Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” is deceptively simple in appearance: a spare room occupied by a ring of black speakers on stands.
But once the first collective breath of the virtual choir begins, and forty voices ripple throughout the gallery, the complexity of her sound sculpture becomes apparent.
The sculpture consists of 40 speakers, each playing one singer’s voice, mounted in an oval. The speakers play the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing “Spem in Alium,” a 16th-century work by composer Thomas Tallis, for 11 minutes of music cut with 3 minutes of intermission. By walking to different parts of the oval, each listener creates their own unique experience. “It’s like walking into a piece of music,” Cardiff said.
Cardiff first created “The Forty Part Motet” for an exhibit at MoMA in New York in 2001, and it debuted shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks. Cardiff could never have predicted the powerful connection that modern-day listeners would form with a Renaissance-era religious composition, she said. “People just stood and listened to the music and looked at the city, and they just wept,” Cardiff said. “It was really amazing.”
The Forty Part Motet is open Wednesdays through Sundays through Jan. 18 at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. You can reserve tickets online through SFMOMA.