Techno Medieval Religion SoundSpace (The Forty Part Motets) (Janet Cardiff at the Cloisters)

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For Christmas: Before it closed a couple of week ago, I went to catch Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, a 2001 sound installation of Thomas Tallis’ 40-part choral piece “Spem in alium” (1570), recorded by forty singers and then set loose, played back by forty black hi-fi speakers set up on stands in surround sound arrangement. The piece has been exhibited-played all over the world, often in spare gallery settings. I saw this one in the apse of the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters Museum in New York.  Apparently, it’s the first contemporary exhibit ever shown at the Cloisters. It was techno-medieval and super awesome.

Widely described and without a hint of irony in terms of religious experience, raw transcendence, the piece hits that spiritual nerve. What might then a piece like this tell us about the spiritual, or the spiritual in art? First, that this kind of stuff is always technological. Here, there’s no direct human voice. We have a group of 40 speakers, one for each of the originally recorded voiced, described by Jim Dwyer in the NYT as a choir of black high-fidelity speakers arrayed in an oval, eight groupings of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass. The technological arrangement works to both isolate and synthesize the individual voices, just like the medieval objects reconstructed in the chapel-installation have been fragmented and taken apart, and then reconstructed, remediated, reconstituted.

The black box speakers are an integral part of the assemblage of the installation. They surround the people who crowd together in the middle and you watch these people looking deep and listening deep. You’re there in the middle, surrounded by people, surrounded by objects, surrounded by sound surrounding objects in a technologically mediated spiritual environmental enclosure. Human flesh, limestone and wood carvings, luminous sound all suffusing each other in a feedback loop. The objects give flesh to the sound while the sound colors the objects in a deep, deep wash or glow.

Who writes and how are we to think about religion today? A dear friend, he recommended that I go see it before it closed, did not like it all. A Jewish philosopher, he just heard, I suspect, the discombobulation of voices, and not their re-arrangement. Or it could be that as a critic, he doesn’t like to “swoon.” In contrast and interesting in their own right is how religion gets configured in relation to art and as art. Here are two reviews, Dwyer’s from the NYT and one from Hyperallergic: I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating. Some of the best writing about religion and contemporary culture is written by art critics. I think it’s because, as art critics, they are invested in the material. With nary a word of resistance to religion, the approach to the subject is open and non-dogmatic, and in deep tune with religion as a sensual phenomenon.

If you’re interested,  here is what the 40 Part Motet sounds like.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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