Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
North East England

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

Upon reaching level 3 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-singers 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°s ‘surround sound’ of the piece, coupled with its length (just over 20 minutes), 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 vocalization 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 around 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 3rd floor of the BALTIC in 2012.

However The Forty Part Motet is ultimately a work of infinite intrasubjective 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 (through which the sounds of the location can also be heard; from soft footsteps to the distant cries of kittiwakes) 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

Review originally published on