Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The International Arts Festival: Janet Cardiff

Janet Cardiff: The Forty-Part Motet
City Gallery
20 February - 16 May 2010

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) is one of those great English choral composers loved by many who normally ignore classical music. His complex melodic arrangements have a penetrating emotional quality that continues to haunt, especially in the case of one popular work, Spem in alium nunquam habui (1573). At the City Gallery in Wellington, we can see and hear how the sound artist Janet Cardiff treats this almost five centuries old music for forty voices.

The work doubles as a visible and aural sculpture. For the former, the viewable elements are forty B & W speakers, held high at head height by firm stands and positioned in a large inward-facing circle, but divided into eight mini-choirs of five singers each. In these groups, each Bowers and Wilkins speaker looks anthropomorphic, like a standing figure converted into a vertical ‘tribal’ sculpture.

For the latter, the forty recordings from the forty singers that in 2001 made up the required proportions of basses, baritones, tenors, altos and sopranos, are not blended but stay separate. That means you can experience not only at least forty versions according to where you stand, but that the concrete columns and glass windows or skylights particular to the space also affect the acoustics.

Not only do you hear the eleven minutes of Tallis’s brilliantly constructed and unabashedly gorgeous motet, but you also get the previous three minutes of chatter, clowning, coughing and hawking amongst the boys, girls and men of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, just before the conductor prepares them to start. Hearing the whispered snippets of local Home Counties English before they launch off into even ‘purer’ ecclesiastical Latin is fascinating for most New Zealand listeners.

I’m tempted to say that if you love most music then you’ll adore this aural exhibition, but of course that might not be the case. You might find Elizabethan choral music repulsively ethereal. If though you are fascinated by the properties of sound and how different strands can mix in the air, or bounce off walls, then this is the show for you. You’ll find it utterly wondrous.

The images show six examples of earlier settings for Cardiff’s The Forty-Part Motet.

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