Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’ has come to Leeds. Its a work I’ve never seen, although I’ve been a fan of Cardiff’s work for a long time. A lot has been written about this piece, but for me the revelation of the work was that it’s a visceral experience.
Audio speakers are arranged in an oval, filling a whole room, mounted on stands at head height. Two benches are in the middle of the space, and the room itself has benches built into the walls around the outside. We entered just as clear choral voices began to sing from each speaker. Each speaker is used for the sound recorded by a one microphone, for just one singer in a choral group. Each speaker is one voice. Standing or sitting in the middle you are immersed in the sound of the whole chorus. Instead of coming from one direction, it comes from forty, the parts moving around the space as the arrangement developes. A spatialised chorus. If you walk close to one speaker you can begin to take apart the job or role of each singer, listening to their part in the chorus. A deconstruction of the whole into parts played or sung. It is at once a view of the role of the individual in making the whole, and a spatialised choral experience.
For my own part, in the continual process of making sense of what I do and what the role of the artist, or the artwork, is this work was a powerful reminder of the artist offering an experience unavailable elsewhere. As the music and voices offer a visceral experience that has the ability to move the audience, beyond the intellectual, social or moral. On a second listening I caught the first part where the singers are chatting before performance. This interruption of the real, the coughs, the discussion of the incidentals of life brings their ethereal voices back to the ground, to time, history, place and situation.
A few days later in London I saw Simon Pope’s work ‘A Common Third’ at Danielle Arnaud gallery. Again the only physical presence of the work were two speakers on stands, very similar shape and size to those used in the Janet Cardiff work, mounted at head height they have the scale of people in the space. The sound was incredibly clean and good quality. (and as an aside this is something I’ve re-learnt in the past week, that making sound or video that is of such high quality that you don’t notice the means of production is a key factor of these works, although it tends to lend an air of dislocation to the voices too, as if the voice can exist outside of other sound and interference, almost out of history). The two voices are Simon and Pamela Woof, a Wordsworth specialist. They are describing what they remember of a walk from Grasmere up to Easedale Tarn, a walk that co-incidentally I have recently done. They discuss the route, what they saw, what they know about the rock of the mountain, what the ground felt like beneath their feet, how they found their way, how the path held them at times and not at others, the weather and how it has shaped the environment around them, and the nature of a path that is sometimes firm and definite, but at other times is something evolved incidentally from the landscape, the sheep, the rain, at others it is permenant and well trodden like the drovers path they use. Their conversation ebbs and flows as each of them get involved in a stream of remembered walking, much as their pace may have done while walking. The colour of the landscape is always present, grey, brown, red, the visibility and the presence of the mountains, or knowledge of what is over the horizon.
This stillness in the middle of London is striking and out of place. It is rural against the bustle of the urban. In this gallery space, a georgian town house (?), with ornate molding on the ceiling and coving, worn wooden floor, antique furniture in a corner, yellow walls, contrasts the rural with the historical. The drovers path with the worn floorboards, two very different ways of life and sets of repetative footfalls.
My memory also intervenes in the story. I’ve done this walk and I recognise part of the path, although I’m unsure if their route back was my own.