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Polyphonic Spree

Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet flirts with cacophony—and is instead sublime.

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For its first “White Light Festival,” Lincoln Center has assembled a colorful expeditionary force of Chinese monks, Sufi musicians, Latvian choristers, and professional virtuosos to strike into the interior vastness of the soul. But those three weeks began Thursday with an inanimate choir in a recording studio, performing an artwork of full-immersion beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet. Listeners mill within a circle of speakers set up on man-height stands, and Elizabethan polyphony eddies through the room in 24-bit sound. Music and listeners affect each other. Sidle up to any one speaker, and you may hear a wobbly boy soprano or a lone, frail tenor whom you have just momentarily muffled. Step back, and you release a little surge of sound. Move into the center of the room, and those imperfect voices fuse into a shimmering brocade.

To construct this mutable environment, Cardiff used Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century motet Spem in alium nuquam habui, a massive work of musical architecture in which eight groups of five singers meet and diverge like the ribs in a Gothic vault. A live performance—which rarely happens—involves coordinating 40 singers on 40 separate parts, often in a reverberant space of the sort that flatters choral music but muddies syllables and makes it difficult for performers to hear one other. Cardiff recorded each singer on a separate channel, and the ensemble coalesces only in the act of listening: the audience moves back and forth between the sum and its parts.

The piece, which dates from 2001 and has in the past been installed at MoMA and PS1, is playing a new role as a counterpoint to an eclectic festival of mostly sacred music. Concerts last approximately two hours and provide ritual, spectacle, and organized transcendence. Here, though, for eight hours each day in a windowless sanctum, Cardiff offers a fourteen-minute bath of warm Renaissance counterpoint—a sauna for the mind. Physical and virtual space fuse. Normally, your ears will tell you where you are in the world, but not here. Close your eyes, and the room gets vaster, turning into a cathedral without walls, where exquisite music reverberates in the open air.

Forty-Part Motet runs daily from noon to 8 p.m. until November 13, on the fifth floor of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street. Admission is free.


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