Janet Cardiff

The pristine space


I have experienced Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet on several occasions. The work consists of a circular arrangement of 40 speakers, each speaker playing a recording of an individual member of the Salisbury Cathedral choir singing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in allium. Visitors are invited to walk amongst the speakers seeking out single voices, to become a participant in the music, rather than simply a listener. Cardiff has said of the installation: 

While listening to a concert you are normally seated in front of the choir, in traditional audience position. With this piece I want the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers. Every performer hears a unique mix of the piece of music. Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct. As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.

I have heard the piece in pristine gallery spaces – at the Whitechapel in London and at the Baltic in Newcastle. The purity of the space, the absence of distractions (and the absence of human beings apart from gallery visitors – simply disembodied voices singing) has given it a particular ghostly resonance. So I was interested to see how my perception of the piece would alter hearing it in the hallowed spaces of the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval outpost, a gathering of French and Spanish ecclesiastical structures collected through many grand tours and bequests, and reassembled on a hill in Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River and the bucolic shores of New Jersey.


I lived in that neighbourhood, known locally as Inwood, during the summer before I moved to London. My boyfriend at the time found the sublet, attractive for its cheapness (we were both unemployed college graduates). I remember writing in a poem at the time about how the low rise 30s blocks looked like old radios. It was a proper old-style New York neighbourhood, completely untouched by gentrification, occupied by ancient Irish men, hard-up Julliard students (we had a tuba player across the courtyard from us who was not popular) and young Hispanic families. The Hispanic residents brought a bit of excitement to the place with their bright bodegas, full of votive candles depicting various saints we’d never heard of (which we used to collect and light in our kitchen), and coconut vendors, who occupied the corner near the subway. There were a lot of Haitians in the neighbourhood, and my boyfriend told me they held Voodoo ceremonies in the park on summer nights. I was never sure I believed this, until one day I found two pigeons tied together with their heads sliced off. Strange to think that the park might have been home to such rituals, and also home to the Cloisters, a little slice of Medieval Christianity in Manhattan. But that has always been the city’s gift, to be able to accommodate the community of the world in its tight  grid. 


Cardiff’s installation makes you forget all the clamour of the streets outside. In all the occasions I’ve experienced it, what has struck me is how it reduces the world to the moment you are experiencing it. In other pieces, Cardiff uses urban landscapes as stage sets for her narratives, but here, she wants you to forget everything else, so that the music allows you to explore internal narratives instead. And watching fellow visitors, you feel they are experiencing a similar shift, that they have forgotten where they are, and that this extraordinarily beautiful music is having a profound effect, whether they believe in God or not. In that respect, Forty Part Motet operates the same way in a pristine white space as it does in a religious setting – perhaps it works best when there are no distractions at all – but placing it in a chapel reminds us of the original source of the music, as a devotional piece. Conversely, it made me realise that for me the pure white gallery space is my place of refuge, and what I look for is that simple transaction between the artist and the viewer (or listener) that can change the way you feel about the world. I was just beginning to put those thoughts together the summer I lived in Inwood, the summer before I moved to London. I used to walk in the park and look out over the Hudson and wonder what my life in London would be like. Listening to that music, back in the Cloisters after many years, what I realised was that for me it taps into something much larger than individual or place, something unknown.

Where all sounds count

I start the new year enjoying the sound of poems (always in tandem with thinking about how they look on the page, of course), how they enter ear and brain through being spoken and received. This consideration of the music of words comes from a pleasant conflation of events – my recent performances of Formerly with musician Douglas Benford; a great evening with the visiting American poet DA Powell (with equally terrific turns from Amy Key and John McCullough); a fabulous reading in Dorset, participating with fellow poets Tim Cumming, Annie Freud and Bethany Pope; and my attendance at last night’s TS Eliot Prize event. These readings and performances have coincided with a recording session of my first workshop as MP3 download: watch this space for more on that in the next few weeks.

Listening to other poets read their work is always a valuable experience – there are issues of pace and voice and cadence that can only be understood by hearing a poem in its composer’s voice. I was thinking of that the last time I heard Paul Muldoon – I find his work is best read aloud to get the extraordinary richness of his word play, but my flat American vowels can never quite do justice to his Irish lilt. We are lucky to have resources such as the Poetry Archive, which brings together recordings of some of the best living poets, but also those who are no longer with us. I regret never seeing Ted Hughes read his work, but his poems come to life for me in being able to hear him.


Someone asked me if performing with Douglas, who has created an urban soundscape for the Formerly poems, alters the way I read. Invariably, Douglas’s rhythms change my own, and I find myself falling into the patterns of the soundtrack, but the soundtrack has also been created from listening to the poems, so the two complement each other.


I’m sure working with him has made me bolder as a performer; I think of people like Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson who are constantly working in the space between music and words – I wish I were as amazing as either one of them, but they are certainly inspirational in showing me how it can be done. Then there are those extraordinary poets such as Paul Dutton, for whom the boundary between music and word merges, and an orchestra can be created from a human mouth.


