I envisioned a diverse choir of people, some old and some young. They came from many races and religions. Their bodies were unique shapes and sizes. They were people who had made varied life style choices, had different sexual orientations, some were students and others practiced a variety of professions and trades. Together they were making the most divine music, yet each of their distinctive voices could be heard.
I missed church last Sunday morning, sleeping in past my regular hour because of the time change. I was fortunate however to hear a thought-provoking and beautiful sermon when I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Sunday afternoon.
Janet Cardiff’s installation called Forty Part Motet isn’t that interesting to look at. You enter a gallery where forty black speakers have been placed around the perimeter. The walls are bare. The room is faintly lit. You sit down on the benches in the middle of the room and then the music starts and you are mesmerized.
Cardiff has created an award-winning art installation using a recording of a motet for 40 voices written by British composer Thomas Tallis in the 1500’s. It is believed Tallis wrote Spem in Alium for either Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday. Tallis was a composer and organist for both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church and served four different English monarchs. He wrote the Latin motet whose name means Hope in Any Other for eight choirs of five voices each. The words of Tallis’ motet are taken from the apocryphal book of Judith and call on listeners to put their hope in a gracious Creator who absolves us of all our sins.
The piece is extremely difficult technically so it isn’t performed very often. Some critics say the work should be a real mess because so many voices are constantly calling and answering and singing one after the other and then together, but instead Spem In Alium overwhelms its listeners with its beauty and the sheer number of new musical ideas it is constantly presenting.
Artist Janet Cardiff wanted people to be able to appreciate the individual musical parts of the motet but also its overall beauty. If you stand in front of each of the forty speakers in her installation you can hear only a single voice singing. Yet in the centre of the room you are surrounded by their harmonious sound. You are inside the music.
I first walked around the gallery and listened to each of the unique voices and parts of the motet and then sat transfixed in the heart of the room and let their joint music wash over me. At one point there must have been a dozen or more people in the room with me. We were all perfectly quiet. Many gallery visitors had their eyes closed. Some had tears trickling down their cheeks.
I closed my eyes too and tried to conjure up a visual image to accompany the music. I thought of a stag walking through a forest of all kinds of trees, a whale breaching in the ocean at night and creating a rainbow shower of water drops, someone weaving a multi-colored tapestry and forty different kinds of birds singing a dawn chorus. Then the image of the choir of diverse people came to mind, people who were each unique yet they were making the heavenly music I was hearing.
I’m not suggesting you miss church next Sunday but if you want to hear a powerful sermon visit the Winnipeg Art Gallery before April 28th. Forty Part Motet will be on display till then.