Monday, January 26, 2015

Haunting Sound Installation at the High Museum

Yes, this blog is titled "talking textiles"--so why is this post about a sound installation?  Stay with me here and I'll explain. 

The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff, on view in the contemporary galleries at the High Museum in Atlanta, has had its run extended to Feb. 15.  You owe it to yourself to visit this amazing sound installation if you are near Atlanta anytime in the next few weeks.  And if you're not, you may want to find a CD of Tallis' music. 
The museum's website describes it as a
mesmerizing reworking of a 40-part choral piece by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585). The installation features the voices of 59 singers (adults and children) performing Tallis' Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (1556), which translates to In No Other is My Hope and is perhaps Tallis' most famous composition. Each voice was recorded separately, and all voices are played back in unison via 40 individual loudspeakers on tripods (one speaker for each choral part). The audio component features a 14-minute loop – 11 minutes of singing and three minutes of intermission.
Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, 1556), 2001
Photo courtesy of High Museum website.
For me the piece was magical in several ways.  First,  Tallis' music is haunting, ethereal, soothing and meditative.  The voices are pure and profoundly moving, to this listener at least.  You don't have to understand Latin, or subscribe to the religious feeling that inspired this music, to find it moving. 

Then too, it is wonderful to watch museum visitors enter the space and fall under the spell of the music.  As visitors work out how the sound is connected to the speakers--each speaker emits only one voice, so some are silent while others are playing--they begin to walk slowly around the room, listening to each speaker and each individual voice.  The familiar museum shuffle that visitors do around the perimeter of a gallery, peering at each piece on the wall, here becomes a shuffle of listening within the circle formed by the speakers.   The speakers are placed at the height of an average adult's head, so one encounters the voices as one might meet fellow humans.  After making the full circuit, some visitors pause in the center and allow the music to wash over them for a few seconds, or minutes.  The secular white cube of the contemporary gallery becomes a sacred place of awe, wonder and joy as a very old piece of music is made new.  

I think it is the very juxtaposition of the old and the new, the sacred and the secular, that makes this installation so effective.  This principle of juxtaposing contrasting and unexpected elements together, of cutting and pasting, is the basis for collage, assemblage, and much other contemporary art.  It is also currently my preferred method of design for tapestry.  I am using a very ancient technique, weft-faced pictorial weaving, to try to convey something meaningful, even sacred, to a contemporary audience.  I am inspired, as Janet Cardiff was, by an ancient piece of art, (see this post), and I am reworking the image from my contemporary perspective.  Actually, artists are always responding to and reworking the art from decades, or centuries, before our own.  I am excited to have discovered Tallis' music, thanks to Janet Cardiff, and enjoying listening to it as I work in my studio. 

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