Published  17/09/2013

Janet Cardiff’s Sound Sculpture

Janet Cardiff’s Sound Sculpture

The Forty Part Motet, a sound installation by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, is not so much a sight to see – despite the magnificence of its current setting – as it is a space to experience

Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet
The Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
10 September – 8 December 2013


The artist placed 40 speakers with individual recordings of Salisbury cathedral’s choir in the 12th-century Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum’s branch dedicated to medieval art. The Forty Part Motet, a reworking of Spem in alium numquam habui by the 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), enraptures and elevates the way only a singing voice can, as the sounds of Tallis’s  Renaissance masterpiece fill the air. The speakers are arranged so that each voice is distinct, but the composition is also heard as a whole as the individual voices harmonise. Visitors can move between speakers, listening to any voice that attracts them as it begins, moves through, and finishes a segment of the composition. For Cardiff, this experience of mindful but visceral movement through space, which gradually fills up with polyphonic sound, is akin to the action of “sculpting” the space, investigating its energy and potential.

The work was created in 2001 and has since been exhibited many times in various locations worldwide. For the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, it is a milestone of sorts. According to Anne L Strauss, associate curator in the department of modern and contemporary art, the exhibition is unique in three ways: it is the museum’s first display of sound art, it is the Cloisters’ first contemporary art installation and it is the inaugural collaboration between the museum’s contemporary and medieval departments. Cardiff gave the following interview to Studio Internationalabout this installation.

Natasha Kurchanova: Janet, thank you for agreeing to talk to Studio International. This interview is mostly in relation to the installation of your work The Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters, so I will focus my questions around it. It is one of your most well-known installations and it is not the first time you have shown it. In fact, if I am not mistaken, since its creation in 2001, this particular work has travelled around the world and been shown in several locations. Most recently, New Yorkers could see – or, rather, hear – it at PS1 in Queens.

Janet Cardiff: This work has been shown by the Museum of Modern Art many times since 2001. This is the fourth time it has been shown in New York.1

NK: What does this new location at The Cloisters bring to the piece?

JC: The Cloisters division of the Metropolitan Museum invited me to show there. Because it is part of its 75th anniversary, the museum thought it would be an interesting mix in the room it chose for it. And it is a beautiful room. The building was erected in the 1900, but part of it has a reference to medieval architecture. It has a similar kind of feeling as the music in The Forty Part Motet, even though they are centuries apart – the composition by Thomas Tallis is from the 1500s. This music has, of course, a religious, spiritual side. The motet was supposedly written to bring people to a sense of spirituality: the voices rise and hover like angels. A lot of music written around that time was about the mixture of voices in the sky. I think this location and the work is a wonderful combination. The piece has been shown in every conceivable kind of place: from a wine cellar and a bar in Sweden, to warehouses and cathedrals in Paris, and it sounds different in every location. I just heard from my tonmeister that this location sounds wonderful.

NK: I am looking forward to hearing it there. Was the religious meaning there from the very beginning? Obviously, the piece has a spiritual dimension, but do you want to make it more religious?

JC: No, what attracted me to the music was, of course, the beauty of it. For me, it was about the beauty of its construction or the beauty of the composition: about the 40 different harmonies and how they intertwine with each other in such an incredible way. That’s what I wanted to present: I wanted to show how these 40 different voices were constructed, so that it was kind of homage to Thomas Tallis. So, when listeners are there in the room, they can hear the music move around them. To me, it’s a physical, sculptural thing. And it wasn’t the religious part that drew me to it, but I think that when it’s successfully done, then it evokes spirituality in everyone, whether in a person’s emotional centre or an intellectual centre. It’s very emotional music.

NK: My next question concerns the performance nature of your work in general. I do not mean that you are a performer, but I think that the viewers, listeners, or participants of your art may be. Frequently, it has been said that your work in its entirety – including your famous “walks,” your theatrical sets, such as The Paradise Institute, and even your sound installations, such as The Murder of Crows, which was shown in New York at the Park Avenue Armory last year – is akin to a sort of “reality TV” cinematic experience, when, with the help of technology, you place people in the midst of narratives or spaces you have created and guide their experiences. Because of this cinematic character, participants of your walks and installations become unwitting “performers” of your script. They are not conventional performers, because their experiences are very private, intimate, and not intended for the public eye, but nonetheless they connect with themselves at a certain level, developing awareness of being “in the moment”. My question is: how much control do you want to have and how much independence do you allow participants of your pieces? One critic wrote that “at least part of the beauty” of The Forty Part Motet “lies in watching the dance of spectators” from aside, implying that the work is a set for a choreographed performance of sorts.2 Would you agree with this interpretation?

