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40 Bowers & Wilkins speakers and the art of sound

Artist Janet Cardiff's spellbinding sound installation, "The Forty Part Motet," uses a room full of Bowers & Wilkins speakers.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
”The Forty Part Motet” opening night party at The Cloisters in NYC Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Most "sound art" installations leave me cold, mostly because they rarely sound good, and a lot of tech-oriented "art" is more about tech than art. Not this time. When I attended the opening party for "The Forty Part Motet" at The Cloisters on Tuesday, the sound was truly glorious. The artist, Janet Cardiff, took full advantage of the acoustics of The Cloisters' Fuentidueña Chapel. She specified 40 Bowers & Wilkins DM303 speakers (which are no longer in production) for the installation, and they literally "play" the Chapel's acoustics. The 11-minute choral motet, "Spem in alium numquam habui" by English composer Thomas Tallis runs continuously. Spem in alium, which translates as "In No Other Is My Hope," is Tallis' most famous work.

Visitors are encouraged to walk among the speakers and hear the individual voices -- bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano -- one voice per speaker, but when I stayed close to the center of the room the 40 speakers created a seamless, truly three-dimensional sound stage. The choir's music filled the length, width, and height of the stone Chapel. All 40 singers/speakers rarely play at the same time; the sound moves from one section to the next in a call and response fashion, and each part fills the entire Chapel. So the "sound art" in "The Forty Part Motet" is site specific; it will never sound the same in another museum or art gallery.

I noticed that most of the invited guests to the opening night party "got it": "The Forty Part Motet" is as much about sound as it is about music. Again and again I watched folks walk up to individual speakers and stand there, focusing on one voice in the "mix," and then move onto another speaker, listen, and eventually take in the entirety of the presentation. I loved it; right before my eyes they were becoming aware of sound as a separate and equally valid experience as the music itself. That's the way audiophiles listen: precisely because sound awareness enriches music.

"The Forty Part Motet" is open now and runs through December 8. The work made its NYC debut in a more conventional gallery space last year at MoMA PS1.