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"Janet Cardiff with "Forty-Part Motet""
Janet Cardiff with "Forty-Part Motet" at Kunstmuseum des Kantons Thurgau, Switzerland, 2002. Photo by Stephan Rohner.
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Janet Cardiff, "Untitled."
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Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, "Forty-Part Motet," 2001, 40-track audio installation. View of installation at Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon. Image courtesy Edmonton Art Gallery.
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"The Muriel Lake Incident (detail, depicting Cardiff)"
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, "The Muriel Lake Incident (detail, depicting Cardiff)," 1999, audio, video and mixed media installation. Image courtesy Edmonton Art Gallery.
By Shawn Van Sluys
Janet Cardiff’s complex sculptural sound works weave narrative with emotion in intimate, virtual spaces. Forty-Part Motet by Cardiff and George Burres Miller explores the sculptural element of sound, combining virtual memory with the constructed, fluid narrative of a musical score.
Installed at the Art Gallery of Alberta (previously the Edmonton Art Gallery) September 18 to November 28, 2004, the piece is a virtual performance of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium nunquam habui (1575), recorded at Salisbury Cathedral and first exhibited as part of the group exhibition Elusive Paradise at the National Gallery of Canada in Spring 2001. Forty speakers on stands are divided into eight groups of five, as indicated by Tallis’ score, with each speaker representing the voice of one singer.
During a recent interview, Cardiff explained how Forty-Part Motet developed. “Tallis designed the score as a sculpture. There is a theory that he designed it for a chapel with eight cloisters so a 40-piece choir could be divided into eight smaller choirs of five. It is hardly ever performed like that, but I decided to place it like that because then you could have choir one beginning, blending into choir two, choir three, and so on. So you’re very aware of the space as defined by sound. You have all these sound waves hitting you all over the place, making it very physical. You can’t just tune out sound.”
When she first viewed the notes on the page, Cardiff fell in love with the musical score. “A singer I’d hired in England recognized that I liked three-dimensional sound, because I always move singers around when I’m recording. I make sure that they come across as very physical in the headset. I’d heard of Tallis but I’d never listened to him much. She gave me the CD and I said, ‘Forty harmonies and it’s just mush!’”
A month later a curator invited her to do a piece, so she developed Forty-Part Motet. Each speaker carries the voice of one singer, essentially converting the speakers into virtual human beings. Cardiff explains, “When I saw all the speakers around I realized that it becomes an electronic, virtual choir, which is a very contemporary idea. It is a religious piece of music, but I like people to just hear the structure of it. You have to walk up to it so you can totally deconstruct the piece of music. It’s very much like you were singing in the choir.”
Cardiff was trained as an artist in photography and print-making in the early 1980s, when she moved from the family farm in Ontario to Edmonton, earning her Master’s degree in Visual Arts in 1983. While there she met her husband, George Bures Miller, who has become her collaborator and often her “technical saviour.” Their first collaborative work was a Super-8 film called The Guardian Angel. Since 2000, they have divided their time between Berlin and their small white house in Lethbridge where Cardiff is adjunct professor at The University of Lethbridge.
The popular art couple’s international fame blossomed after they won the prestigious 2001 Venice Biennale Award for their multimedia installation, The Paradise Institute. In 1991 Cardiff began creating the audio Walks that have brought her international acclaim. The Walks develop an ambiguous narrative experienced by participants wearing headsets. Her voice guides them into unexpected, unexplored places. Her first endeavour, Forest Walk, was created during a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. She accidentally turned on her voice recorder while walking through a cemetery, and when listening to the recording later recognized that her own voice mixed with the surrounding sounds could create a narrative to be experienced with an intimacy once removed.
When asked how Forty-Part Motet relates to the Walks, she explains that the intimacy between the virtual person and the spectator is the most powerful interaction. “In the Walks you have a person’s voice right behind your head in the earphones. It is also a very intimate situation when you’re walking around the choir and you get to stand up next to the virtual singers. People have no fear of technology; they have it in their homes, so they see it as invisible. They see beyond the speaker.”
The ambient noise in the intermission also parallels the serendipitous encounters of the Walks. “During the recording there’s a three-minute intermission and the recording technicians left the microphone on while the singers are talking and gossiping. That’s very important to the piece because it emphasizes that these are real people. Then there is absolute silence, and choir one starts....”
Sound as a sculptural element continues to be the subject matter of Janet Cardiff’s work. A new piece that she is developing with George Burres Miller is titled Feedback. A Marshall amplifier sits in a room with a foot pedal. Press the foot pedal and out comes the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock version of The Star Spangled Banner. With Cardiff inviting us into front-row seats, Hendrix himself becomes a narrative and an emotion.
Shawn Van Sluys is the Public Relations Manager at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery and studies art history at The University of Lethbridge.