Janet Cardiff at the Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West), to September 6. $4, stu/srs $2, Wed 5-8 pm free. 416-973-4949. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Janet Cardiff avoids conceptual heavy-handedness and works at making the inaccessible accessible. Take her audio Museum Guide for New York's Museum of Modern Art, in which she advised visitors to look museum guards in the eye, gaze out the window and pause only briefly in front of paintings. Museum-goers were charmed, and less afraid of museums as a result.
Cardiff's gorgeous sound piece Forty-Part Motet, at the Power Plant , puts the listener in the middle of one of the most complex pieces of choral polyphony ever composed. Written by Thomas Tallis on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth I's 40th birthday, Spem In Alium interweaves 40 separate parts and builds to an overwhelming wave of ecstatic harmony. Pure, serene and intensely captivating, it's perfect Cardiff material.
Cardiff set out to create a piece that would allow viewers to climb inside the music and connect with the disparate voices. Working with the Salisbury festival choir, she recorded so that every singer is heard from a different speaker.
With characteristic playfulness, Cardiff started recording a good minute before the singing began, so we're treated to throat-clearing and conversation as the singers ready themselves to perform. The director can be heard calling for everyone to give it their best, and then it begins: 15 minutes of divine surround-sound choral music.
Cardiff doesn't expect everyone to take the same approach to the work. I sat completely still through the first listening to try to absorb it completely, but walked from speaker to speaker for the second round. Listeners sometimes lie on the floor to better let the sound wash over them, or follow a single voice through the entire performance.
Tears aren't uncommon. But what's most liberating about this piece is its simple approach to making a great work of music accessible in a new and novel way.