Janet Cardiff Gets Medieval at the Cloisters


New York’s Metropolitan Museum, known for its collection of the classics, will soon mingle the old and new, bringing a celebrated sound art installation to its medieval Cloisters branch.

A major audio piece, Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (2001), will be exhibited at the Cloisters as part of the institution’s 75th-anniversary celebrations (Sept. 10-Dec. 8). Situated in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, the Cloisters is assembled from architectural elements that largely date from the 12th through the 15th century.

Forty-Part Motet is an 11-minute recording of the 16th-century choral composition Spem in alium numquam habui by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. The work’s title translates as In No Other Is My Hope. Forty speakers on metal stands each feature a single voice. The work features a technology called binaural sound, such that the visitor senses voices coming from very specific directions, creating a highly physical experience.

Housing the piece will be the Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the apse from a 12th-century church from near Segovia, Spain, which is on permanent loan from the Spanish government and in which the museum often stages concerts.

Cardiff’s most recent exhibition in New York, with her husband George Bures Miller, was “The Murder of Crows,” at the Park Avenue Armory. She spoke with A.i.A. by phone this week from the studio she shares with Miller in British Columbia.

BRIAN BOUCHER Do you have any relationship to the Cloisters? What does it mean to have the piece installed there?

JANET CARDIFF Actually it will be my first visit to the Cloisters. But of course it’s a pretty major venue at a significant time for the Metropolitan Museum. It’s already been set up as we speak, and my Tonmeister says it sounds amazing. That space is designed for reflection and beautiful tones, so the voices will sound great.

BOUCHER Sorry, your Tonmeister?

CARDIFF That’s Titus Maderlechner, from Berlin, who sets up the Forty-Part Motet up at every venue where it’s shown around the world, because basically it has to be tuned to the room’s acoustic properties. He met his wife setting it up in Sweden, where she was an assistant curator at the presenting venue, and now they have three kids!

BOUCHER At how many different venues has it been installed?

CARDIFF I think it’s probably approaching 25 or 30. It’s permanently installed in Brazil, and it’s on view in Tel Aviv right now. And I was just in Japan, where it was at a museum in Nagano, in a show commemorating the anniversary of the tsunami and earthquake. It’s very evocative, of course, and since it’s in Latin, people can enter into it, since they don’t think about the words.

BOUCHER It was on view in New York as part of the 2011 MoMA PS1 exhibition “September 11,” which marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack. Forty-Part Motet was actually included in a survey show of your work at PS1 that opened just after 9/11. I was wondering what new meanings the piece accrues at each showing.

CARDIFF That showing was pretty special because it was right after 9/11. At first we didn’t think the works would get through customs, because they were just on their way when the disaster happened. But they did, and installed in a gallery with windows looking out over the city, Forty-Part Motet had such emotional resonance. That really changed it, but then again every installation changes it.

The piece serves as a record of all the people who are in it. Just the other day George was looking at the list of singers, and he Googled his favorite bass singer, only to find that he died two years ago. The piece also includes many children. Now those children are all grown up.

Some of the singers we recorded weren’t professionals. Some of them go off a bit. It’s a very difficult piece to sing. But it is the piece it is. I’ve heard it so many times and sometimes I hear flaws, and I think maybe we should re-record it. But it’s about those people too. That’s why the first part of the recording includes the singers talking to one another. It’s about the personal, the individual, and how people come together for the singing, and then it becomes ethereal, spiritual.