Sounding Off

09.12.13

A New Masterpiece, Built on an Old One

The Daily Pic: At the Met, Janet Cardiff's sound art is much more than the great old music it riffs on.

The speakers for “Forty Part Motet,” Janet Cardiff’s great 2001 sound piece, were recently installed in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum’s special venue for Medieval art. Cardiff’s piece takes the 40 polyphonic parts of Thomas Tallis’s great “Spem in Alium”, composed around 1570, and spreads them across as many loudspeakers. When I raved about this piece in my recent sound-art feature in the New York Times, I caught flack from some members of the modernist wing of the discipline (the “honk-tweeters”, as they just hate being called). How could Cardiff lose, they asked, when she was piggybacking on the tonal pleasures of established classical music? Hearing her piece yet again, I was struck by my favorite aspect of it: That listening to the voice coming from any one speaker, you might think it was singing Webern or Schoenberg; it is only when all the voices combine into Tallis, in the room’s center, that classical ease takes over. That is, a honk and a tweet may lie near the heart of any easy listening. In fact, after lending an ear to Cardiff's individual voices, honking and tweeting come across as the natural and most human mode, with "music" then registering as an imposition, however glorious, on that state of nature.

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