This past weekend, I went to MoMA PS1, where I stumbled upon Janet Cardiff’s installation, The Forty Part Motet.
It consists of forty speakers, erected in a circle on the outskirts of the room, each playing a separate track from a reworking of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui”(1575), by Thomas Tallis. The song, which is performed by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, was written for Queen Elizabeth I on the occasion of her birthday.
Upon entering the room, I sat down on a bench opposite from Caleb, and shut my eyes. The piece, which lasts for 14 minutes, was just beginning. Over the silence of the museum, voices cleared, shoes shuffled, people spoke brief asides to their invisible neighbor at the other microphone.
Then, the song began, and I swear to God, I felt like I had been lifted to the ceiling of a cathedral, and was swooping around like one of those expensive movie cameras on a crane. The music engulfed me. It swelled, and dropped, and soared. Individual voices pierced the cacophony.
My entire body flooded by euphoria. The hair on my arms standing on end.
This, I believe, is why people of olden times believed in God. When they sat in a cathedral, and listened to these creations by men that transcended ordinary human experience.
There is clearly something deeply religious and weird about me—for example, I sang in a number of professional church choirs when I first moved to New York, one of them specifically for Filipinos—but the experience of being present at a happening that isn’t really happening, but rather is being performed just for you, sitting there in a museum, in the center of an ecstatic rendering, was pretty overwhelming.
It made me think about how we’ve lost some of the magic of believing in things much greater than ourselves, like devotion, or true love. It made me imagine if the world ended, how I would go to that room, and lie in the center of the floor, my eyes closed, until the electricity went out, or the music drove me crazy, or, worn down, it petered out.
It’s worth going to see. Recordings of the song do it no justice—you must be there, in this loft-like sacred space, to really experience it. It’s a long term installation, so I’m not sure when it will end. But MoMA PS1 is great, and always, unless there is one of those stupid music festivals where you can like bang on drums, pretty empty. Something to add to your list for weekends.