A week after the 9/11 terror, I returned to New York City from a workshop I had given in Galway, Ireland. Holed up in a B&B in the Donnybrook area of Dublin, I had watched round-the-clock television coverage while waiting for flights to the U.S. to resume. Carol was editing a Jonathan Demme film in New York, and for days I was unable to reach her by phone.
At the precise moment the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, I was looking intently at the Book of Kells in the library of Trinity College. It’s a richly illuminated 9th century manuscript of the Four Gospels. The disjunction between the beauty of this great work with its cultural/religious/aesthetic history, juxtaposed against the mindless terror being wrought in New York, haunts me to this day.
We were all living in despair in those days, the very basis for our existence hovering above our heads like a miasmic cloud. Reading the New York Times one morning after I arrived at our Manhattan apartment, I noticed that an exhibition had just opened at PS1 in Brooklyn. It was an audio installation by Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff of 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in Alium, a work long held to be one of the high points of pre-Baroque Western religious music. I had loved the piece since first hearing it in my student days. Here is how Wikipedia describes it:
The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All 40 voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally, all voices join for the culmination of the work.
The piece lasts about 11 minutes, with the simple Latin text weaving a tapestry among the five voices. Here is the English translation:
I have never put my hope in any other
but in Thee, God of Israel
who canst show both wrath and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins
of suffering man
Creator of Heaven and Earth
Regard our humility
Cardiff’s installation is not the traditional one of 40 live human voices arrayed in an oval, but a recording sounded from 40 black-and-white speaker enclosures on pedestal stands. If you stand in the center of the oval, you experience full 360-surround sound of the motet; if you walk around in front of the speakers, each voice is isolated as you pass.
Recently, while I was discussing this Renaissance masterpiece with a friend, he asked me if I knew that this Tallis motet is featured in the high-class pulp novel Fifty Shades of Grey. “Ah, no,” I said, at a loss for further explanation. (It’s the kind of book-become-movie I am unlikely to ever read or see.) Well, here is the novel’s relevant text as explained by The Guardian:
“The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
"'What was that music?' I mumble almost inarticulately.
"'It's called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.'
"'It was … overwhelming.'"
Hmm. I’d never imagined the Tallis motet as an “overwhelming” soundtrack to an S&M fest. Maybe I should get out more often, live larger.
In this video for the Tate Museum, Cardiff explains the technique of the installation and the deeply moving emotive experience it creates:
And in a video made by KQED-TV for a San Francisco installation, Cardiff speaks in more detail about the experience of isolating the voices as you move from speaker stand to speaker stand. She also discusses other multi-media works, such as The Dark Pool, that she creates with collaborator George Bures Miller.
Here, also, is a very badly shot video that does give a sense of how you isolate each voice as you move around the installation. You need watch only a minute to get the idea:
Smoke was still rising from the debris pile of the World Trade Center on that early fall day in 2001 as I rode the subway back to our apartment on West 67th Street. A somber mood lay over the city as we all, everywhere, sought even some meager solace that would enable us to move on with our lives. The Tallis motet’s deep spiritual conviction became a soundtrack to my soul as other great music seldom had.
Here is a visual rendering of the motet as performed by the Taverner Choir in an animated graphic that helps you see the shifting voices and tonalities:
And here is a live concert performance by the Harry Christophers, with a choir numbering more than the 40 unique voices:
Great spiritual music transcends centuries and genres. Listening to the Tallis motet several times while writing this, I couldn’t help but recall several versions of the great Negro spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone are a few of the voices that have made that song their own, but to me, the rendition by the five women of Sweet Honey in the Rock achieves a near metaphysical level. Centuries collapse in the face of such deeply emotional vocal beauty. It is through music like these two anthems that we survive and endure, even amidst the tumult and chaos of “breaking news,” of barbarians at the gate who push futilely against these insistent ramparts of beauty and human empathy. This beauty will surely drive them down to the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno.
Stacey Steers: The Edge of Alchemy