Two Parts of The Forty Part Motet

The Forty Part Motet (A Reworking of Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui, by Thomas Tallis) creates a stunning fourteen minutes of interdependence between music and visual art. Although the work is frequently installed in a cathedral-like setting, I found its simpler placement at TAM, in a white-cube room residing behind a single, burgundy wall, ideal. Normally, the white cube strikes me as a Modernist tendency overused and misapplied in contemporary installations that beg for a rethinking of gallery installation procedures (for example, during the 2002 Whitney Biennial, the white cube arrangements often detracted from works more than it let them “exist” as they were). In contrast, at TAM the white walls emphasize the Minimalist aspects of forty single speakers on stands arranged in an ovular formation.

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet / Rideau Chapel, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CA, image from

Janet Cardiff, Forty-Part Motet, 2001 (British Edition), image from the Tate Liverpool

Visually experiencing the work’s relationship to Minimalism is essential to seeing The Forty Part Motet’s representation of the creative process most directly. The audio track begins with casual conversation and preparation among singers; this mechanically reproduced soundtrack exposes the piece’s living aspect, on some levels, more overtly than the polished performance typically revealed to a concert audience. Similar to how Minimalism utilizes basic elements of art such as color and shape, breaking A Reworking of Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui into the The Forty Part Motet on forty freestanding speakers separates a highly complex composition into the aural elements that become indecipherable from one another when one physically moves from the perimeter into the work’s focal point: the center.

It is in the focal point that Nietzsche’s theory of the interrelationship between the Apollonian and Dionysiac arts can be experienced to some extent, if only briefly. In The Birth of Tragedy, the merging of the plastic, visual arts of Apollo and the lyric, unrestrained arts of Dionysus created the Greek Tragedy that brings an audience beyond traditional consciousness:

“When speaking of the peculiar effects musical tragedy we laid stress on the Apollonian illusion which saves us from the direct identification with Dionysiac music and allows us to discharge our musical excitement on an interposed Apollonian medium. At the same time we observed how, by the virtue of that discharge, the medium of drama was made visible and understandable from within to a degree that is outside the scope of Apollonian art is elevated by the spirit of music it reaches its maximum intensity; thus the fraternal union of Apollo and Dionysos may be said to represent the final consummation of both the Apollonian and Dionysiac tendencies.” (The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. by Francis Golffing, 1956, p. 141)

The moment of “maximum intensity” in The Forty Part Motet can easily be interpreted in terms of religion and divinity when in an installation of the piece that focuses on a church setting (and, I suspect, if an exhibition titled Illuminating the Word is in the next room). However, this is not a period piece. The history behind A Reworking of Spen in Alium Nunquam Habui has its moments, but I did not have the desire to recall any of them while standing alone in the simple, white room.