Getting to the Janet Cardiff installation at The Cloisters was like a modern-day quest for some kind of Holy Grail, which in the end seemed appropriate. After my phone died at the 191st St. subway stop—leaving me with no guide through the unfamiliar paths of Fort Tryon Park—and after circling the labyrinthine rooms and hallways that make up The Cloister’s architecture, I finally found The Forty Part Motet, Cardiff’s sound installation.
For the 11-minute score, Cardiff reworked the Tudor-era composition Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (In No Other Is My Hope) (1573) by Thomas Tallis. The piece, originally intended for recital in churches and cathedrals, logically suits the religious iconography of The Cloisters, while also mirroring the compound’s collaged nature. Constructed in reference to no singular structure, the Cloisters function as an ensemble of many historical precedents. In the Fuentidueña Chapel, Catalan frescos of the Virgin and Child as well as the Adoration of the Magi cover the walls, and a life-size wooden crucifix hangs at the foot of the 12-century apse. The installation of The Forty Part Motet bridges both centuries and geographic borders.