Spem In Alium (The 40-Part Motet)

Janet Cardiff. The Forty Part Motet. 2001. Reworking of "Spem in Alium Nunquam habui"(1575), by Thomas Tallis. 40-track sound recording (14:00 minutes), 40 speakers. Dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Rolf Hoffmann. © 2011 MoMA PS1; photo: Matthew Septimus.    
Last weekend my roommate and I biked up to queens to visit MoMA PS1's Sept 11th exhibit.  One of the more moving experiences of the day was Janet Cardiff's The 40 Part Motet.  The piece features 40 speakers, each playing one of forty voices performing Thomas Tallis's "Spem In Alium".  As someone who knows little to nothing about this kind of music, I was absolutely floored.  Beyond the cool factor of wandering the room and experiencing different voices within the piece, the song itself is one of the more emotionally moving things I've heard.  Run through the lens of an afternoon spent pondering the relationship between art and 9/11 and you've got a real doosey on your hands.  Hard not to find yourself in a state of deeply emotional reflection.  But that's why I love music, and it's why as soon as I got home I bought a recording of "Spem In Alium" and have listened to it regularly since.  It has a way of stopping me in my tracks, and transporting me to another place entirely.  This kind of transportation is the reason I listen to music, the reason I spend hours each week scouring the internet for sounds, and the reason I'm willing to dedicate my life to working with music.  If you get a chance to check out the exhibit, I highly recommend it.  

The version I've been listening to is from The Winchester Cathedral Choir.  It's featured on 1001 Classical Recording To Hear Before You Die.  Looks like I've got 1000 to go.  

Turn it up to 11.  Or just go to PS1 before 1/9/12.
Here's a video of Cardiff's piece when it was featured at Opera North in Leeds. 


  1. A very interesting looking exhibit indeed of a piece very near to my heart. Was the experience of hearing the music through speakers (rather than directly from warm blooded, breathing people) at all significant? IDK whether the exhibit intimates anything about our digital age, experiencing things electronically rather than live, but certainly the exposure to this triumphant music must be worth something. Cheers.

    1. I think that the digital aspect def has something to do with it. As you walk the room, you hear the music differently depending on where you're standing in relation to the speakers. Imagine being encircled by a Choir and being able walking around and stand feet in front of each singer. At times certain speaker were silent, only to rise up in unison with neighboring speakers. Really cool.

      Sadly this exhibit left PS1 this past fall, but I believe it travels, and hopefully will return to NYC soon.