Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

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I haven’t been to The Cloisters in about a million years (scientific!), and Sunday was a glorious early Autumn day in the city, so I figured it was about time to make the trek to Fort Tryon Park. An additional draw was the chance to experience Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a work I loved at PS1.

The piece is considered Cardiff’s masterwork. She recorded each member of a 40-part choir singing their individual parts of a 16th century motet and plays each recording on its own, dedicated speaker. The effect is gorgeous when you’re standing amongst the speakers, hitting you square in the chest in a way that most recordings of the human voice just don’t. And, as an additional layer of the experience, you can walk to each speaker and listen to the individual parts. I haven’t been to a choir performance in a while, but I don’t think they welcome audience members to walk from performer to performer.

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 At PS1, the speakers were arrayed in an empty, white-walled former classroom, with large windows letting light pour in. The work was surprising and interesting, and it was a delight to wander among the speakers after a beer at WarmUp last summer. At the Cloisters, Forty Part Motet is placed in the “Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain.” The chapel is impressive, and has wonderful acoustics, but I actually found the setting distracted from the work. It put it into a religious context that, for someone who does not identify with that religion, made me feel like I should not be enjoying the piece as a work of art, but as a religious work. And it also pushed the piece into the realm of the heavy-handed and, dare I say, a bit cheesy.

That said, I still found the work inspiring, and admit that I probably wouldn’t have made it up to the Cloisters without it as a draw. The chapel was bustling with visitors on Sunday, and the galleries were well-attended. And even though I preferred the experience at PS1, there was some magic in hearing strains of the music filtering through the labyrinthine rooms and courtyards of the museum. It was a reminder of the lives many of the objects on display at the Cloisters had before they were in a museum, when they were in use, and that is a powerful thing.

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Forty Part Motet is the first contemporary piece to be shown at the Cloisters, which itself deserves more thought than I am qualified to give it. It will be on display at the Cloisters until December 8, and is definitely worth the long subway ride to northern Manhattan. After you visit, consider jumping on the M4 bus for a scenic ride down to the Met, same-day admission to which is included with your Cloisters ticket. (A slightly stranger spot to visit near the Cloisters is the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, where the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was canonized in 1946, are displayed.)