Janet Cardiff The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium,” by Thomas Tallis 1556) 2001

  • Not on view

When Cardiff first heard a recording of Thomas Tallis’s ambitious sixteenth-century choral composition Spem in alium nunquam habui (In no other is my hope) in 1998, she envisioned the possibility of hearing each voice in isolation from its greater harmony. To make this concept a reality, on the occasion of the 2001 Salisbury Festival she recorded forty members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir as they sang the piece’s forty musical lines. The motet, which Tallis likely composed to honor Queen Mary I of England on her fortieth birthday, is performed by eight groups of singers, each of which have five members—a soprano (here a child performer), an alto, a tenor, a baritone, and a bass.

In the installation, the speakers are also arranged in eight groups of five, describing a large oval, and each singer’s voice, recorded separately, emanates from a single speaker. As a result, listeners play an active role in the work, controlling how they experience the composition by moving through the exhibition space—standing in front of a single speaker for an intimate experience with a solo voice or positioning themselves between speakers to hear singers in combination. At the center of the installation, all the voices may be heard in unison.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Additional text

In The Forty Part Motet, the sublime glory that the divine has held in the imagination of believers for centuries is made palpable. Cardiff's installation is a reworking of a choral piece for forty male voices (bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano) by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, which he likely composed to honor Queen Elizabeth I on her fortieth birthday

The audio component of The Forty Part Motet is a fourteen-minute loop: eleven minutes of singing and three minutes of intermission. The voices of forty singers performing Spem in Alium Nunquam habui were each recorded separately and are played back in the installation via forty individual loudspeakers on tripods. The speakers are arranged in a large circle, and as visitors wander among them and progress through the work, they hear each distinct voice and also experience different combinations and harmonies. A visitor can stand in the middle of the installation and hear all forty voices as they unify into one musical piece or move close to an individual loudspeaker for an intimate experience with a single voice.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art , p. 195.
Forty-track sound recording, forty speakers
14 min.
Salisbury Cathedral Choir
Field Art Projects
George Bures Miller
Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Rolf Hoffmann
Object number
© 2024 Janet Cardiff. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin.
Media and Performance

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