and he’s mostly right.

I saw the piece last week, on a trip to MoMA with my wife. (Yes, it still feels

very weird saying that.) When we were sitting in the café talking about

what we’d seen, there was a bit of confusion: I kept on saying that I loved

"the Tallis piece", and while Michelle couldn’t remember the name

of the person responsible for the installation she really loved, she knew that

it wasn’t Tallis, and, moreover, that it was a woman. The name she was searching

for, of course, was Janet Cardiff, and she was talking about the exact same


Questions of authorship rarely arise in a fine-art context, except in cases

of forgery or attribution. It’s generally accepted that someone is

the artist, who should get any credit due. Artists have played with this notion,

of course, and many, from Old Masters to the likes of Warhol and LeWitt and

Koons and Hirst, use assistants extensively. But you don’t get the kind of debates

in the fine art world that you do in other arenas: is True Romance

a Tony Scott film or a Quentin Tarantino film? Whose Hamlet did you

see? That of the actor in the eponymous role? The director? Shakespeare? Why

is it that the authors of operas are generally considered to be the composers,

while the authors of ballets are generally considered to be the choreographers?

You get the picture.

In the case of The Forty-Part Motet, however, authorship is very difficult

to attribute. MoMA doesn’t seem to have any doubt: the artist is Janet Cardiff,

who was assisted by a large number of people, and who recorded a 16th Century

choral work by Thomas Tallis. Todd Gibson, on the other hand, apportions credit

more equally:

The Forty-Part Motet takes all of its emotional punch from the choir’s

performance of Tallis’s piece.. In her piece Cardiff has harnessed the power

of a live performance by using the skills of a master recording technician…

Unlike her other work where she creates original sound environments, here

Cardiff has recreated a sound environment originally developed over 400 years

ago. Filtered through Cardiff’s technology, the music sounds good enough to

make listeners choke up.

I would go even further. Cardiff has created a nice-looking space, with an

oval of 40 speakers, but that is really no big deal. Her recording technicians

did a good job, too, but then again recording technology has been sophisticated

enough to create a piece like this for a very long time. I don’t consider this

a Tallis piece "filtered through Cardiff’s technology", because the

technology is pretty commoditised at this point, and there’s really nothing

to indicate that Cardiff deserves the possessive.

In other words, the work, as experienced, is Tallis’s, not Cardiff’s. It’s

a work of art which actually gets better when you close your eyes. Insofar as

this is "one of the most sublimely beautiful spaces in Midtown Manhattan,"

to quote Gibson, that’s because of the music, foremost, and perhaps the view

out the window.

Tallis is something of an expert when it comes to the sublime, of course. And

it’s a testament to the power of his music that it can transform a modernist

white box into something both transcendent and devotional. But neither Cardiff

nor MoMA is making it particularly easy on him.

I would dearly love to own this piece – to have a room devoted to it,

where I could listen to it whenever I liked. I could sit still, or walk around,

as I slowly got to know every part and how they fit together. But the piece

in MoMA isn’t like that. People are constantly walking in and out – chances

are it was halfways over before you even entered the room.

But it gets worse. 99% of the people who walk into the room have little if

any idea what it’s all about. They’re in one of the greatest art galleries in

the world, and they have come to look at art and to understand it. So they walk

into the room, which has music, like a lot of contemporary art, and they slowly

get it. First they get the structure: the way that each speaker corresponds

to one singer. Then they get the overarching beauty of the music. And they realise

how great the piece is, and get excited about it.

The problem, of course, is that people don’t visit MoMA alone. They visit with

their friends. And so whenever they get excited about a piece, they feel the

need to tell their friends. Now I’ve been to a fair few Tallis performances

in my time, but I’ve never been to anything with half as much chattering. At

the end of our trip on Friday, Michelle went to the bookshop while I returned

to the Tallis piece. I sat down, and within a minute a large earth-mother type

was bustling in, telling her friend all about the work and how much she loved

it. I shot her a nasty look, but it didn’t do any good. She sat down next to

me, and started rustling around in her plastic bag for whatever items she needed

to listen to the music. Meanwhile, a bunch of other people were talking quietly

about the work as well. I soon found myself essentially incapable of enjoying

the music.

Tallis is a subtle composer. The voices work with and against each other in

complex ways, and a few words stand out because of their plosive or sibilant

endings. Listening to Spem in alium, especially a recording as richly

detailed as this one, you become attuned to very subtle textures in the music

– you become a much more active listener than you ever would be normally

in an art gallery. And so all of the chatter and noise in the gallery really

gets in the way and ruins the piece. There might be a debate going on about

applause between movements,

but no one would debate the proposition that one simply shouldn’t start

up a conversation in the middle of a devotional choral piece by Thomas

Tallis. And yet that’s exactly what happens all day at MoMA.

There are things which MoMA could have done to minimise the problem, and didn’t.

There are things they couldn’t have done, too: I think that ideally, if this

work is to be presented to the public, it might be better placed in a performing

arts center, like Lincoln Center, where there is more of a culture of appreciating

aural as opposed to visual art. But still:

MoMA could have hidden the piece away somewhere, signposted, as a special installation

deserving of special attention. At the moment, it’s just another piece in the

contemporary rehang: you pass it on your way from the Nauman to the Turrell,

and so it’s easier for the public to give it the kind of (noisy) attention that

they give to everything else.

