High Museum partners with MoMA to bring Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet

Fifty-nine vocalists create a unique sound experience
Courtesy of the Artist and Luhring Augustine, New York
Courtesy of the Artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Coming to the High Museum of Art through a partnership with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, artist Janet Cardiff’s installation The Forty Part Motet explores the experience of sound. It’s composed of forty speakers to which she assigns fifty-nine vocalists, whose voices rise and fall, blend and harmonize in a performance of “Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui,” a masterpiece composed by Thomas Tallis in 1556. The title translates to “In No Other Is My Hope,” but the uplifting lyrics are not the most inspiring element, says Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “The work lends itself to audience members coming to it as a place of solace and a place of meditation.”

Situated on eye-level stands, the loudspeakers form an oval and broadcast a fourteen-minute looped recording: the first eleven minutes reserved for the song and the last three for an intermission. The layout invites visitors to meander, ultimately becoming engulfed by a choral crescendo. But what follows is equally compelling. As the song’s final note transitions to the intermission, it’s almost as though the curtains draw to a close on a stage. But rather than solidifying the fourth wall between performers and audience, the transition allows visitors to hear the singers engage in post-performance chat: a hustle and bustle if heard collectively or, if caught at single speakers, snippets of private talk.

The contrast between motet and intermission creates a dynamic that Rooks likens to the ancient concept of the sacred and profane, or dichotomy of earthbound and heavenly, “reminding ourselves of mortality . . . and at the same time allowing this moment of transcendence.”

The Forty Part Motet, October 11–January 18, 2015, runs with the installation Make a Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral, featuring sculpture by Luca della Robbia. high.org

This article originally ran in the September 2014 issue under the headline “A Sound Idea.”