Janet Cardiff's 40 Part Motet

Studio 360

The Cloisters is a faux-medieval abbey in a park in Manhattan, and it houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval art collection. For the first time in its history, a work of contemporary art has been installed there: Janet Cardiff's 40 Part Motet. It's a complex reworking of a famous choral composition written 500 years ago, Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium." In 2000, Cardiff recorded 40 individual vocalists singing "Spem in Alium," each on a separate microphone, and the piece presents their voices through 40 separate speakers.

The effect is otherworldly. Stand in the center of the large oval of speakers and the choir surrounds you, fully immersing you in the music. Walk around the edge, though, and you can press your ear to an individual speaker, hearing the individual's voice in the crowd --- breathing, going off key --- more intimately than you ever would in life. "It feels like it's on the back of your neck when you're listening to it," says Cardiff. "There's a sense of safety in technology, but at the same time there's a sense of connection. You don't lose the connection of the human voice, but you get the safety of not having to stand right next to that person."

For many people, the effect is emotional and unsettling. "The work becomes a shorthand for how we know the world to work," says Peter Eleey, curator at the museum PS1 (where The 40-Part Motet was first shown in the United States). "We have these things we encounter in collective forms --- going to movies, or a football game, or voting, where we feel ourselves inscribed within the collective. And then at the same time, as we move about our lives, we mostly feel isolated from that."

Video: "Spem in Alium" performed by The Sixteen