Moved to Tears at the Cloisters by a Ghostly Tapestry of Music
2013-09-20 0:00

By Jim Dwyer | NYTimes

Wobbling, blissed out, a few in tears, people emerged every 12 minutes or so from the remnant of a 12th-century Spanish chapel tucked into the Cloisters museum.

Something had happened there, up on a hill at the northern end of Manhattan.

“It’s too soon to talk,” Margaret Cardenas said as she left the chapel.

“Too raw,” said another young woman, Alyssa.

Inside the ancient chapel was the first presentation of contemporary art ever at the Cloisters: “The Forty Part Motet,” an 11-minute immersion in a tapestry of voice, each thread as vivid as the whole fabric. A sacred composition of Renaissance England is rendered by the multimedia artist Janet Cardiff through 40 speakers — one for each voice in the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, which performed the piece in 2000. What started as one microphone per singer is now a choir of black high-fidelity speakers arrayed in an oval, eight groupings of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.

Janet Cardiff’’s sound installation “The Forty Part Motet,’’ 40 loudspeakers in an oval in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan.

In the intimate space of the museum’s Fuentidueña Chapel, the sound, from invisible people, as if from ghosts, feels like charged, living sculpture. Through Dec. 8, it plays in a loop all day.

Ms. Cardenas, 24, had stayed in the chapel through four full cycles, walking along the ranks of speakers, then sitting on a bench in the center.

“I’m kind of out of it — I can’t articulate it,” she said. “Each speaker is a different person. It’s not something you think about: you feel it.”

In a moment, she found the word.

“Transcendent,” she said.

Ms. Cardenas was visiting the East Coast from Oregon for a wedding, and came to New York this week specifically to see a monumental installation by James Turrell in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. Then she heard about the Forty Part Motet and trekked uptown. “This is cooler, honestly, than Turrell,” Ms. Cardenas said. “I was super fortunate to get to see both.”

Others stumbled onto the “Forty Part Motet” while doing a lap around the city museum circuit. No one who sets foot inside the Cloisters can miss the sounds; although they are at their most powerful within the jeweled acoustic space of the chapel, they soar through the building.

“We had no idea it was here, and then we heard it all along as we went around the exhibits,” said Bengt Ehlim, who was visiting the city from Sweden with his wife, Susanne. She seemed to be stepping out of a trance.

“I am so really moved,” Ms. Ehlim said.

The core of Ms. Cardiff’s installation is a motet, “Spem in Alium,” a Latin fragment of the phrase “In No Other Is My Hope,” composed by Thomas Tallis sometime in the 16th century. Its transformation into the “Forty Part Motet” has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, the museum’s space in Long Island City, Queens.

“I’d seen it at MoMA, and the gallery was very neutral,” Jeff Gray, 33, a computer programmer and musician, said outside the chapel. “But there’s nothing like this kind of space, the resonance of brick with wood roof. The kind of ghost qualities are a lot more apparent here. Everything bounces a lot more: you hear a voice over here, and you kind of feel it float around you.”


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