A first for the Clark: the sound installation ‘The Forty Part Motet’

  • “The Forty Part Motet” is the Clark Art Institute’s first sound installation. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 27, 2019

Along with its exhibit on Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Clark Art Institute has opened another exhibit that paves new ground for the Williamstown museum: its first sound installation.

“The Forty Part Motet” is a soundscape that reworks a 16th-century choral composition by Thomas Tallis, a preeminent English composer of the era who was an organist to four English monarchs. The piece, “Spem in alium,” (“Hope in any other,”) may well have been written in 1573 to mark the 40th birthday of Queen Elizabeth 1, according to the Clark.

For “The Forty Part Motet,” Canadian sound installation artist Janet Cardiff recorded 40 individually mic’d singers, divided into eight distinct groups, each of which was made up of five singers — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. In the exhibit, 40 standing speakers are arranged in a large oval, so that the 11-minute song creates a layered, interwoven sound (sung in Latin) in which visitors, moving around the room, can also listen to individual voices by focusing on a specific speaker.

“While listening to a concert, you are normally seated in front of the the choir,” Cardiff says in a statement. “With this piece, I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers…. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct.”

Though the music in “The Forty Part Motet” lasts 11 minutes, the full piece runs 14 minutes. When the singers — from Salisbury, England — took a break during the recording session, Cardiff and her sound engineer kept recording, so you can hear choir members, including children who sang soprano parts, chatting and joking for three minutes, “creating an intimate, direct connection between the performers and the listeners,” as exhibit notes put it.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“The Forty Part Motet” can be heard at the Clark Art Institute through Sept. 15.