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How Sound Artist Janet Cardiff Built a 40-Person Invisible Choir for SFMOMA

Installed at Fort Mason Center, Cardiff's piece goes way beyond surround sound.

Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet installed at MoMA PS1.


Give your screen-weary eyeballs a break and let another sense take the lead. This month, SFMOMA and Fort Mason Center present sound artist Janet Cardiff’s installation The Forty Part Motet. The piece incorporates 40 voices, each one emanating from its own speaker, all singing English composer Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium nunquam habui. It’s a feast for the ears but a technical bear. Here, the steps to making an invisible choir sing.

Step 1: Record
When Cardiff first heard a CD version of Spem in alium, in 1998 on a run-of-the-mill stereo, she couldn’t help wondering how it would sound if she could hear each individual voice of the 40-part motet. Thus the project began. Cardiff rallied members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, miked each one individually, and stood them at five-foot intervals. Recording them as they sang the piece took three hours.

Step 2: Locate
Fort Mason’s newly renovated Gallery 308, with its sweeping views of the bay, is a deliberate departure from the churches and museums in which the piece is typically presented. Curator Rudolf Frieling points out the significance: “Installing this work in a different space changes your experience of it every time. If you’re in a church, you have a whole register of connotations. But if you look out at the water and the distant view of the bridge, that’s a different type of experience.”

Step 3: Install 
Cardiff’s studio will provide an acoustic technician to arrange the 40 speakers a couple feet apart from one another in a precise oval. All in all, the exhibit will take four days to install. And the artist herself will do a walk-through before the opening.

The Forty Part Motet is open at Fort Mason from November 14, 2015, through January 18, 2016.


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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