Janet Cardiff: Forty-Part Motet

Back in December I sang three times at the Nelson-Atkins Museum here in Kansas City, MO as part of their a capella open call:

A cappella Open Call
Thursdays through Sundays
November 25 – December 23 |12:30 p.m. (one performance per day)

Calling all choral groups! Transform iconic museum spaces through the power of your a cappella performance and help us celebrate the exhibition Janet Cardiff Forty-Part Motet. One choral group will be featured each day during a 15-minute performance. More information: nelson-atkins.org/sing.

I sang as part of the Songflower Chorale, Madrigalia Bar Nonne, and Carolers of Note. In doing so I acquired four tickets to get admission to the current exhibit: Janet Cardiff: Forty-Part Motet.  Four tickets was important, because today I took myself, wife, and the two basically-adult kids to the exhibit together.

Below is the embedded official video explaining the exhibit, and giving you a taste of what it was like. Below the video I am going to give my own impressions:

The exhibit is 14 minutes long: 11 minutes of singing, and the 3 minute intermission.

Currently with the Songflower Chorale we are working on music that has some antiphonal patterns that we will be doing as “two choirs” for an April concert, where the one choir is singers, and the other choir is a brass ensemble. But that pales in comparison to the 8 separate ensembles that perform in the 40-part motet.

It isn’t easy to describe sound, but that is the task I have to explain the motet. The motet, arranged in a circle, gives a whole new meaning to surround sound. You hear the music coming from one set of speakers, one choral group, and then another comes in, and it shifts around to various parts of the circle. Sometimes part of the choirs are singing, occasionally all of them are singing.

And when they all sing, and you are standing in the middle, it is like being surrounded, encompassed, and penetrated with the power and glory of the sound. If you are familiar with the power of some of the heavy bass that is used in a lot of modern music, the sort of bass that shakes your whole body, and you literally feel the sound — this isn’t it — and yet the motet manages to penetrate your essence even deeper and more completely than that other bass.

I found myself on the verge of tears at times with the way the music overwhelmed and uplifted. It was all sung in Latin, and while I know some Latin from having sung it, my Latin isn’t good enough to really understand what they were singing. And yet I could feel the sense and presence of it all.

The music seemed to me a sense of what heaven is, or should be like, with heavenly choirs singing and praising. It wasn’t one continuous crescendo of sound, but waves of choruses working together, taking turns, glorifying in their sound and in their silence, passing back and forth and they answered and responded to each other.

It was composed with a sensibility of sound, and of the glory of the Holy, which was unique to the medieval world, and which, while we can perform its glory today, I am not sure if it could really be composed by someone today, since we lack their ultimate sensibility, though we can feel it through this performance.

Another thing that made it seem so glorious, and heavenly, was actually the intermission. As you heard in the video, they took a break during the recording for someone to use the restroom, and during that time they left the recording equipment going. You can hear people talking, clearing their throats, coughing. You can tell that these are real people, not “perfect” angels, doing the singing. Heaven is real, with real people, doing the glorious service.

The exhibit will be at the Nelson-Atkins Museum through March 19 — another four weeks. If you have any musical interest or appreciation at all, I highly recommend you go see it and hear it.


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