The Closed-Eyes Listener & The Forty Part Motet

by Bret Schneider


Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet has become a laboratory for studying projected experience, an example-in-miniature of contradictory listening habits, and an opportunity to develop a theory of the closed-eyes listener. The nature of the piece invites serious listening: Thomas Tallis’ sixteenth-century divine composition, Spem in Alium, gains an unnatural weight by being brought into the austere laboratory setting of the gallery. It is as if the piece itself is being watched and scrutinized by detached minds instead of felt and experienced by wholesome bodies. In truth it is the new category of serious listening that is brought under scrutiny. But ‘serious listening’ is a category of modernity that remains incomplete, so listeners imitate what they think this might mean. The appearance of pretension towards continuing such a project as a listener is matched only by it’s necessity: there is no other project for avant-garde sound art. To continue the project of serious listening also means that there are a lot of contentious ways of interpreting the material.

As if on cue, the plebes enter the circle of serious listening and close their eyes, like the throngs at a rock concert who hold their lighters up for the slow song. Countless people with their eyes closed, listening real hard, is an affectation that will annoy those who accomplish difficult, apperceptive listening with their eyes open. Difficult listening does not require eyes to be closed: as our best avant-garde composers have proposed, we are at such a high stage of listening development that even the least-cultivated amongst us can and will synthesize complex auditory material. The splintering of serious and light listening in modernism suggested not that one was better or worse, but that we live in a society that is developing mass listening literacy, so to speak. In some ways, those who shut their eyes and tune out reality are usually the most uncultivated in their listening, and imitate the clichés of so-called authentic listening that have become the norm in a culture of regressed ideas around music. By analogy, on a visit to the newly reopened Art Institute of Chicago in 2009 I witnessed a woman nearly on her knees in front of a Matisse, exhibiting loudly for everyone to hear, "how I've missed you so!" To put it rather bluntly, this type of listening is more often than not a means for high-class trash to flaunt their intellectual superiority when in fact it evidences the incapability of having a challenging and contradictory experience. In contrast, the sound installations and performances by Maryanne Amacher encouraged people to walk around the room, talk, and even dance. Vulgarity and distraction did not limit the challenges offered by the listening experience. 

This is not to say that there isn't something very meaningful in the piece. It's just that the true meaning is occluded by a recent regression into culinary appreciation. The listening affectation is like someone closing their eyes while drinking a fine wine. But on the other hand, the closed-eyes listener may desperately be trying to get away from the transcendent experiences that are projected onto the work, in order to develop critical listening. On a more essential level, the appreciative aspect is akin to someone staring really hard at all the details of a painting that was never meant to be looked at so clinically. Looking and listening like this becomes an outward demonstration of looking and listening.

I propose that the truthful joy of The Forty Part Motet is rather more sober, clinical and above all alienated than the sublime or transcendent categories projected onto it. It is a highly industrial piece, with ugly wires and generic speakers, reflecting the circus-like environment of people taking selfies amidst both high-class trash and impoverished war veterans trying to listen in a godless society that administers experience and rations electricity to lay bare outmoded claims of religious unity. One is expected to attend an exhibition in their carefully administered free time, required to have a profound experience in a matter of minutes, and left to go home to their disheveled beds and fast food. To say that you didn't have a profound aesthetic experience is an insult to what remains of experience. But to say that you did is a lie. The listening is far from deep, it is hurried and shallow. The openness of a sound installation (instead of a concert hall) only means that people can leave earlier instead of being forced to listen to something in its entire unity. The relativity of experience in The Forty Part Motet—that it can be profound for some, and boring for others, each bringing their own judgments—only shows how far we are from the unified experience of medieval music which was shared in divine time by an entire society, and in an architecture that was designed for the music, not the other way around. The tiny speakers and their diminished sound spectrum will never grant access to the spectral gates of heaven. So then what is it that makes people cry? It is in reality the palpable absence of a meaningfully unified experience, paired with a subconscious notion that what might be happening is so alienated that it will never be recovered. In other words, people cry out of a longing to fulfill the concept of serious listening, while not knowing exactly how to do so. Even crying in an examined world is a psychologized act of the mind, and not an outpouring of emotions. 

