Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet, currently on view through December 8, boasts the distinction of being the first exhibition of contemporary art in the seventy-five-year history of The Cloisters museum and gardens. A sound installation consisting of forty speakers mounted on tall stands and arranged in a large oval, Cardiff's work seems to have found its ideal home in the Fuentidueña Chapel—dominated by the monumental twelfth-century apse brought to The Cloisters from the church of San Martín in Fuentidueña, Spain.
As the piece begins, you hear a series of seemingly isolated sounds—a solitary cough to your right, someone humming a few notes across the room—and the whole space gradually comes alive around you as the members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir warm up, chit-chat, and compare notes on Tudor composer Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium. After a few minutes a choirmaster can be heard saying, "What we'll do is we'll go through it one more time—really go for it—and then we'll take a little breather . . ." Following a brief pause, a single voice begins to sing, and soon the music is swelling and moving throughout the space.
Visitors to The Cloisters have often noted that its art, architecture, and gardens can have a transporting effect, but when you are in the center of the Fuentidueña Chapel and move among the forty speakers, that effect is amplified—quite literally—to an extraordinary degree. Hearing those voices swirling around you is quite powerful in itself, but being able to walk up to a speaker and intimately hear the sharp intakes of breath, the hisses and pops a mouth makes as it forms sound, the qualities and imperfections of an individual voice, makes this exhibition a truly unique experience—one that can't be replicated in a church or concert-hall performance.
I have witnessed visitors clutching their chests, wiping away tears, or just smiling wistfully up at the frescoes as they become immersed in the moment, and I encourage all fans of art and music alike to head to The Cloisters and experience this extraordinary installation for yourselves.