Over the years, I’ve given much thought to how to present poems to an audience. A live reading is inevitably a very different experience than reading from a book or composing, as both of those are intimate and largely silent (although, as I’ve said above, sometimes speaking poems aloud helps me hear and comprehend, both in reading the work of others and composing my own). An audience is a dynamic structure, sometimes responding back to what a poet gives them; there’s such a thing as a poetry hum or sigh, which an audience emits if a poem pleases them. The beats many years ago used to click or snap their fingers, and sometimes if a poem is a real show-stopper, a round of applause is in order (although I feel poetry readings are like classical concerts, and it never feels quite right to me to applaud between poems!). There is also the vexed question as to whether poets should provide a bit of talk or banter or explanation between poems. As long as it doesn’t overpower or interrupt the actual work, I like it when a poet ‘talks’ to the audience. As a writer, I have always thought that I am a split personality – my writing isn’t necessarily like my speaking, and the way I order my words is a different experience than the way I tell a story when I’m just talking casually. Talking between poems is a way of connecting, a way of introducing not just the poems by oneself to an audience, and so an integral part of a reading, just as choosing what poems to read for each occasion (and selecting a pair of earrings of course. The American poet Tess Gallagher once said to me that it is crucial to wear ‘statement’ jewellery when doing a reading – I think she was wearing a stunning Native American necklace of silver and turquoise at the time – so that the audience has something to look at apart from face and book).

I often wonder if the reading the finalists give the night before has any bearing on the results of the Eliot prize. There were some fine readings last night (and a few jokes between poems too), so I’ll be interested to see what the result is when they award the prize this evening.

Picture is from Janet Cardiff’s installation Forty Part Motet.

A suitcase of memories

Kassel is a strange setting for Documenta, now one of the largest contemporary art festivals, held every five years. It was a hotbed of Calvinism, a refuge for the Huguenots in the late 1600s, home to the Brothers Grimm, the capital of Westphalia, and later a Prussian province. It has a grand palace, built by Wilhelm IX (now the main museum, with a surprising collection of old masters) surrounded by the sprawling landscaped gardens of the Bergpark, culminating in a grand monument to Hercules, who lords it over the place. From his vantage point over the Wilhelmshöhe, you can see straight down into the city centre.

While the city centre cannot be described in anyone’s book as attractive or imposing, it stands as another kind of monument (so unlike the mythological hero on the hill) to the horrible history of the twentieth century. As a major industrial area and a hub for the German train network, it was a prime target for bombing, and 90% of the centre was destroyed during WWII. There is an extraordinary photograph in the vestibule of the St Martinskirche of the city completely flattened (the church itself was almost entirely rebuilt; the bottom half of its towers are what remained of the medieval structure, the upper half are 50s modernist), like Richter’s aerial paintings of bombed cities, reduced to a maze of rubble-strewn streets. My friend, the poet Siriol Troup, has a guidebook of Kassel from 1901, and she talks about the experience of going around a city now unrecognisable in its text, the historical city, the archeological city. You could be anywhere, with its anonymous 60s low rises, the hallmark of many British city centres.

But it’s what did happen here that is always present. The Aschrott Fountain, named after the Jewish benefactor Sigmund Aschrott, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. In 1987 the artist Horst Hoheisel created Negative Form on the spot of the fountain, a ‘counter-monument’ as he called it, a fountain that exists below the ground (and can be viewed through grates in the pavement).

There was a sub camp of Dachau located in Kassel, and from platform 13 of the Hauptbahnhof rail station, Jews were sent to Auschwitz. A permanent memorial marks their deportation: a wheeled trolley, the kind they might use to transport materials round the station, which holds a glass case containing narratives written by Kassel schoolchildren imagining the lives of the deportees; their stories are wrapped around stones, like the stones you lay on Jewish graves to represent the visit of the living to the dead, and placed carefully in the case.

The Hauptbahnhof is the setting for some of Documenta’s most poignant work: William Kentridge’s exuberant and inventive video installation on time and colonisation; Susan Philipsz’s haunting strings that echo across the empty tracks; and Janet Cardiff’s guided tour which fuses past and present.

Perhaps it’s because Cardiff, like myself, is a North American responding to Europe (the meeting of the new and old world) that I find her work so compelling. The tour begins when you are issued with an iPod and headphones, like so many modern travellers trying to block out the world around them, only this time you are being asked to engage in an entirely different way: you find yourself standing in the station watching a film of the spot you are viewing in real time, so that there is an odd sensation of experiencing the real and the imagined at once. Cardiff provides a narrative that records her thoughts and feelings about this place. As she watches people pass by in the busy station, she reflects, ‘so many people wear black here.’ A trombone player appears from nowhere to provide a soundtrack to her thoughts (like a mourner at a New Orleans funeral procession), a ballet dancer glides across the polished floor, and all the time, we see the people who are occupying the current moment, a moment which will flash by, while Cardiff’s film is about what we preserve, what we keep. There is the suggestion of a relationship, one which is recalled, as if it might already be in the past. She says:

Memories are like a different form of travel; it’s like filling a suitcase that we pull behind us and we open and close when we need to.

Cardiff’s tour is about how we commemorate what we have lost as well as what we can see before us, how certain places, like Kassel, contain invisible histories, which are palpable in our response. The suitcase provides an analogy to the way we move from one place to another, how our lives are portable and fast-moving, but also how we carry the past with us. I’m reminded of the poem The City by Cavafy:

You said: ‘I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.’

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

More on individual works at Documenta in future posts. For the best coverage of the festival, go to my esteemed colleague Vici MacDonald’s blog: http://artorbit.me/2012/07/29/documenta-13-guide/

An excerpt from Cardiff’s film here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOkQE7m31Pw

Photos of St Martinskirche and the Hauptbahnhof by Amy Stein