I saw the movie Boy Choir yesterday. It’s a heartwarming although not entirely realistic story about a troubled young boy who lands up in the most prestigious boy’s choir in America. In one scene the choir of young boys is rehearsing in a cathedral space. They began singing a piece I recognized. It was Spem in alium, a forty part motet written by Thomas Tallis in 1570 for eight choirs each composed of five singers.
The reason I recognized it was because in 2013 we had an installation at the Winnipeg Art Gallery by artist Janet Cardiff called The Forty Part Motet. Cardiff wanted people to be able to appreciate the individual musical parts of the motet but also its overall beauty. So she placed forty speakers in a circle. Standing in front of each of the speakers you could hear only a single voice singing. Stepping away you could hear several voices, but standing in the centre of the room you were surrounded by all forty voices. You were inside the music. In Janet Cardiff’s installation Spem in alium is sung by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir which is made up of an equal number of boys and girls voices. The difference in the movie Boy Choir is that all the motet singers are boys. Either way the music is unforgettable and I was happy to revisit it in the movie theatre.