Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet

On May 5, the Cleveland Museum of Art and MOCA Cleveland present a lecture by multimedia artist Janet Cardiff. Cardiff’s audio installation Forty-Part Motet will be on display at the CMA beginning May 4 and is presented in conjunction with her piece The Paradise Institute at MOCA. Cardiff will speak on Sunday, May 5 at 2 p.m. in the museum’s Gartner Auditorium. Reserve your ticket through the Ticket Center at (216) 421-7350 or online. Here, we discuss this innovative, multi-sensory artist and her upcoming CMA installation.

Janet Cardiff is a sound installation and multimedia artist hailing from Brussels, Ontario. Many of her pieces are audio-based, like the one coming to the CMA. Her work has appeared in museums from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Tate Modern in London to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. She also collaborates on some pieces with her husband, George Bures Miller.

Forty-Part Motet is considered Janet Cardiff’s masterpiece. This sound sculpture revolves around a recording of a 16th-century sacred choral work, or motet, by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585). The 14-minute motet is broadcast from 40 high-fidelity loudspeakers and played in a continuous loop. Each speaker plays an individually recorded choir voice, allowing visitors to hear every voice separately while simultaneously being immersed in the piece as a whole. “The main emphasis is on the sculptural quality,” says Cardiff about her installation, “and the sense that audio can be a physical construct.” Recorded in 2000 in the Salisbury Cathedral in England, the motet features the Salisbury Cathedral Choir along with hired singers from all over England. Cardiff recorded each singer individually, keeping the microphone on even after they finished singing, capturing the performers talking during breaks. The informal talking is juxtaposed with the grandeur of the sung motet, creating a “sense of physicality of the people and the personalities. It gives the work a down-to-earth aspect,”notes Cardiff. Her goal is to have the audience to feel that each audio speaker is a person. The circular arrangement of the speakers comes from Cardiff’s research into the composer’s original surroundings. Thomas Tallis designed the piece with a small chapel in mind, one with eight alcoves so that each choir would be in a separate alcove. She describes the dynamic of the speakers as a matrix, with the sound moving around the audience, as well as through the space.

Forty-Part Motet will be installed in the newly renovated Italian Baroque gallery, which CMA Director David Franklin is intrigued by “the idea of the work being an intrusion in the space, but at the same time blending in with the space.” Franklin hopes “the music will be like a siren song calling people from all over the museum.” Forty-Part Motet is free and on view May 4 through July 7.

—Therese Conway

Presented at The Cleveland Museum of Art, from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The Ohio Arts Council helped fund this exhibition with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence, and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans.


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