More subtly, and more easily, MoMA could have just dimmed the lights a bit.

I’m not saying that the audience should sit in darkness: the visual structure

is striking, and the window can and should remain uncovered. But simply making

the gallery dimmer than the rest of the museum would help to signal to viewers

that this is not a primarily visual piece, and that they should slow down and

quiet down a bit.

MoMA could even have simply put a sign up, saying "silence please"

or words to that effect. They’re happy with "do not touch" signs –

does speaking in The Forty-Part Motet not ruin it just as much as touching,

say, a Serra?

Cardiff should be overjoyed that this work is on display at MoMA: there’s a

good chance that more people will experience it over the next year than have

seen or heard all her other works put together. She should go down to 53rd Street

and talk to a couple of people, and try to make the experience as close to what

she intended as possible. And that means changing the work a little in the face

of new realities: MoMA is simply a very different gallery to PS1. What worked

in the latter might not work in the former, and there’s no harm – and

quite a lot of benefit – in taking that into account when the piece moves

across the East River to Manhattan.

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6 Responses to The Forty-Part Motet

  1. Rhian says:

    I like it. You make me want to come over and see it. Hear it. How long is it on for? I take your point about choice of location but chances are more people like me will end up enjoying the piece if it’s in MoMA than had it been presented in the Lincoln Centre. And what a great opportunity for MoMA to teach us how to appreciate aural art.

  2. Matt says:

    Tiki & I saw it last month when we came over from the wedding, and thought it was simply the best of very many wonderful things at MoMA. Fortunately for us the room was uncrowded, and we did exactly as you describe, sitting with eyes closed and absorbing it.

    What’s particularly odd is that I actually thought to myself ‘this sounds just like Salisbury Cathedral’ before finding out where it was recorded. I’ve no idea if it was recorded there, but it’s the same choir, which I’ve heard a few times at Christmas.

    And FWIW, I say 1/3 credit to composer, performers and ‘artist’. Now, _can_ you get a copy of the 40-track recording to make a copy?

  3. Erika says:

    I heard and saw it when we were in NY, and like Matt, was lucky that there were just a few very quiet people in the room. It was magical. Certainly my favourite “exhibition” of the day. You won’t be surprised that for me it is a Tallis piece, just as I think of a Stravinsky ballet.

  4. Emily says:

    I saw the exhibit a few days ago, over Thanksgiving weekend, so needless to say, it was a bit crowded, and a bit chattery. But what drew me into it was the sound floating through the other galleries. I actually thought it was a movie soundtrack and expected to walk into a screening room where an image in opposition to the music would be projected on the walls. Instead, I was greeted by a spare room with forty speakers and milling people. I didn’t know what to make of it, except that I knew I had been drawn to the music. My mother gravitated towards that single window and had a similar reaction to Todd– she certainly felt the sublime beauty of the combination of view and sound.

    And yes, maybe the chatter and constant flow of people through the room lent the exhibit a somewhat mundane and pedestrian nature (which I personally think is fascinating to watch against such a divine soundtrack). But to sequester the installation away to maintain the sanctity of the music would detract from the total experience. The music colored my experience of the two surrounding rooms and therefore, of my whole day. In a way, I almost appreciated the music more before I found its source: the anticipation built up by the exquisite, distant sounds was as much part of “viewing” the work as my stroll among the speakers.

  5. Alex says:

    I experienced this piece when I was in New York visiting my girlfriend. I sang in a choir for many years and the beauty of this work is that it enables the listener to choose whether to immerse themself in the music as a whole, or, by standing near one speaker, to gain the perspective of one of the members of the choir. It is an incredible experience to be one of 40 or 50 voices making up a piece, and this exhibit allows anyone to have an approximation of this experience. In this respect I feel the artist deserves some credit for the work. Although there are plenty of choirs capable of performing this work and engineers capable of recording it, the artist is the first person I know of who has taken the time to allow the listener to immerse themself within the performing choir. To create an analogy with contemporary music, Cardiff could be seen as the producer of the music, shaping its final incarnation to achieve the greatest effect. In pop music now producers are as important or more so than the performers of the music, and while I would not go so far as to state Cardiff is the author of this work, I feel she should certainly be afforded more credit than you give her in your original post.

    I was fortunate enough that when I was at MoMA the exhibit was not too busy. I was also lucky in that most of the people in the room did their best to remain silent. I would urge anyone who is in this room at the same time as an especially noisy individual or group to leave and return later as the effect of the piece will be lost if drowned in chatter.

  6. monique says:


    I saw the Momet exhibition at TheRooms in St-John’s, Newfoundland. It was in a a perfect setting. I listened to it completely three times. This is what I believe music should do, transcend the every day bustle. There was another women who stayed for three times too. We also went and got our husbands but they did not get into it as much as us. We saw each other downtown that day( St-john’s is small town) and remembered.– I am back from my vacation and searched on the web for that music piece. If you have it, do you get the same feeling?

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