Thomas Tallis was a composer in 16th century England, living from 1505-1585, and was a contemporary of Elizabeth I. She actually supported and encouraged his work despite the fact that he remained Catholic throughout his life. Around 1570 he composed a piece called the Forty-Part Motet also known as Spem in Alium composed for forty voices. The text is Latin and literally means: I have never put my hope in any other but in thee, God of Israel. The voices are arranged in eight groups of five with one soprano, one alto, one tenor, one baritone and one bass in each group.
It also inspired Janet Cardiff who is a Canadian artist who works mainly with sound and sound installation. She arranged forty speakers in a room after she had asked the Salisbury Cathedral Choir to record each voice separately. This was the installation I came across in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in September. The exhibition is called “how long does it take for one voice to reach another” and runs until February 13, 2022.
You enter the room with forty carefully positioned speakers. Each of the speaker transmits the voice of a single chorister. As you move around from one speaker to the next you can hear each distinct voice. However, as you move into the centre it becomes one perfect harmony of forty voices which ebb and flow throughout the piece.
For me, the Forty Part Motet represents a lesson in team work: you need the power of the individual as well as the group. Bringing them together first identifies stronger individuals but then it demands an effort from each individual to become part of a larger effort. It requires strong leadership to bring the whole piece together while recognizing the strength of each contributor.
There are moments when you only hear a few voices as you move around. Sometimes, the choristers have to wait until they again chime in. There are three distinct moments when they all sing, at once. It ebbs and flows as you listen to it. Around the room and between the groups.
Since I am no musician, I will highlight Jaako Mantyjarvi, a Finish composer who explains in his YouTube video more about the background to Tallis’ music and how the piece comes together:
During lockdown, it further inspired a number of choirs to record the piece with phones and tablets. Due to the visualisation of how every chorister contributes to the overall composition it becomes evident how much cooperation and coordination it takes to create the overall result.
I hope you enjoy this masterpiece of polyphony as much as I do. Among its many merits it is a great testament of strong teamwork and leadership.