Janet Cardiff:
The Forty Part Motet, BALTIC

Text by Iris Aspinall Priest

Ten years since Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet was originally commissioned by BALTIC as part of their pre-opening events, the exhibition makes a poignant return to the North East.

Upon reaching level three of the BALTIC, the view into the gallery space is obscured by a free-standing wall. The audience’s first encounter with the work is therefore the hallucinatory sound of a 16th century choral piece reverberating throughout the clean, white gallery landing.  Entering the space we find a circular congregation of speakers on stands running almost around the perimeter of the gallery floor. The speakers are uniformly positioned at an average head height, each one broadcasting a single choir singer’s voice. The two benches at the centre of the circle invite the audience to enter the congregation and experience the work from an interior perspective, wholly enveloped in sound.

The 360° ‘surround sound’ of the piece, coupled with its roughly twenty minutes length makes it a mesmeric, engrossing experience. The voices of the choir – delicate, resonant, taught, powerful – seem to call across the space from one position to another in an ungraspable pattern. Often the voices sing together in a rising, spiralling crescendo of sound, suggesting a host of invisible presences and creating a high curtain of immaterial noise. The immediacy of The Forty Part Motet tends to bypass intellectual decoding, its visceral and immersive nature appealing more to a kinaesthetic, experiential understanding of the work. Performed in Latin, Spem in alium nunquam habui – the composition by Thomas Tallis which the piece reworks – defers the kind of particular communication that usually occurs through shared language, instead vocalisation is used for its material, rhythmic and musical properties rather than any finite meaning or for the information contained and communicated via specific words.

Though virtually ineffable, The Forty Part Motet is simultaneously evocative of sculptural or architectural forms as the compass of speakers generate vaulting, invisible walls of sound surround the audience.  With one’s eyes closed, this invisible, ghost-like architecture invites a gentle feeling of disembodiment, as though that space is being channelled from another time and location – the irreconcilable time of the past/memory – into this site on the third floor of the BALTIC.

However The Forty Part Motet is ultimately a work of infinite intra-subjective experience; as a viewer walks around the work this becomes more apparent as their audio experience also shifts from that of a general ‘wave’ of sound to a piece comprising of forty individual voices. After the taught silence of The Forty Part Motet’s conclusion and before the sequence starts again there is a period of various throat clearing, quiet chatter and paper shuffling as the choir ready for the performance. This break in the work underscores the slightly artificial, performative nature of the piece and reminds us that the sublime is not a fact, an exterior entity, but a human experience activated only by the presence of the listener.

Iris Aspinall Priest is an artist and writer based at The NewBridge Project, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where she also edits CANNED Magazine.

The Forty Part Motet is on view at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until 14 October 2012.

All photos courtesy of the artist and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead and photographer Colin Davison.