We are all waiting for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to reopen, but there's something to see—and hear—before the new building is revealed in May. SFMOMA and Canadian media artist Janet Cardiff are replacing singers with machines in a pop-up exhibit at Fort Mason Center. It's not a scheme to somehow automate the choral singing sector, it's Cardiff's 2001 "audio sculpture" The Forty Part Motet, on loan to the museum and installed in Fort Mason's Gallery 308 through January 18.
Over 15 years ago, Cardiff recorded 40 members of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis' Spem in Alium (translation: "Hope in Any Other"). In The Forty Part Motet, each singer's individual voice is projected through just one of 40 speakers arranged in a circle, essentially swapping out chorus members for audio devices during the 14-minute performance. "The speakers become the person," Cardiff says (which sounds weirder than it really is).
Standing in the center of the piece can feel a bit like an acoustic barrage or 360 degrees of Latin harmony. The real appeal of The Forty Part Motet is that you can get up close to each "singer" and freely encroach on their personal space—after all, they're just speakers. Cuddle up to one of the 40 and you'll pick out the individual voice, something that Cardiff's statement points out is normally impossible, saying: "Only the performers can hear the person next to them" in a normal performance.
There are also quiet moments when the choir takes a break and we get to eavesdrop as they talk amongst themselves: One discusses the challenges of singing with a hangover, while a kid regales his friend with a story about a log ride (and also explains the concept). It becomes personal, albeit mechanical.
Of course, it was all recorded more than a decade ago (The Forty Part Motet premiered in New York City just days after 9/11), so the kids singing the soprano section are all grown up now, and at least one of the older singers has subsequently died. But their voices remain frozen and preserved just as they were that one particular day, at least as long as anyone continues to turn them on.
Cardiff credits a CD recording of the piece as her inspiration, saying that when she heard the 40-part harmony she could "see it all around me" and designed an audio arrangement that would illustrate the concept. Maybe that's what it's like being a media artist: You get a weird insight and then devote many years to building an apparatus that explains it to everyone else.
Installing The Forty Part Motet comes with a few design challenges. For instance, the audio gear has to be "tuned" to each new space. Gallery 308's many windows are just dreadful for bass acoustics, which have to be turned way up to compensate.
Although it is painted a Zen-inspiring shade of white through and through, pains were made to make sure that the exposed rafters, concrete floors, and those bass-confounding windows intentionally resemble the disused army base it really is. It's hard to imagine any place less Cathedral-like, but there is something pleasing about hearing celestial voices in a spare, stripped room.
And of course, just outside the windows is a view the Golden Gate Bridge and the masts of the many boats at the nearby marina, which appear to have been enchanted by the music into swaying along with it. Soon, this kind of media art will be on display in the towering SFMOMA addition downtown, which is a beautiful space in its own right. But it doesn't give you bay views with your heavenly choir. —Adam Brinklow