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Canadian artist Janet Cardiff (b 1957) is best known for her numerous audio works and films, often created in collaboration with her partner George Bures Miller.

Thomas Tallis, one of the most influential English composers of sixteenth century, wrote Spem in Alium nunquam habui, a choral work for eight choirs of five voices, to mark the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth I in 1575. This piece of music deals with transcendence and humility, both important issues to a Catholic composer during a time when the Catholic faith was suppressed by the Sovereignty.

Using this piece of secular music as a starting point and working with four male voices (bass, baritone, alto and tenor) and child sopranos, Cardiff has replaced each voice with an audio speaker. The speakers are set at an average head height and spaced in such a way that viewers can listen to different voices and experience different combinations and harmonies as they progress through the work.

A few moments before the music begins the choir’s preparations can be heard along with fragments of conversations and the choir leader’s encouraging comments to the performers. All of this builds up to the sublime moment when the first solitary and plaintive voice is heard.

With Forty-Part Motet Cardiff offers a very personal and intimate engagement with the Tallis music, but one that is experienced in an open and public way:

Even in a live concert the audience is separated from the individual voices. Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing in a different harmony. I wanted to be able to ‘climb inside’ the music connecting with the separate voices. I am also interested in how the audience may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.

Janet Cardiff: untitled statement in Elusive Paradise: The Millennium Prize at the National Gallery of Canada, Ontario, 2001 (brochure)

© Nicolas Alberto Canal Tinius, all rights reserved