WILLIAMSTOWN — What does a perfect work of art look like? It depends whom you ask. The best art says different things to different people, and leaves room for the viewer to inhabit it in a way all their own. But an installation at the Clark Art Institute gives me the chance to make a public nomination: It’s called “The Forty Part Motet,” by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, and on first glance it doesn’t look like much. In a glass-walled room flooded with natural light, 40 boxy black speakers stand in a broad circle, each head-height on a slim metal stand.
They’re identical; the space feels empty, spare, incomplete. But that’s the bait, set to hook. What rises from this chilly scene is a sound so beautiful it feels almost holy, a faceless chorus of angels reaching toward the divine.
The raw material of “The Forty Part Motet” is “Spem in Alium,” a choral piece arranged in 40 parts by the 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis. To make it, Cardiff recorded each vocal individually and channeled it through a speaker of its own. The disconnect is striking: An array of cold machines, channeling human expression with unsettling clarity and emotion.
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