Whispering Room, 1991
Dimensions: variable room size
Duration: Looped playback of 16 audio tracks of various lengths (from 40 sec. to 3 min.)
Materials: audio, speakers, projected film loop
“Throughout the exhibition space are sixteen small bare audio speakers mounted on metal stands. The lighting is low. From each speaker a female voice is heard, sometimes conversing with another, describing events or actions from various viewpoints; observational, experiential, past, present, or future, in twenty to forty second segments. Each speaker plays a different dialogue. The story is unraveled by the way the listener moves from speaker to speaker through the space. Breaking into the atmosphere of quiet voices is an image projected onto the wall from a l6mm film projector. A film loop of a girl tap-dancing in the forest plays for 30 seconds and then shuts off.”
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller
The Forty Part Motet
The Power Of 40 Speakers In A Room
March 10, 20174:21 AM ET
In Wim Wenders’ wonderful movie Wings of Desire, angels hear what a person is thinking and feeling as they hover nearby. As angels move among people, voices come in and out of focus for them.
Janet Cardiff’s 2001 art installation “Forty-Part Motet,” which is now in its final weeks on view at the splendid Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., does something similar. You enter the room and you encounter 40 speakers, arranged in an oval, playing a recording of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing Spem in alium (Hope in any other), which was composed by Englishman Thomas Tallis in 1556. The Tallis piece itself is for 40 male voices, organized into eight choirs of five singers (bass, baritone, alto, tenor, child soprano). Cardiff has recorded each singer with an individual mic and each singer’s part is played through just one of the speakers (which are, in turn, clumped into eight groups of five speakers).
You could opt to sit in the middle of the room and listen to the wall of sound created by the joint effect of each speaker, but you could also move about the room, angel-like, swooping down on this voice or that, causing through your action one voice to pop out and another to be drowned out.
In this way, the work invites you not only to enjoy the music, but to remix it, by sampling voices. It is an opportunity to intrude, harmlessly, into the intimate sphere of each singer. You can get so close that you can hear their imperfections in ways that get lost when they are subsumed in the whole — and that you could never hear from your seat in the audience of a conventional concert performance.
This slightly voyeuristic, eavesdropping quality is enhanced by the fact that the recording doesn’t stop when the singing is over. You can drop in on the different singers as they chit-chat and gossip among themselves.