Janet Cardiff: The Forty-Part Motet at BALTIC, Gateshead

Janet Cardiff, in her exhibition The Forty-Part Motet, understands intuitively a cardinal aesthetic principle – that less is more. With a show the only material features of which are loudspeakers, positioned in a circle as they convey a pivotal Elizabethan musical work, Cardiff notes the virtues of a spartan layout that emphasises the nuances of the score over what might otherwise seem invasive ephemera. Taking as the title of her presentation the technical make-up of Thomas Tallis’ exquisite Spem in Alium (Hope in any Other), Cardiff reworks a piece for eight choirs of five voices each. In doing so, she is careful to distinguish her accomplishment, as one who purely experiments with music, from one she well knows to lie compositionally with a celebrated late Tudor prodigy. He creates, she adapts, and Cardiff admirably resists the temptation to impose embellishments that would vainly seek joint attribution. Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (1573) was supposedly written to mark Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday, and Cardiff’s strikingly original perspective is as meditative as it is engaging.

Resonant in The Forty-Part Motet is the sense in which the lyrics, heard through the individual loudspeakers, create an overall continuity – each choir is separate, to be sure, and yet as we move around the circle of speakers, harmony is maintained amid otherwise distinct sets of performers. The choirs are unique, and yet from the narrative of vocals we detect something singular that is as ingeniously engineered as it is evocatively realised.

Additional to the arresting beauty of the performances, we hear, at the beginning of the recording, almost muttered conversations between members of the choirs. Far, then, from willing some “polished” rendition,Cardiff, to her credit, gives us a warts-and-all take on the action. We are privy to their chatter, afforded a glimpse of their inhibitions, nervous laughter mingling with focused preparation. Such a feature lends a curious integrity to the recording. For Cardiff, not all art must be aesthetic – it can be combined with the sounds of the everyday, the most rudimentary exchanges, with those snippets of dialogue seen to merit inclusion, rather than be cautiously deleted lest they seem crude or erroneous.

Although Cardiff’s source work is a seminal and much-heard choral piece, her mode of communicating that track nonetheless makes possible a fresh interpretation and, for us, an unusual form of appreciation. In enabling observers of the exhibition to walk round, placing themselves close to the speakers and register in detail the richness and depth of the sounds, we digest the music from that much more intimate a vantage point. We are able to “interact” with the performance, freely and gradually taking in tonal structure and subtlety. That relationship with the music may not be so easily formed in an auditorium, wherein our impressions of what we hear are to some extent dictated by where we sit or stand, so Cardiff, through permitting us to “select” our viewpoint, invites us to focus on our terms as well as on her own. Such a liberty – being able to walk around, discerning a subject from different angles – when scrutinizing a sculpture or a painting, is welcome but somehow natural and expected. With a piece of music, however, opportunity to move from one place to another, in tandem with the flow and variety of a recording, opens up more novel possibilities for study and participation.

Cardiff has Spem in Alium, a fourteen-minute piece, play in a continuous loop. As such, those entering the exhibition room coincide either with its resumption, when it is in full session, or drawing to a close. Such a format recalls the spontaneity rather than bid for precision described earlier. While an inanimate work of art might be a stationary, unchanging entity, our coming into the room either at the start or midway through the performance captures each visitor’s attention through its different temporal and stylistic moods – amid the conversations that precede the recital, when in full flow, or as the performance is drawing to a close. To that end,Cardiff offers us the sounds of the incidental, of an arresting highpoint, or the diminishing but tantalizing moments of a powerful, haunting rendition.

Here, The Forty-Part Motet returns toNewcastle for the first time since 2001, having then premiered at the Castle Keep. Its appearance at the BALTIC is especially welcome – it is a singularly compelling installation that appropriates intelligently but unselfconsciously both performance and spectatorial space, drawing us into the creative world of a Renaissance genius. An implicit awareness of Tallis’ authorial intention maintains artistic salience and authenticity without muting Cardiff’s own, deftly revisionist annotations.

Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet, 16 June until 14 October, BALTIC, Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road, Gateshead, NE8 3BA. www.balticmill.com

Courtesy: the artist and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
Photograph: Colin Davison

Text: Sam Cane