Even if you have only 14 minutes in Manhattan between now and March 21, I urge you to spend them in the second-floor gallery in the Museum of Modern Art occupied by Janet Cardiff's mystical installation "40 Part Motet." In our corner of of the world, Cardiff was last heard from - literally - emerging from the headset of a borrowed portable CD player at the southern end of Central Park last summer (and the summer before that), courtesy of the Public Art Fund. The piece was called Her Long Black Hair, and it was a meditative, intimate, hour-long tour of the park and the artist's mind. If it returns this summer, don't miss it.
The current piece is not much to look at: just a room ringed by 40 speakers on stands. But recorded music never sounded so sculptural. Cardiff took Thomas Tallis' motet "Spem in Alium" and, through the creative power of electronics, made it mold space in a way that a live performance never could. Even in a reverberant church, a motet comes from somewhere, usually directly in front of where you are sitting. At MoMA, it jumps out from here, there and everywhere so that you have the illusion of simultaneous multiple perspectives.
I'm not in the habit of quoting myself but since I've already done my best to express my reactions, indulge me in an excerpt from the review I wrote jointly with Newsday art critic (oh right, and my wife) Ariella Budick:
Cardiff recorded each man and boy in the Salisbury Cathedral Choir on a separate channel, and sidling up to a speaker puts you right in the singer's face. You can hear the intake before each cameo entrance, feel the alertness during rests. The voice is so clear and human, so English in its vibratoless pallor, that you can practically smell the damp tweed.
One way to experience the 14-minute piece is to plant yourself on the bench at the center of the room and let those motley points of vocal tone resolve into a luminous, reverberant cloud. Another is to walk slowly around the perimeter, from voice to voice, and let the strands of counterpoint tickle you as you pass. The motet changes hue with each step. It's like inhabiting a kaleidoscope.
To me, there's something deeply touching about hitching one's imagination to another person's - not as a form of exploitation, reiteration, or even homage - but as an acknowledgment that you don't have to start from scratch. It's the reason I like Robert Rauschenberg's art, or (some) modern additions to old architecture. What Cardiff has done is not so different from what DJs do all the time. It's a Tallis remix. But so loving, so simnple, so magical.
— Justin Davidson