"The Forty Part Motet"

By: Janet Cardiff
What it is: Sound installation of composer Thomas Tallis' "Spem in Alium," sung by 40 members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, each recorded individually
Where: Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, 2 Marina Boulevard (at Buchanan Street), Landmark Building A, San Francisco
When: Through January 18, 2016
Hours: noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission: Free. All advance tickets are gone, but a limited number of same-day, timed-entry tickets are available at the door each day
Information: Visit or call 1-415-345-7500.

First, Last, Details

This is the California debut of "The Forty Part Motet," which Cardiff created in 2001. The work has been previously presented in London, New York, and other international venues. The work is on loan from its co-owners, the Kramlich Collection and the Tate, a group of four art galleries in England.

The work’s presentation is the result of a partnership between SFMOMA and the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture conclude SFMOMA On the Go — the museum’s ambitious off-site programming while its building is closed during construction. The expanded SFMOMA will open May 14, 2016.

This is the inaugural exhibition for Gallery 308, a newly renovated historic space at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. Fort Mason, formerly a military base, became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and is now a splendid public space right next to the San Francisco Bay. To learn about future exhibitions at Gallery 308 and other events at Fort Mason, visit

About Janet Cardiff

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff (born 1957) originally studied photography and printmaking. Her first experiment with sound was a painting augmented by recorded music. Since 1995, she has gained recognition for her site-specific audio and video “walks.” Her immersive multimedia works have been exhibited extensively, and her "Forty Part Motet" won the National Gallery of Canada's Millennium Prize in 2001.

Cardiff works in collaboration with her creative partner and husband, George Bures Miller, who has production credit for "The Forty Part Motet." Their work created for the Canadian Pavilion for 2001’s Venice Biennial won both the Biennale di Venezia Special Award and the Benesse Prize. Cardiff and Miller’s work has been presented in group exhibitions, including "Soundscapes," at The National Gallery, London; the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014; and dOCUMENTA (13). The artists recently debuted new site-specific commissions for Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; The Menil Collection, Houston; and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain.

Cardiff’s solo works are included in major public and private collections, including SFMOMA’s. In addition, SFMOMA commissioned two audio and video works by Cardiff: "Chiaroscuro 1" (1997) and "The Telephone Call" (2001).

Forty Part Motet
JKA Photography
A close view of Janet Cardiff's "The Forty Part Motet," installed at 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.
Janet Cardiff surrounds us
with beautiful sound
Gallery 308’s inaugural exhibition
concludes SFMOMA’s On the Go programming
January 8, 2016
Anna’s Experience: I had read glowing reviews of Janet Cardiff’s "The Forty Part Motet," a sound installation of a sublime Renaissance choral work for 40 voices. Each of the parts, sung by members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, was individually recorded in great fidelity. Forty high-quality speakers project one part each, creating a surround-sound experience.

I found and listened repeatedly to the composition presented by Cardiff’s installation, "Spem in Alium," devotional choral music by English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis. I was transported.

Anticipating a transcendent experience, I entered Gallery 308 at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture to experience "The Forty Part Motet." I joined other visitors inside the physical and audio space created by the speakers and traipsed from one to another, listening for individual voices. Each part is sung intermittently, with as much silence as sound coming from any one speaker, so there was much shuffling around, back and forth through the 11 minutes of the motet.

As I turned an ear toward a speaker in anticipation, I might have to wait to be rewarded by the bass, baritone, tenor, alto, or soprano part to begin. I learned that the volume could vary greatly, and at full force for the soprano parts, I could not retreat from the speaker fast enough. Those were children’s voices, chosen by Cardiff for their angelic qualities. Since children’s voices are less powerful than those of adults, each of the soprano parts was sung in unison by three or four children through one speaker. Those combined voices are piecing close up and at high volume. That made me wary. It would have helped if I had known before my visit that the speakers of the eight choirs are arranged in regular order from lowest to highest pitch, from bass to soprano.

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Following visitors from speaker to speaker became tiresome and more frustrating than rewarding. Finally, I set myself in the middle and listened peacefully. I saw others doing the same and realized that in this case the whole is indeed greater than the parts.

Closing my eyes also eliminated the small crowd. I could imagine myself alone with this sacred music, or among the royal guests first privileged to hear "Spem in Alium" in the mid-1500s. Scholars believe Tallis composed the work to premiere in one of the large octagonal towers of Nonsuch Palace, with one five-person choir along each of the eight walls and the royal audience in the middle.

I recommend that everyone experience this work for him- or herself before it ends on January 18, 2016. Admission is free. All advance tickets are gone, but a limited number of same-day, timed-entry tickets are available at the door each day. Gallery 308 is open Wednesdays to Saturdays, from noon to 8 p.m.; Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fortunately, Green’s Restaurant and Goody Café and other diversions are available nearby for whiling away an hour or two while waiting to get into the gallery.

Bill’s Observations: Choral music from the late Renaissance has no melody to sing along with, no snappy rhythm, and the choir sings at the same volume, in harmony that Mozart would have regarded as very conservative. So why was — and is — this music so powerful? Janet Cardiff shows us why, in her wonderful rendition of the 40-part motet "Spem in Alium," by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (he served Henry the Eighth, Edward, Mary, and Queen Elizabeth).

The motet was composed for eight different choirs of five voices each — bass, baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano. Cardiff recorded each voice in each choir. Each voice “sings” through its own very high-fidelity loudspeaker, and the 40 speakers, grouped in choirs of five voices each, are arranged in an oval. The alto in the first choir begins the motet, followed in the next measure by the soprano. You can try to follow the music as it develops voice by voice from choir to choir. This is Cardiff’s stated objective — to enable the listener to experience each part.

The problem is, the motet very quickly becomes too complicated for a listener to identify individual voices, and the listener is drawn into the center of the circle of speakers, experiencing all eight choirs, all 40 parts, as one amazing performance, which is presumably what Tallis had in mind when he composed this motet over 400 years ago.

Forty Part Motet
JKA Photography
Janet Cardiff's "The Forty Part Motet," installed at 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.


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