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Janet Cardiff: Forty-Part Motet

Climb inside the rich, polyphonic choral music of this famous piece of contemporary sound art.

Forty-Part Motet is a sublimely beautiful sound installation created in 2001 by one of Canada’s most significant contemporary artists, Janet Cardiff. This sculpturally conceived sound artwork, considered as both an exhibition and a performance, was previously shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at the Tate Gallery in England to name a few.

Surrey Art Gallery will host the first exhibition of Forty-Part Motet in British Columbia. This tour of Forty-Part Motet is organized by the National Gallery of Canada.

To create this artwork, Janet Cardiff individually recorded members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir performing "Spem in Alium" by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis, one of the most complex pieces of polyphonic choral music ever written.

In the exhibition, separate voices emanate from forty speakers placed at head height and arrayed in an oval. As visitors stroll past the speakers they can single out individual singers. Standing at the centre, the combined choral harmonies wash over listeners. The piece is on a 14 minute loop, with 11 minutes of music and a three minute intermission. The effect of the artwork is one of haunting beauty.

Most people experience this piece now in their living room, in front of only two speakers. Even in a live concert, the audience is separated from the individual voices. Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing a different harmony.

As Cardiff explains: “I wanted to be able to...'climb inside' the music, connecting with the separate voices. I am also interested in how sound may construct a space in a sculptural way and how the audience may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space. I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis. You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all the singers are singing.”

This exhibition is one of the featured events co-presented as part of the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

View the exhibition brochure.