Forty-Part Motet at the Cleveland Museum of Art

So far I’ve written very little about art on this blog, though I have visited several sites/witnessed several performances that bridge the gap between infrastructure and art. Memorable recent examples include Nick Cave’s Heard NY, Ann Hamilton’s Event of a Thread, and Kathy Westwater’s PARK Scores.

Regardless of the relative lack of coverage, I consider the artistic aspect to be central to this project of mine – this blog and, perhaps someday, beyond. I find so many connections on various levels between the subjects. First, infrastructure is, itself, a kind of art. One could argue that bridges, train tracks, and even buildings tend more towards engineering than creative design, but the result either way is beauty, interest, and some kind of aesthetic expression.

When I go on infrastructure excursions my focus is not gathering, retaining and conveying facts and histories. Rather, it is the experience of being in the space. I began this project because I simply liked to visit these places that I deemed interesting for whatever reason, and they just happened to carry the common thread of human-made structures, often ones with intriguing histories (repurposing, different pieces built at different times, prolific figures behind them, etc.) I began this blog to document my experiences for myself, but it has begun to transform into an artistic expression itself.

Another part of my background is art, in a broad sense. I grew up going to art museums and taking art and jewelry-making classes, seeing performances of all kinds and taking music lessons and dance classes. Today, I still practice contemporary dance and, on occasion, create my own dance works. So when an artist embraces a space that already captivates me on an infrastructural level and purposes it into a site for their art, it changes the experience of inhabiting that space and creates the connection between interests for me. And it also allows the other audience members to view both the space and the art in a different, and hopefully more open, way than they would have otherwise.

I hope to write more about all this soon on my “About” page, but that’s a taste of one of the reasons this infrastructure project has so deeply taken hold of me.

On this particular day, I didn’t expect anything quite so moving. I was visiting my parents in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and we took an evening trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. We ate dinner then wandered the galleries for a bit. I hadn’t been since the completion of their recent, extensive renovation. I’m not sure parents really had a clear idea of what they wanted to see that night, though they knew their way around better than I did.

As we climbed up a marble staircase from a dark gallery we heard music. It seemed out of place at first, and I wondered if it was some kind of special event or performance. When we reached the top of the stairs we saw a series of speakers on high stands arranged in a large oval in this brighter gallery room.

We walked in on the finale of this grand, old-sounding choral piece. The first thing I noticed was that the era and religious tone of the music seemed in harmony with the old oil paintings depicting biblical scenes.

At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay – I think it’s a natural reaction when you come in near the end of a looping film or something like that in a museum. But mom wanted to know what this piece was and hear it from the beginning. We each picked up a pamphlet about the installation as the room grew quiet. Some people wandered out, and new people joined the group. My parents and I drifted apart in the space as you tend to do when wandering through galleries with companions.

Exhibit program

Exhibit program

The piece started softly. I held my ear close to a speaker that stood closest the display holding the pamphlets. I thought I heard low talking through it and wasn’t sure what to expect next. Singing began quietly first, with just a few voices. I listened as I walked clockwise inside the circle, staying close to the speakers which were each playing a specific choir member’s part.

As the voices crescendoed, the experience transformed from simply an interesting work of art in an appropriately-chosen setting into a very special and beautiful thing. At this moment, the innocent trip to the museum with my parents became an infrastructure excursion.

Museumgoers listen

Museumgoers listen

Museumgoers listen

Museumgoers listen

Surrounded by the thick wall of music, I was transported back to my mental state from my most simple and solitary infrastructure excursions. A quiet excitement and a sense of wonder came over me. My eyes grew wide to try to take in everything I could about the moment. I felt the urge to set down my purse and pamphlet and sit or lay on the floor of the gallery, or even to start moving to the music. I eyed the perimeter space to see if there were museum guards around who might stop me. But even though I didn’t spot one at that moment, I prevented myself from showing a visible reaction to the piece. I didn’t want to ruin the calm of it for others.

Thoughts and questions rushed into my head: How would this piece, curated and in a formal museum setting, be changed by existing instead in an abandoned space or park, ready to be stumbled upon by anyone? Would that have to be a guerrilla-style project rather than an officially-sponsored one? How would that change it? Would acting on my impulse to move be any more acceptable in a non-museum setting? How would the artist feel about my reaction?

After a few moments I stepped back into the interior of the circle of speakers and started up my clockwise walk, this time more slowly and contemplatively.

Speakers in the round

Speakers in the round

I began to take more notice of the people in the space. They were so beautiful as they listened. Some stood still, some sat on a bench in the center, and others took a slow meander around. All of their faces were somber with attention to the art they were experiencing. None had their mobile phones out. Almost no one was talking. I had nearly never seen this level of concentration on one’s surroundings – not on tours, in random infrastructural places, or even in other art galleries. I wondered if sound was the one true way to draw people in and make them stop and experience the place they were in. Though I’m not, and probably never will be, a sound artist or musician, the powerful effect was undeniable and appealing.

As the piece began to reach its end again, I watched one particular man who sat on the bench across from where I stood. He had his eyes closed, immersing himself in the sound around him. His face was solemn like the tone of the music, but he was clearly following along, having an enjoyable internal reaction to it, and not caring what those around him were doing.

Listening in bliss

Listening in bliss

Be it this closed-eyes man in the art gallery, the first-time rider discovering the wonder of a nostalgia train, or a person staring off into the distance at the view from a bridge, I so much love seeing individuals purely experiencing beautiful things and spaces without any self-censorship or self-consciousness about their reactions.

Eliciting some human reaction, I feel, is one of the most basic goals of art. So not only was the artist behind this sound piece successful, but so is the designer, architect, engineer, and planner behind the infrastructure we should all find wonder in every day.

Information about Forty-Part Motet:

Listen to a recording of Spem in Alium, the piece featured in Forty-Part Motet:

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One Response to Forty-Part Motet at the Cleveland Museum of Art

  1. Jonathan says:

    This amazing 16th-century 40-part motet, ‘Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te, Deus Israel’ (I have never put my hope in any other but in You, O God of Israel) by Thomas Tallis, was written for eight choirs of five voices each, hence the forty parts. The eight choirs were most likely set up in the shape of a horseshoe when the work was first performed.
    This same exhibition was just recently to be seen (and heard!) in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters, I visited it the day before it ended! Each of the 40 loudspeakers represent one of the forty parts and the recording was done in 40-part multitrack, so that only one single part comes out of any one loudspeaker, as if there were actual singers standing there singing their parts.
    I thought it was fabulous, and I’m pleased that you liked it too. Renaissance music isn’t the most accessible music there is out there and not my favorite (even though I am a musician!), but as you so rightly stated, the effect was breathtaking and I was spellbound by it.

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