One Collective Breath: Janet Cardiff's 'The Forty Part Motet'

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s "The Forty Part Motet" is deceptively simple in appearance: a spare room occupied solely with a ring of black speakers on stands. But once the first collective breath of the virtual choir begins, and the forty-part harmonies of Thomas Tallis’s masterful choral work ripple throughout the gallery, the mind-boggling complexity of her sound sculpture becomes apparent. Visitors will walk from speaker to speaker, listen to the individual voices and essentially make their own mix, as what you hear depends on where you’re standing at any given moment during the 14-minute recording.

When she first created “The Forty Part Motet” for an exhibit at MOMA in New York in 2001, Cardiff could never have predicted the powerful connection a Renaissance-era religious composition would have with modern day listeners. As it came to pass, the installation debuted just weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks. Gallery goers, including Cardiff herself, were moved to tears as they looked out at the city while listening to the virtual choir sing “Spem in Alium,” which, translated from Latin, means “Hope in any other.” Recently, the theme took on a poignant significance once again, as the current installation opened to San Francisco audiences on the same weekend of the Paris terror attacks.

The Forty Part Motet is open Wednesdays through Sundays at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. You can reserve tickets online through SFMOMA.

Be sure to check out KQED Arts' review of the installation and listen to Cardiff’s recent appearance on KQED’s Forum.