Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
North East England

This year sees BALTIC celebrating its tenth anniversary. It seems fitting therefore that Janet Cardiff’s audio installation Forty Part Motet (originally co-commissioned by BALTIC as part of it’s pre-opening programme B4B in 2001 and shown at the Castle Keep) is not only finally making a return to the north east but to the institution that helped bring it to fruition a decade ago.

The arrangement of the work is remarkably simple, the main fabric being forty loudspeakers arranged in an oval shape within the starkly blank exhibition space. This minimal set-up provides a certain monochromatic ambience, but it becomes clear once the audio starts that this is an installation not about visual stimulation but about the power of sound.

The forty speakers play back recordings of voices from Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing ‘Spem in Alium’ (Hope in Any Other), an Elizabethan choral piece composed by Thomas Tallis and arranged for eight choirs of five singers covering bass, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano. The speakers are therefore arranged into eight choirs of five that encircle the viewer. Each speaker represents one voice in one choir, allowing the audience a chance to listen to individuals rather than the traditional experience of one mass sound.

For Cardiff the point of this was to allow the audience to experience the music from the viewpoint of the singers as opposed to the conventional ‘audience’ position, where there is a boundary between performers and listeners. This results in a heightened sense of interaction between the two, and as people physically move around the arrangement of speakers a much more intimate connection is made.

Further to this Cardiff uses the piece to demonstrate how sound can ‘construct’ a space. She exemplifies its ability to fill and create vacuums in turn, to echo and resonate, becoming incredibly sculptural despite the absence of a physical object.

‘Spem in Alium’ itself has many dimensions thanks to its complex, layered structure. It begins with one voice from one choir and others join in imitation, there are passages where all voices sing together and others that focus just on one group. Patterns are established, and then reversed, showcasing a real manipulation of sound, voice and tone.

Perhaps more impressive still are people’s reactions to the work which add an unexpected transformative quality to the space, taking it from a public gallery to a place heavy with divinity and sanctuary. Some viewers visit each speaker in turn carefully listening to each individual voice, others sit in the centre of the space, some with their eyes closed, some even with their shoes removed. These latter actions surely denote some kind of humbled presence to the pure quality of the installation and are made more impressive by its presentation in a gallery space rather than a more theatrically loaded setting. The spell of this sanctity is only broken when the piece finishes with a short interval of silence before a period of chatter and warm ups signifies the commencing of another performance. These more personable elements are a gentle reminder of the human presence behind the purity of the voices and for a couple of minutes each speaker effectively becomes a vocal portrait of an individual.

Forty Part Motet is a piece with huge presence that truly has to be experienced to be understood. What’s more, in a world of non-stop visual bombardment and worship of objects, it is incredible to see people stopped in their tracks simply by the power of sound.