A & E

Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’ to close this month

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (installation view, Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture), 2015; co-presented by Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. photo: jka photography

The Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) have presented the sound installation, The Forty Part Motet by sound artist Janet Cardiff through Jan. 18.

A stark row of speakers surrounding benches sets a minimal stage for a sound experience, and yet the nature of the work is extraordinarily personal, differing moment-by-moment, person-to-person.

Created in 2001, The Forty Part Motet reworks English composer Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium from 1570. A choir in Salisbury Cathedral performed the 40-part choral work. An oval arrangement of 40 speakers plays back the individually recorded parts so that participants can focus on a single voice or immerse themselves in the entire chorus based on where they are standing.

Cardiff insists that sound is sculpture. Born in Canada and currently living in British Columbia, Cardiff began studying photography and printmaking before embarking on her career in immersive multimedia works that have been celebrated around the world. Her site-specific audio walks first put her on the art world map in the 1990s, and she’s been an award-winning artist ever since.

“Cardiff’s address of the audience as a single person, free to move on stage, is part of what makes her work so emotionally intense,” says Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA. “She creates a one-to-one relationship between the listener and a human voice that’s very intimate, even in a public setting.”

The public setting contributes to a one-of-a-kind experience. The space, the time of day, and the sounds and movements of other people present affect an individual’s sensory relationship to the exhibit that can’t possibly be re-created. This relationship to disembodied human voices in real time, in this context, is public, personal, and unique each time.

Among Cardiff’s public and private collections are two audio and visual works commissioned by SFMOMA. Chiaroscuro 1 (1997) was created for the exhibition Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties, and The Telephone Call (2001), featured in 010101: Art in Technological Times.

“We are delighted to present Janet Cardiff’s remarkable masterpiece. This entrancing work has a legacy of inspiring audiences in settings ranging from the spare to the sacred,” said Rich Hillis, executive director of Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. “Experiencing a 400-year-old motet in this historic space, within view of the San Francisco Bay, will be a powerful addition to that legacy.”

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at