As I made the familiar 15-minute drive from Prairie Village to 45th and Oak Street where the Nelson-Atkins Museum is, I worried that my lack of musical knowledge would dampen the experience of the Janet Cardiff Forty Part-Motet I was on my way to visit. I thought about how I pretty much failed fourth grade band because I “forgot” to come to class and went to recess instead every day and how a real classical musical connoisseur would never be listening to “Sex With Me” by Rihanna on the way to the Nelson.
A motet is defined as a sacred song sung by multiple voices without the use of instruments. The Forty Part-Motet is a Canadian exhibit at the Nelson that is made up of 40 voices, each with their own part and speaker. The 40 black speakers circled the room in groups of five.
The room was Nelson-esque, but there wasn’t much to look at, and for good reason. The natural light flooded in from above, but there were no windows to get lost looking into. As I walked into the big plain room I thought that there should have been something more than just the 40 speakers that circled the room.
The voices sing the 1500’s choral arrangement “Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui,” which translates to “in no other is my hope.” It lasts about 11 minutes, with a three-minute interlude before the music begins again. But you can join the room at any time.
The Forty Part-Motet is described by the artist Janet Cardiff “like walking into a piece of music.” She was right.
The music is staggering. It surrounds you and envelops you into the world that is, and only is, the motet. Many people chose to walk around the perimeter of the room and listen to one voice clearer than the 39 others in the background. Others chose to sit on one of the large brown leather benches placed in the middle of the room, close their eyes, and listen. The first time I listened I walked around, but the entire time I wished I didn’t have to worry about where other people were walking. By the time the third playing rolled around, everyone who was there before had left, and I got the chance to experience it alone. I sat in the middle of the room and listened to the music in its purist form alone until
I couldn’t listen to the song just once. The voices joined together in the fluid song, bringing chills to my arms. The entire song was fluid and even gave me the chills once. I loved that you could get close to one specific speaker and listen to one singer at a time, whether it was a man signing a deep bass part or a woman signing her high soprano part, while the rest of the arrangement resided in the back.
Hearing all the parts come together —- gave a kind of insight that made me respect music and art more than I ever have before. With so many parts, no words were clear, even though I wouldn’t have been able to understand the Latin lyrics anyways. Instead the voices and sounds almost consumed me so it felt like I was a part of it all.
Almost more inspiring, though, are the written responses to the exhibit. On the wall before entering the exhibit are rods that other visitors have hung pieces of paper with their reflections on paper under red paint that states “Lend Your Voice” next to a table with paper and pencils. I took the time to read each response from other viewers there, and they enhanced the experience tremendously.
Some of my favorite responses ranged from “Encompasses the mind, and allows you to get lost in the sound,” to “Very… personal. Felt as if they were real and singing just, and only, to us,” to “The music destroyed the illusion that time exists (so, thanks.)”
I felt like everything meant so much more after experiencing something so metamorphic. And on the drive home, I turned off Rihanna and watched the drive around me, feeling like I had this special secret between me and the world.