Sound Sculpture – Janet Cardiff

Janet Cardiff heard a musical piece and immediately saw it as a sculpture. “Our ears are designed for 3-dimensional sound… the soundwaves hitting your body from 40 separate speakers in such a pure way, really affects you emotionally.  If it’s the right space, it really reverberates within your body”

“I saw the score and how it moved – page after page it would move like this [she gestures] … almost like water in a river, moving round.  That all became part of my idea: to place it in such a way that people could experience the movement from one side to another.”

How did Janet make this artwork?

Janet worked with the Salisbury Cathedral choir, recording 40 different singers.  In playback, each singer’s sound comes through their own loudspeaker.

Tate, where the work is stored – Blahvatnik building, level 0 – describes the process:

The speakers are carefully positioned in eight different groups of five, responding to the structure of Tallis’s complex vocal piece, or motet. Each group forms a choir of five singers with different vocal ranges: a bass, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano. The eight choirs produce harmonies which blend into a polyphonic landscape of sound. Visitors are encouraged to walk among the speakers to hear the individual voices, as well as the immersive sound of the motet.

What does “Spem in Allium” mean?

The whole of the first line is Latin and means “I have never put my hope in any other but in you, O Lord of Israel.”

It was originally written for a sacred space, but Janet Cardiff has played the piece in a variety of settings.

Where can I visit this piece?

Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG      Level 0, The Tanks  website:

Its title is “Forty Part Motet” by Janet Cardiff, 2001.


Creative Takeaways

Look in local church announcements for a “Choral Evensong” (probably in a Cathedral) and go along to it with materials to draw or write.  Or just listen.  See how what is heard, inspires you.

If you would like to listen to this piece of music at home, it is “Spem in Allium” by Thomas Tallis.

Janet Cardiff recommends listening to music as surround sound in a physical space – but if this is not possible, then try recordings of choral works, or if you have a friend in a choir, asking to listen during rehearsals as well as performance.


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