Medieval Meets Contemporary: Forty-Part Motet at The Cloisters

By Becky Rynor on October 22, 2013

Janet Cardiff, Forty-Part Motet (2001). Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters museum and gardens. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago

Canadian Artist Janet Cardiff’s contemporary sound installation Forty-Part Motet has become the first work of contemporary art to be shown in The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that is usually dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.

Met Curator Anne Strauss says that judging from the “overwhelming” response so far, Forty-Part Motet, on loan from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, has proven a perfect fit for the space.  

“The Fuentidueña Chapel of The Cloisters, with its twelfth-century apse, is the ideal location for presentation of this piece,” Strauss says. “It really emulates the kind of space this type of music would have been performed in. It’s a church-like space with an evocative architectural setting, and it offers superb acoustics.”

Regarded as Cardiff’s masterwork, Forty-Part Motet consists of forty separately-recorded choir voices played back through an equal number of high-fidelity speakers mounted on stands. Museum-goers can move from speaker to speaker, while the installation plays an eleven-minute reworking of the forty-part motet Spem in alium numquam habui, by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585). Spem in alium (In No Other is My Hope) is considered his most famous composition.

The 75-year-old Fuentidueña Chapel, on permanent loan from the Spanish government, is constructed of more than 3,000 limestone blocks, and is richly decorated with a Catalan fresco, a massive 2.6-metre twelfth-century Spanish wood crucifix, a twelfth-century Italian doorway from Tuscany, and other works from the Romanesque period.

Janet Cardiff, Forty-Part Motet (2001). Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters museum and gardens. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wilson Santiago

“It’s a fantastic setting for it,” says Cardiff. “Churches were designed with big gothic arches for a reason, and that’s because acoustically the reverb in the space works really well with singing voices. This is a stone chapel, so you have this rough-cut stone to give it a really nice reverb. It also works quite well with all the iconography. You walk in and you have this huge Christ on a cross right in front of you that dominates over the whole piece. I think, especially for Catholics, that it might be a strong feeling for them.”

Strauss says the installation seems to elicit strong emotions right across the board. “Many people have their eyes closed,” she says. “There’s an emotional resonance. Some people smile; they appear to be full of joy. Other people are a bit more teary-eyed. People embrace. They lie down in the space. They’re taking it in. They experience it repeatedly, staying to listen to it cycle after cycle.”

And the technology seems to melt away, says Cardiff. “When the music is on, the speakers become a little invisible,” she says of the modern-medieval match-up. “We’re so used to seeing speakers. I like working with modern technology that’s part of popular life, like iPods and speakers. It’s almost like people don’t think about the technology; they just go straight to the art.”

Forty-Part Motet is on view at The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, until 8 December 2013.

 

 


By Becky Rynor| October 22, 2013
Categories:  Exhibitions

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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