Janet Cardiff's 40 part Motet closed this past weekend at the Cloisters. The installation was crowded but the piece still effective. The vocal work at its center is called Spem in Alium or “Hope in any Other” by Thomas Tallis, composed c 1570 for eight choirs of 5 voices. It was written as a progression of voices— sometimes singing in unison, sometimes in call and response. Cardiff's piece, as you may know, consisted of 40 freestanding speakers, each approximately six feet tall, set up around the Cloisters’ Fuentiduena chapel. Each speaker projects an individual voice, (the 40 were recorded separately) so that as you move around the space you experience each voice intimately. You are at the center as the music is projected back and forth across the space.
The Cloisters itself— a faux medieval abbey which houses much of the Metropolitan Museum's medieval collection—can strike one as characteristically American. If you think too long on its conception it can color your visit, or at least it did mine: rich diletante (George Grey
Bernard) collects bits and pieces of medieval architectural details from around Europe and imports them here; a medieval pastiche financed by another rich American (John D Rockefeller) is constructed to house them; land both immediately surrounding the complex as well as across the river along the New Jersey palisades is bought up to preserve the view. A testament to American wealth and cultural boldness— buying up history wholesale and bringing it home. Thus the Fuentiduena chapel is actually an apse from one location, statuary from another, and a fresco from yet another, inserted into a "chapel" built in 1938. Throughout the building there are door frames from France housed with pillars from Spain flanking rooms made from Netherlandish accoutrements. Still, I dont really mean to criticize. Its a lovely haven in Manhattan and the gardens with researched, period-appropriate plantings are wonderful in and of themselves.