To Go Inside a Work of Music
To Go Inside a Work of Music
A rocket and sound expert on why a 1500s song draws and moves crowds
By Stefanie Cohen Dec. 5, 2013 9:38 p.m. ET The Wall Street Journal
The piece is "The Forty Part Motet." A sound installation by artist Janet Cardiff, it consists of 40 speakers, each playing a single voice singing "Spem in Alium," or "In No Other Is My Hope," composed by Thomas Tallis in the 1500s.
Although final attendance figures aren't in yet (the exhibition ends Sunday) the number of visitors is "unprecedented," says C. Griffith Mann, the head of the Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, which is a northern Manhattan outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Attendance has been "consistently double the Cloisters' regular daily door count," Mr. Mann says.
SURROUND SOUND: An installation by Janet Cardiff at the Cloisters museum. Wilson Santiago/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The 40 high-fidelity speakers are arranged in an oval within the Cloisters' small 12th-century Fuentidueña Chapel. Listeners are encouraged to walk from one speaker to the next to hear the distinct alto, tenor, soprano and bass voices emanating from each. Or they can stand in the middle of the room and let the song envelop them.
Edgar Choueiri, a Princeton University rocket scientist who dabbles in music science on the side, thinks he knows the reason behind the beatific smiles. He believes that Ms. Cardiff has essentially created a 3-D listening experience.
In real life, humans experience sound in 3-D all the time. Planes soar overhead, leaves rustle underfoot. Although some movies have surround sound, most musical recordings and even live concerts don't allow listeners to walk inside the song the way Ms. Cardiff's work does. "You would get in a lot of trouble if you tried to walk up to the violinist in the middle of a concert at Carnegie Hall," Prof. Choueiri says.
He adds that Tallis likely wrote "In No Other" with spatial aesthetics in mind. The choir, divided into five groups of eight, would probably have stood in a "U" shape while performing the song in a chapel with eight alcoves.
At one point during the 11-minute "Spem in Alium," each chorister sings a different melody at the same time, voices rising and falling to a spine-chilling effect. (That style, known as polyphony, was at one point strictly curbed by the Catholic Church.)
The show marks the first contemporary-art exhibition at the Cloisters and the first exhibition of sound art at the Met, says Anne Strauss, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the museum. She adds, "We seized the opportunity, unique at the Met and in celebration of the Cloisters' 75th anniversary, to showcase a contemporary artist deconstructing a renowned 16th-century piece of music presented in a 12th-century setting."
Like Ms. Cardiff, Prof. Choueiri has 3-D sound projects: At his lab at Princeton, he has invented a sound processor. His technology breaks down stereo recordings, even those made decades ago, in such a way that listeners hear the different instruments in 3-D space, instead of the usual two dimensions. A trombone will seem to be playing on your left, while the singer seems to be behind you—or wherever the musicians were standing when the track was recorded.
Ms. Cardiff, a Canadian artist who specializes in sonic installations, created the "Motet" in 2001. It is in major collections including New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London, and permanently on display at Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil. This particular copy is part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (and will now return there). Ms. Cardiff says that while she doesn't know the science behind her musical art installations, there was something special about the sound of the song. "To me it sounds like velvet."