Artist puts 40-part choral performance through oval of 40 speakers at 900-year-old castle

By Culture24 Reporter | 27 June 2016

The Throne Room of Bishop Auckland's 900-year-old castle is the setting for Janet Cardiff's latest haunting work - a circular set of speakers playing a sacred composition

A photo of an installation by Janette Cardiff at Bishop Auckland Castle featuring speakers in a room
© Colin Davison
In its first appearance in the north-east since it boomed out at BALTIC in 2012, Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, reinterpreting Thomas Tallis’s 16th century Spem in Alium composition, is appearing at the 12th century Bishop Auckland Castle.

Part of a £60 million plan which could create a series of permanent galleries exploring a theme of faith at the Bishop of Durham’s palace, this is a 40-part choral performance by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, played in a 14-minute loop around a circle of speakers allowing both the individual voice and the entire polyphony to be heard.

Cardiff is known for her audio walks, including Her Long Black Hair, a 2004 tour around Central Park in New York, leading listeners along its 19th century paths. "While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position,” says the Canadian artist.

A photo of an installation by Janette Cardiff at Bishop Auckland Castle featuring speakers in a room
© Colin Davison
“With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music.

“Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct.”

Clare Baron, the castle’s curator, calls the work “extraordinary”. “By nature this experience is difficult to express in word,” she says. “Music has the power to transport the listener beyond the ordinary world we inhabit, to connect us with something larger than ourselves.

A photo of an installation by Janette Cardiff at Bishop Auckland Castle featuring speakers in a room
© Colin Davison
“Janet Cardiff uses the universal language of music to address each listener in person, as they weave a path through the speakers to hear the individual voices of the choir. For centuries, music has served to bring the faithful closer to the divine.”

Spem in Alium is a key English sacred piece. The words sung by the choir – ‘I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel’ – are a prayer of thanks and praise intended to glorify God.

Baron says the Motet possesses “overwhelming beauty”, reaching the “full emotive potential” of an arrangement from more than 400 years ago. Cardiff is keen to see how viewers travel around a space which is physical and imagined.

“I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way,” she says. “I placed the speakers around the room in an oval so that the listener would be able to really feel the sculptural construction of the piece by Tallis.

“You can hear the sound move from one choir to another, jumping back and forth, echoing each other, and then experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you when all of the singers are singing.” Cardiff’s work will be the last before a significant period of redevelopment at the castle.

  • Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet runs until September 11 2016.

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Three places to see sound installations

, Liverpool
Audible Generosity is inspired by games found at traditional amusement arcades like Penny Falls, but there is more to this game than meets the eye - and the ear. The four-metre long bespoke box has been fitted with 12 piezo microphones that pick up vibrations made when coins touch the wooden surface. These sounds are then fed through a mixing desk installed inside the box and heard through directional speakers located close by.

, Cambridge
The current exhibition, Into Boundless Space I Leap, presents work by 14 contemporary artists of international standing, including sculpture, video, installation and painting. The works, which include new commissions, have been selected or created in response to the new Centre’s ethos of scientific discovery and collaboration. Until July 2 2016.

, Sheffield
Disruptive Pattern is an art and music installation commemorating the men from Derbyshire’s pit villages who served as stokers on board the Royal Navy’s Dazzle ships during the First World War. Until July 10 2016.
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