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“The Forty Part Motet” by Janet Cardiff at the Clark Art Institute.
The Forty Part Motet installation at the Clark Art Institute

The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff at the Clark Art Institute.

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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