Somewhere around the middle of the 16th century, the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis wrote his famous "Spem in Alium," in which 40 singers' voices spin out variations on an initial sacred theme. It is regarded as one of the most soul-stirring pieces of music ever written. It gets even better in "40 Part Motet," a riff on Tallis's work by sound artist Janet Cardiff. She completed it in 2001 and it's now on display in the reinstalled contemporary galleries at the Museum of Modern Art.
The premise is simple. Cardiff got the "gentlemen and boys" of an English cathedral choir to perform the Tallis composition. She recorded each voice with a separate microphone onto a separate track. At MoMA, Cardiff plays back all 40 channels through 40 speakers, arrayed at ear height on the periphery of a spacious room.
Stand in the middle of the gallery and you get a kind of standard, home-theater experience of Tallis's ethereal polyphony -- though with a threatening sense that the choir has you surrounded and may yet close in.
But walk around the room, listening speaker by speaker, and the Tudor composition begins to pull apart. The snippets of tune sung by each voice make little sense heard on their own; they become disjointed notes, like something by a radical modern composer. Long moments of silence are broken by blasts of sound as Tallis's notes process around the room.
The Renaissance piece, which normally seems about sheer beauty of tone, sounds close to ugly when decomposed. The boy trebles, pride of any English choir, sometimes sound like yelping puppies; a talented bass can seem to be a tone-deaf bear. And we become unusually aware of the person behind each voice; for once we aren't hearing disembodied strains of song. The boys are definitely boys (we hear them gossiping as the choir prepares to sing). The men come off as living people, with individual quirks and characters, rather than human instruments joined in an abstract symphony.
In "40 Part Motet," you get a shock when you realize what strange things go into building beauty. But also a reaffirmation of the miracle of art: Fragile human effort, almost painfully awkward, can come together into something worthy of divinity.
-- Blake Gopnik
40 Part Motet by Janet Cardiff is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, through July 3. Call 212-708-9400 or visit www.moma.org.