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Incredible Sound Installation Via SFMOMA & Fort Mason Center

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No one talks. Throbbing chanting moves slowly around the room. Outside, through pane glass windows, boats rock in the harbor, birds fly over the bay. Old, drawn-out Latin words run through coils of copper wire and flow out of forty speakers arranged in a circle around the room. Walking up near one of the speakers, the imperfections of single female voice are apparent — a slight warble here, a small lack of assertion in tone there.

Cardiff 40 Part Motet

But the reverence in the room is apparent. The digital choir swells and the room floods with relaxation. Male and female voices ring out in a swirling chord as loud as if the singers were standing where the speakers are placed. Then a sudden rest pierces the room with startling silence.

The 40 Part Motet, currently on display at Fort Mason Center until January 18, is a rare mixture of musical performance and physical art installation. It straddles not just definition but also affect. Close your eyes and it’s virtual reality for the ears, revealing what it’s like to be in the midst of a choir. Or monitor the room visually and conduct a strange study in human behavior.

motet 3

Most people stay in place, eyes closed, letting the music wash over them. But they also circulate slowly from speaker to speaker. And a few choose to step away from the ring of voices, monitoring from corners. One person lays on the ground, examining the sounds while staring at the ceiling. The movements and frame of reference of the observer become a part of the performance.

“We liked it very much,” says Helcio Burd, originally from Brazil. “We stayed for many cycles — three or four.”

In one sense, it is an out-dated piece of music from centuries ago, approaching the Gregorian chanting of the Dark Ages. In another, it is a timeless composition that speaks to the soul as deeply as when it was first conceived hundreds of years ago. But now it has been dissected and physically rearranged, allowing the listener to walk through the choir, choosing how their own awareness interacts with the music.

“It was very profound. It was very simple,”

motet 5

“It was very profound. It was very simple,” said Seana Miracle, a Nob Hill resident who came to the installation hoping to take pictures of people’s faces as they reacted to the music. “It made me remember what art’s supposed to be about. It’s supposed to elevate our consciousness.”

And the observer’s consciousness lets the installation vacillate between dismissible and moving. It evokes moments of introspection contrasted by waves of connectivity. At times, the music drones away on the other side of the room. But then a speaker merely inches away jumps alive with a voice demanding to be heard, rolling its ‘R’s, singing: “Israel.” Then fading softer as it cadences: “Domine.”

And here’s a room of approximately forty people, striving to find meaning in the aural atmosphere.
“We keep it between 40 and 45 people at the request of the artist,” says Fort Mason employee Fred Lopez. “When it was first exhibited in New York, there were lines around the block and it really affected the way people experienced it.”

The motet (which means a dynamic choral composition) is described as “a spatial reenactment of the transcendent choral work Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (I Have Never Put my Hope In Any Other) composed in 1573 by the english Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis.” Artist Janet Cardiff had each voice of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir recorded as they performed the piece, then channeled each voice into a separate speaker. It is played on a loop, including the chatter of the choir between recording takes.

Listening to it in the sparse white and gray setting of the Fort Mason center is at once mundane and unexpectedly moving — not unlike life.

Admission is free but reservations are encouraged and available here.

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Sam Devine

Sam Devine

Sam Devine is drawn to art, bikes, song and drink like the proverbial moth to the moth-heroin. He plays music, tends bar, and makes silly animations. In addition to writing for he's appeared in several publications, including MotoSpirit, SF Bay Guardian, Motorcyclist magazine, SF Weekly, and The Kiteboarder. Check him out at