I knew about the accolades but still had doubts. One sonic stroll gratefully dispelled them.
Janet Cardiff’s 2001 installation “The Forty-Part Motet” is her most acclaimed work to date. The Canadian artist specializes in a sculptural approach she tagged “sound walks.”
After listening to a CD of Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ 16th-century composition “Spem in Alium,” Cardiff had an epiphany: If the average listener could move through the 40-voice choir, their experience would alter completely.
She recorded a performance by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, substituting children for the women’s soprano lines. During the session, each voice was recorded separately into individual high-quality microphones.
The result has spellbound listeners at every appearance. It found a permanent home in Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Brazil’s Inhotim.
It’s common for those who engage it to be overwhelmed to tears. That very reaction by a curator from the Mobile Museum of Art prompted his eagerness to bring it to Mobile.
So now the showplace in Langan Park will feature Cardiff’s renowned piece though Sept. 25. When museum staff took their first walk-through after its recent installation, eyes watered again.
While I’ve long been amazed by the human relationship with sound, I was initially skeptical not of the piece’s power but of the responsibility. Shouldn’t chief credit actually lie with the composer, then maybe the choir?
As I entered the MMoA upstairs gallery, I found something rare for the social hubbub of opening night. The roughly 30 attendees were spellbound and quiet, aside from one trio conversing almost inaudibly.
The room was sparse, with 10 acoustic boards the only objects on the walls. In a large oval, eight clusters of five B&W speakers atop ear-height stands pointed inward toward a pair of leather-topped, minimalist benches.
On a bench, one of the men sat, eyes closed. A rolled program in his outstretched right hand bobbed and wove slowly with the music.
“I thought it was fantastic. It’s very ethereal,” he said.
Self-identified as Marc Polland, he said he knew nothing of the piece beforehand. He claimed he would eagerly return.
“I sing, so it took something not to join in,” Polland smiled.
After the 11-minute musical number, there’s a three-minute span where I heard the vocalists converse, cough, clear their throats, sniffle, talk about pronunciation, warm up, rehearse. It was a plain-spoken chorale of the actual humans behind the otherworldly tones.
“In the end, when we turn the page from 19 to 20, that last bar,” a child’s voice said.
“That’s right, there’s a top G and a bottom G, absolutely,” a man chuckled.
The speakers are clustered so each grouping contains a soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. The relaxed snippets are carried solely over their respective speakers.
“It’s truly great. It’s wonderful to experience it in one spot and just close your eyes and listen, but it’s also wonderful to walk around and just catch every single voice. Then there’s the treasure hunt for all the secret conversations,” Sophia Goslings said.
“I wasn’t expecting much. I was like, ‘Oh speakers and music, how can that be art?’ But I think it’s been my favorite exhibit ever, and not just here,” Larissa Graham said. “We were in there a half an hour and we could have stayed longer.”
After the casual stirring, the choir grew still. Following faint directions from the choirmaster, the music began anew.
A soprano voice cut through the still air. Another nearby joined it.
The dynamics washed in polyphonic waves across the space and past the stark speaker stalks. The voices faded then joined, surged into exultation.
It looped continuously through cycles. Joyful noise, then quick relaxation, then voices aloft again.
Soon, my focus shifted to the other listeners in the room. I studied their faces in search of insight. What were they feeling? How similar or distant was it to my own reflection?
I realized then it was as much about the people I shared the room with as the music itself. The thoughts induced by their presence and reactions were as much a part of the installation as the notes and musical composition.
The listeners around me each had their own experiences, joined yet separate, discreet and discrete. Inevitably I pondered the other patrons’ perception, how much they were aware of or oblivious to the preciousness of our lives and how valuable the human journey is.
That was when my doubts evaporated. Sure the music was wonderful, but it was only a trigger to something more transcendent and ephemeral than just musical scales and perfect pitch.
I chose to see such as Cardiff’s goal. Her vision brought me there, handed me a map and allowed me to uncover my own hidden treasure.