That mid-November afternoon, my head was lost in images of Kalashnikovs and shattered glass and young people slaughtered by the dozens in Paris. The world felt fragile and uncertain, and like many, I didn’t know what horror was coming next. Then, at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge glowing in the fading sunlight, I felt hope again – at least, for 14 minutes.
In the bare, white gallery, I lowered my head and focused on the disembodied voices – among them, the sopranos of boys, the sensible altos, the rumbling basses – each singing from its own dedicated speaker, one of 40 arranged in an oval facing inward toward about a dozen of us pacing or seated on benches.
A swirl of harmonies coupled and uncoupled in a trilled and at times rounded Latin on every side of us. At one moment, the angels by the floor-length picture window soared with the ephemeral 16th-century score by composer Thomas Tallis, then the basses against the south wall would take it low and deep.
There’d be a brief silence, before all the voices flooded in and the whole circle would catch fire like an unending wall of the most resounding hallelujah imaginable. If I had been alone, I surely would have wept, as sheer defense against this unearthly beauty. The sun, however, lit us all up precisely, and the presence of strangers just several feet away reminded me that I was in public where game faces were expected.
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Still, I stayed for four more cycles of the sound installation by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, until night had fallen and those voices pressed in even closer in the echoing dark.
If anything, the Forty Part Motet, which runs through Monday, Jan. 18, brought back all the power and honesty of the naked, unassuming human voice. There were no politics or ideologies here, not even recognizable words, nothing to betray anything like religion or race or class. We were back in the caves comforting each other on a dangerous night, with only the rush of breath and melody keeping us sane.
The concept behind the installation – a dedicated speaker for each singer – felt so self-evident that it’s hard to believe every home theater isn’t already oval-shaped. In her introduction printed on a gallery wall, Cardiff writes about the startling effect she was trying to create, of listeners feeling like they’re right beside each singer while also hearing the power of the entire choir.
“Even in a live concert the audience is separate from the individual voices,” she writes. “Only the performers are able to hear the person standing next to them singing in a different harmony. I wanted to be able to ‘climb inside’ the music, connecting with the separate voices.”
Before the start of the piece – “Spem in alium nunquam habui” (Latin for “I have never put my hope in any other”) – we heard three minutes of rustlings and chit chat and the odd chuckles of each member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir preparing to sing. Even while the music was soaring into the heavens, I could make out the sounds of tongues clicking off palates and breaths being drawn – simultaneous closeness and distance.
It all sounded like something much stranger and more powerful than music being played from 40 speakers. Somehow, those high-end electronics had brought me, like Cardiff writes, inside the human voice, in a way I had never heard. The Forty Part Motet, in its deceptively simple way, helps us rediscover the voice as a lifeline back to our common, vulnerable humanity.
The Forty Part Motet
What: A sound installation by Janet Cardiff presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture
When: Through Jan. 18, noon-8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Gallery 308, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco
Cost: Free, but reservations recommended because capacity is limited. Those without reservations might gain entry if tickets aren’t claimed for a specific time.