40-channel audio system makes 5.1 home theater seem kind of lame

Surround audio formats have always had a tough time gaining wide acceptance, but if they all managed to provide the type of experience you get from listening to Janet Cardiff's sound art installation The Forty Part Motet, I expect lots of people would want to have one in their living room.

Cardiff went to England to record the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing Spem In Alium, an 11 minute a capella choral work by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis. The difference is that instead of recording the choir in the usual stereo or surroud sound, she gave each of the forty singers their own microphone and recording track. This means that when the recording is played back, each of the forty speakers carries the voice of an individual member of the choir, allowing their voices to blend in the natural acoustic of the space, much as if they were singing live.

Spem In Alium is arranged for eight sections of five voices each, ranging from basses up to child sopranos. The Bowers & Wilkins speakers used in the installation are grouped around the perimeter of the chapel in sections for each voice, so the vocal effects move around the room as the polyphonic music brings in the various sections. The result is quite striking, with a separation between the voices that you rarely hear in choral recordings, along with the fun of being able to walk up to any individual speaker and focus on a single singer. This is this the kind of thing audiophiles crave, and when I stopped by, I ran into an audiophile friend who was making his third trip uptown to soak in the experience.

Check out the gallery of the installation. It will give you an idea of the visual setting, but unfortunately cannot convey the auditory experience.

The Forty Part Motet is currently installed in the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan in New York City, and will run through December 8.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via The Audiophiliac

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