And yet The Forty Part Motet is not nothing. In 2016 it stakes a timely presence amidst a glut of composers and sound artists who proclaim to be inspired by, and often idealize medieval polyphony. Tim Hecker claims in Love Streams (2016) to make "church music," and Arvo Pärt claims to be part of an orthodox tradition reaching back to the monks. Ever since the autonomy painstakingly won by art led merely to its unreflective overproduction, it has become the province of artists to lay claim to sacred histories as a means to combat their genericness. You know you're in the territory of the vulgar when someone proclaims to be part of a sacred tradition of the monks. 

But more germane to the artwork is the modern philosophy of re-feeling the old before anything new is undertaken. Composers like Steve Reich or Györgi Ligeti (who created at the height of modernism) were also influenced by medieval polyphony, but more interested in fulfilling the latent claims of centuries-old art. For instance, the final liberation of art from the church meant that such polyphony could be heard for the first time on its own, and not as an extension of the hand of god. Attendant with a re-feeling of the old would be a new type of listening, even though they did not explicitly state it as such. Nor could it be programmatically predicted. This new type of listening necessitated new forms of analytic, and not transcendent experience. Bourgeois listening lags behind the artworks it supports.

The hypocrisy evident in the 'profound' listening culture of high-class trash is that there's countless new music that goes ignored because it's “too difficult.” New experiments with new techniques and new music materials are ghettoized while the old remains compelling—not just on an intellectual level but an aesthetic one. “Constructivist” tendencies, for lack of a better word, that embody such new practices have for the past half-century been just as radical as they are besides the point of experience. The innovative aspects of the Motet go ignored at the expense of the examination of interesting listening pathologies. It presents something different than a past/future style issue, or an issue in style altogether in that the content is subordinate to the opportunity for listening that it offers. It’s more about the idea of listening. The Motet gives listeners the sense that they have the space and time to examine sound and draw conclusions beyond the varieties of romanticism that bourgeois music has already concluded for them. 

Likewise at the John Luther Adams concert that was paired with the exhibition the Motet is currently in, romantic bourgeois music has needed to incorporate the most alienated materials of capitalism—e.g. electronics—in order to complete its visions of nature, shamanism, landscape, and so forth. It's a contradiction. Those materials contradict the romantic unity of experience by both fulfilling the romantic ideal and undermining it. This is what Brian Eno had in mind when he said that all music was at its core electronic. It remains only for the artists that rely on electronics to take hold of that material. But such formulations are wrong the extent to which romantic music pathologically avoids becoming conscious of its own production. There is nothing ‘natural’ in John Luther Adams’ music, excepting the second nature of unconscious culture! And this material basis extends into listening itself: the Motet is sensory only in the most alienated of ways, where the listener is more of an observer and studier of their senses. The ear is engaged by being detached and isolated by a secondary, more developed faculty of critical listening.

What our culture at large has been painstakingly developing is a type of analytic listening. It is everywhere and it is how we experience. We don't listen with rapture but with cold judgment; we listen closely for flaws in performances; we repeatedly listen to the same recorded works with more powerful headphones so as to learn them better. Listening is more of an enlightenment project than a romantic one. The Forty Part Motet evidences this type of listening in its austere arrangement that invites listeners to complete the experiment. But, it also evidences the ongoing pathologies of bourgeois listening that measures new experiences by old yardsticks. Cardiff herself was surprised that audiences find it a transcendent experience—this is because transcendence doesn’t do the work justice. The closed-eyes listener is an attempt to make experience critical, and not romantic. 



Janet Cardiff The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium,” by Thomas Tallis, 1556), 2001. Currently on view at Pulitzer Arts, St. Louis.
40 track sound recording, 40 speakers. 14 min. © Janet Cardiff. Photo by Carly Ann Faye


Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium (c. 1556).