There is something overwhelming about being a tiny and inconsequential part within a giant canvas. Just looking up at the Milky Way always does this for me (“Sartre had an answer”. 3 September 2017), and there have been other, very specific occasions, too. I could not have felt smaller and more in awe than when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon looking down into its depths, or staring at an Icelandic night sky filled with the shimmering greens and purples of the Northern Lights. In these situations, I absent myself from my immediate surrounds and it is this same feeling that I sometimes have at the cinema or theatre when I am transported by a gripping film or play. On such occasions other members of the public disappear and I become momentarily alone in my own bubble. It was this feeling that arose last week at an exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation* in Paris, and it was an experience I almost missed.

Sadly, I have problems with exhibitions; the short attention span that has plagued me for years continues unabated. After around ninety minutes my interest wanes and, having made arrangements with my wife, Rohan, I leave for the gallery café or shop. With Rohan’s extra staying power it might be another hour before she finishes and meets up with me again. At the Foundation it was a crucial late burst of energy that helped me through.

The Vuitton exhibition tells the story of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The exhibits, all on loan from MoMA, are arranged in historical order with the rooms on the lower ground floor telling of the museum’s launch in 1931, of its first collection and then of those items it displayed over its next twenty five years. On the upper floors the exhibits become increasingly modern, culminating two flights up with contemporary material.

In those first rooms the exhibits are fascinating. There are landmark paintings by Picasso and Cézanne, posters from the Spanish Civil War, a snippet from Eisenstein’s 1928 masterpiece ‘Battleship Potemkin’, and photos of the three women who were MoMA’s creators. But topping them all is a cartoon that had Rohan, me and a 4-year old boy standing glued nearby, mesmerised. It was Walt Disney’s 1928 cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie’ featuring a Mickey Mouse prototype. This film, which rightfully launched the Disney studio, was surreal genius.

After an hour or so in this earliest period I went up the escalators to the 1960s and beyond. I could just about manage Warhol’s 1962 Thirty-two Tins of Campbell’s Soup’, but on seeing Yayoi Kusama’s tasteless Penis Chair (‘Accumulation No 1’) my interest quickly drained away and I hurried through the next five decades in less than fifteen minutes before heading for my customary coffee.

As I neared the exit sign I heard music coming from a room I had missed in my hurry. Intrigued and mysteriously reinvigorated, I tracked back and, without reading the panel at the entrance, went in. Now, however, all was quiet. It was an odd sight – there were around twenty people sitting silently on benches in the middle of a large, high-ceilinged gallery. Surrounding them was a ring of 40 loudspeakers, arranged around the perimeter wall in eight groups of five. Looking like storks, each speaker was mounted head-high on its own stand. As a visual installation it was very odd, but soon everything changed

As I sat down with the others a very beautiful, unaccompanied tenor voice struck up. Then came another, then others joined in, each from a different speaker and each with its own melody. The voices multiplied and came from all around and seemed to converse with one another. The purity and clarity of the music were captivating and that should have been no surprise – we were listening to Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui” written for forty voices in 1570. For this particular installation it had been performed in Salisbury Cathedral in 2013. Each voice had been recorded separately and by going along the ranks of speakers I could hear each voice in turn. Then, back to the centre, where I absented myself and became absorbed into the music losing all notion of time – indeed, part of me was back in the sixteenth century.

Tallis was a lover of polyphonics; how odd it was that it had taken over five hundred years and the advent of ingenious technology to produce sounds as pure and as accessible as these. Surely he would have loved to be with us, even appreciating the detail – he too had arranged for his composition to be sung in the round by eight different five-piece choirs

I rushed back through the exhibition to tell Rohan of my find and she too was soon enraptured. Here was a magical, uncapturable and essentially out-of-body experience on a par with the Northern Lights – not bad for a museum exhibit I almost missed!

* This blog is published a little earlier than usual so as to give those readers with interest and access a better chance of visiting ‘Être moderne: le MoMA à Paris’ at the Fondation Louis Vuitton before it closes on 5 March 2018.


The illustration shows Thomas Tallis; 1505-1585

6 thoughts on “Alone with Thomas Tallis

  1. That was one of the special experiences you could have historically in St Marks in Venice as I remember – choral music where choristers were perched in multiple niches at different levels, voices coming at you from unexpected places from moment to moment.
    And in those days, not an electron in sight.


    1. Dear Rob, At the installation in Paris, it was the purity and clarity brought anew with the aid of electrons that was so special and which, I am sure, Tallis would have loved. Joe


  2. Dear Joe,

    Andrew and I happened across this very same installation at the Baltic Contemporary Art Museum in Newcastle about five years ago. We couldn’t walk away from it, it was mesmerising as we walked from one speaker to another, beckoning each other to ‘our’ speaker… it brought me to tears as it was so very beautiful.

    After a number of months we found a Tallis CD that had the same piece, it’s not the same at all but still brings pure peace and clarity. We’re so pleased you and Rohan also happened upon it!


    1. Dear Carolyn,
      I should have said that installations playing this special recording of Tallis’ Spem… , have been/are being played in all sorts of venues. As you say, hearing it is a pure delight. And it is interesting that for you, like for us, discovering it was by chance. Joe


  3. Forgive me, I can’t resist posting this fragment from Wikipedia on this Tallis work, suggesting it is every bit as engaging as you say Joe:

    The motet is laid out for eight choirs of five voices (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass). It is most likely that Tallis intended his singers to stand in a horseshoe shape. Beginning with a single voice from the first choir, other voices join in imitation, each in turn falling silent as the music moves around the eight choirs. All forty voices enter simultaneously for a few bars, and then the pattern of the opening is reversed with the music passing from choir eight to choir one. There is another brief full section, after which the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing the sound across the space between them. Finally all voices join for the culmination of the work. Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its elegant harmonic framework, allowing for a large number of individual musical ideas to be implemented during its ten- to twelve-minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mass, the work is continually changing and presenting new ideas.


    1. Dear Rob, It is interesting that just reading the Wiki entry brings back the music, the voices and the intricacy. Moreiver, from the comments I have received and from looking through entries on the internet, it is clear that this installation is played in lots of venues. So, keep an eye out for it near you – it’s bound to come and hearing it directly is very special. Joe


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