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Moving ‘Motet’ made from sacred music, modern sound

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Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” is an evocative sound installation in Gallery 308 at Fort Mason. (Courtesy JKA Photography)

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty Part Motet” lasts just 14 minutes, but the experience is so profound that visitors will be thinking about it for long after.

“The Forty Part Motet” — on display at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture — features the 16th century choral work, “Spem in alium nunquam habui” (“I have never put my hope in any other).”

The hauntingly beautiful music is sung by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, with each singer’s voice recorded separately. Composed by English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, the work was written for eight choirs of five voices each.

The setting at Fort Mason is spare but powerful: 40 black speakers raised to ear level, spaced in an oval, invite listeners to immerse themselves in layers of exquisite sound.

“Even in a live concert the audience is separate from the individual voices,” Cardiff says on the gallery’s wall text. “Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing in a different harmony. I wanted to be able to ‘climb inside’ the music, connecting with the separate voices.”

The music lasts 11 minutes. Cardiff has included three minutes of intermission that allows the audience to hear the warm up — choir members coughing and talking about everyday matters before taking a breath and singing like angels.

The piece plays in a continuous loop, so that visitors can hear it more than once.

The experience is transformative. Some people weep; others walk from speaker to speaker in meditative silence.

In one instance, a group burst into applause when the music ended, says Nick Kinsey, director of external affairs at Fort Mason Center.

“It’s definitely moved different people in different ways.” Kinsey says. “It’s a piece that is really enhanced by the space it plays in.”

The former Army machine shop – with stunning views of the marina and the Golden Gate Bridge – provides a perfect setting, enabling Cardiff to pair a modern space with an old and sacred piece of music.

“The Forty Part Motet” is the first presentation in the newly renovated Gallery 308. Presented jointly by Fort Mason Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the installation is on display through Jan, 18.

It’s a space similar to MoMA PS1 in New York, where the work was exhibited shortly after 9/11.

In an interview with KQED, Cardiff says she did not realize at the time what a profound effect it would have on its audience.

“People just stood and listened to the music and looked at the city,” Cardiff says, “and they just wept.“

IF YOU GO
The Forty Part Motet
Where: Fort Mason, Landmark Building A, Gallery 308, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: Noon to 8 p.m. most Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 18
Tickets: Free
Contact: (415) 345-7500, www.MotetTickets.org, www.fortmason.org

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