Just off the Ramblas in Barcelona is a square containing the city’s Museu d’Art Contemporani, housed in a plain white modern building by the American architect Richard Meier. Facing it, on the other side of the Plaça dels Ángels, is a convent established by an order of Dominican nuns in the 16th century. Attached to the main building is a small chapel in which, back in 2007, I had an experience I’ll never forget.
The convent now belongs to the museum and for four months that year they used the chapel to house a work by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, who specialises in sound installations. For this one, A Forty-Part Motet (2001), she took a recording by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir of “Spem in Alium”, the 12-minute piece composed in around 1570 by Thomas Tallis for 40 voices, and channeled each individual voice through its own speaker, all mounted at head height on plain stands in a U shape, as Tallis apparently intended his singers to be arranged (the photograph explains how it looked).
There were two plain wooden benches within the U of the speakers, on which one could sit while listening. It was deserted while I was there. The recording opened with the ambient sounds of performers settling themselves. And then it began. “Spem in Alium” is one of the great masterpieces of English music. Within that ancient austere space, the effect of the voices blooming and soaring in overlapping waves, building and receding and building again, was extraordinary.
For the first time through I listened while standing, with eyes open. For the second time, I sat down and closed my eyes. The experience was even more intense. I was inside the music in a way that seldom happens to non-performers.
Today I read of plans to remodel the museum and to turn the chapel into an entrance — the equivalent, they say, of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. They’re good at architecture in Barcelona, so I imagine they know what they’re doing and it’ll turn out just fine. But I’m glad I had that half-hour alone in the chapel, immersed in another world.
* A Forty Part Motet (2001) has been installed in many venues around the world. Janet Cardiff talks about it here: https://youtu.be/rZXBia5kuqY