JC: One of the concepts of the piece was to enable people to unravel the music in a way they wanted to unravel it, so that they could interact with “performers”. All those speakers are performers. And then the audience becomes a certain performer that interacts intimately with the voice of particular singers. As people walk around, they will hear a mixing of totally different sounds: someone may be sitting on the benches or may be coming into the piece in the middle, or someone else may come into the piece two minutes later. So I definitely think that there is a performative element to this, but I see this performance more like a metaphor with water, the way the water flows. For me, a piece of music always references water as it flows around the room. It starts in one choir, it moves around the other, and then there is a repeated section – it is like waves coming in. I see that spectators are definitely like that: they move around like a free-flowing river. Some people would get into the music and stay for a couple of renditions, other people would stay for two minutes. Everyone has a completely different approach, which is a performer’s thing, because they have a choice.

NK: So, it’s an improvisation of sorts?

JC: Yes, it is improvisational.

NK: Finally, I want to ask you about the role of technology in your work. Technology permeates it; it seems that from the beginning, you positioned yourself as an artist who explores technological advances not for their own sake, but as human inventions that can be used either for or against us in making us aware of our very human experiences of love, fragility, fear or awe. I like comparing your work to reality TV, because while “in” your work, the world appears more “real” somehow, although, as viewers and listeners, we are conscious of its narrative, fictional nature. I am interested in your focus on deconstructing technology’s ability to conflate reality and fiction. I wonder if you could elaborate on this suggestion, in relation not only to The Forty Part Motet, but your work in general.

JC: Well, with the walks … You know, they actually started with the Walkman, the one with cassette tapes. There was a dialogue at that time about how these devices alienated people from society. It’s kind of an interesting dialogue when you look back at it. One of the concepts with the Walkman was that it was about intimacy. It was actually making you see the world more. Through this simple technology you were experiencing the world more intensely, seeing the texture of the sidewalks, colours along the wall … As soon as you accentuate your auditory capacities, the other senses become accentuated too, which is a strange phenomenon. So, I think, it’s a very interesting relationship with technology, because we play with the sense of “inside” and “outside,” especially with the video walks that George [Bures Miller, Cardiff’s partner and collaborator] and I do.3 Sometimes we have people walk along, and then we see that the battery is gone, and then they are left with just my voice. A thinking person would realise that my voice is still playing. They will feel alone and separated, and then they will become aware of how technology is affecting them. Everyone used to have speakers in their homes, audio speakers. These speakers are kind of invisible. So, with The Forty Part Motet, we wanted to take the people straight to the essence, the intimacy of the voice of the singer, and we created a virtual person, a virtual choir. I used straight technology, because I could not make it with funny-looking speakers that would reference humans or something like that. I had to make it straight, so that people would not think about the technology, so that they are able to enter into it. But there is always a push and pull: you are aware of technology and then it becomes invisible and then we pull you out again to make you aware of it and your situation in relationship to the world. I think our work is more about how technology relates to the time we are in. About “reality and fiction”: when I first started doing the audio walks in the late 1980s, early 90s, they fitted right into the dialogue that I mentioned. And that’s why questions like – why is it interesting if you do not know if it’s a real bird or not, or when someone is coming behind you and you turn around and they are not really there? – were captivating for me as well. At the same time, it is playfulness with technology that people cannot quite make out, that’s why the fascination with reality TV too. Because you know it’s recorded; people know that the cameras are on them, but it provides this intimacy … It’s a long answer.

NK: Thank you for explaining this. You mentioned George. I know that he is your collaborator and your partner. But this particular work you did by yourself?

JC: In 2000, when we were working together, we had some major collaborations. Because I came up with the idea for The Forty Part Motet, George would not take credit. His was the idea for technology. But he said: “No, it was your concept: the work should go under your name.” It gets confusing because now we just go with whose concept it is. We just work on it together and it is authored by both of us. We’ve been together for 34 years or something: by now, our ideas are totally melded.

NK. Thank you, Janet, for this conversation. It was enlightening for me; I am sure that our readers will find it informative as well.


1. The Forty Part Motet exists in four editions. The one displayed at the Cloisters is owned by the National Gallery of Canada; the other three are owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art (Inhotim) in Brumadinho, Brazil, and by the artist.

2. Effaced by the crowd: dance’s fresh spin on the body en groupe by MJ Thompson, Ballet-Tanz, June 2002, pp 32-4.


Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA