In Wim Wenders' wonderful movie Wings of Desire, angels hear what a person is thinking and feeling as they hover nearby. As angels move among people, voices come in and out of focus for them.
Janet Cardiff's 2001 art installation "Forty-Part Motet," which is now in its final weeks on view at the splendid Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., does something similar. You enter the room and you encounter 40 speakers, arranged in an oval, playing a recording of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing Spem in alium (Hope in any other), which was composed by Englishman Thomas Tallis in 1556. The Tallis piece itself is for 40 male voices, organized into eight choirs of five singers (bass, baritone, alto, tenor, child soprano). Cardiff has recorded each singer with an individual mic and each singer's part is played through just one of the speakers (which are, in turn, clumped into eight groups of five speakers).
You could opt to sit in the middle of the room and listen to the wall of sound created by the joint effect of each speaker, but you could also move about the room, angel-like, swooping down on this voice or that, causing through your action one voice to pop out and another to be drowned out.
In this way, the work invites you not only to enjoy the music, but to remix it, by sampling voices. It is an opportunity to intrude, harmlessly, into the intimate sphere of each singer. You can get so close that you can hear their imperfections in ways that get lost when they are subsumed in the whole — and that you could never hear from your seat in the audience of a conventional concert performance.
This slightly voyeuristic, eavesdropping quality is enhanced by the fact that the recording doesn't stop when the singing is over. You can drop in on the different singers as they chit-chat and gossip among themselves.
The whole work, which last about 17 minutes (14 minutes of song and three minutes of chatting) is less an opportunity for deep listening, than it is an opportunity for manipulating sound by moving. Your body becomes your mixing tool. But what lets your body perform that function is the fact that the work itself is a supercharged technical remaking of a piece of music. You listen to speakers, not singers. When you lean in to pay attention to a singer, you lean into a speaker. And the distortions you produce through your own movements are the direct result of the fact that recording technology makes separate what was, in the making, collective.
I found that there was actually something creepy about the whole thing. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers, singing sacred music (translated from the Latin: "I have never put my hope in any other but you, O God of Israel") in a manner totally removed from its sacred context. Technology intervened to undo the communion of the actual singers. And a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context, as it might be to encounter in a museum someone going through the motions of a religious ritual.
And then there is the curious fact that the work collects its public in a giant oval where everyone is visible to everyone else. The work makes a spectacle of us. We get to watch as we each enact the sound score and explore the structure. The artist has said that the work is "like walking into a piece of music." Only it isn't, not really. It's not the music, but a curious situation in which one has a technologically-enhanced freedom to explore oneself and one's relation not only to the musical work, but also to sound and the body and other people.
One of the things you get to see as you watch the spectators is that a fair number of them don't seem to appreciate that this is an opportunity to mix your own song rather than just listen to a recording of one. A fair number of these folks just take a seat in the middle and, to my surprise, weep. Apparently there was a lot of weeping at the first showing of this piece in New York two weeks after the atrocity of 9/11. I get that. But at this museum now? Why?
Cardiff herself seems to see this as an important part of what she's doing. She writes (quoted on wall text): "People need this emotional release. They need to have this ability to be in the moment and to feel the sense of presence and spirituality that music like this brings."
This has something to do with why the Cloisters in New York City had an exhibition of "Forty-Part Motet." This was their first ever showing of 20th century work.
I can't help but think there's something odd here, something that cries out for explanation. When was the last time you encountered lots of people sobbing with emotion at an art museum?
Here's an idea: We've already considered that there's a huge disconnect between the manifestly sacred character of the music and its high-tech, magnificently non-sacred display in the art gallery. Could it be that it is there, in the loss of the spiritual, in the absence of the sacred in our modern lives, that the work acquires its emotional and aesthetic oomph?
Thanks to Professor Cristina Albu of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, for insightful conversation about this work of art — and for bringing me to see.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe