It was a gray day, as most in San Francisco are, when I visited the Janet Cardiff installation at Fort Mason, a former military outpost now operated as a cultural center at the city’s edge. I was there to experience Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, the Canadian contemporary artist’s renowned audio installation involving forty speakers and a piece of sixteenth-century choral music.
In the gallery space, which overlooks bobbing boats and buoys and sidelong seagulls swept up in the wind, forty black speakers were placed in the round. They were arranged in eight sets to match the structure of the score, with five speakers in each set representing the five vocal ranges: bass, baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano. They stood tall and stoic, directing the space but otherwise not asking for much. And then, they began to sing.
The logic of The Forty Part Motet is simple. Each speaker emits one voice from the chorus, providing various listening experiences. Standing close to one, you hear the singularity of that particular piece of the composition; standing in the middle of them all, you hear the dynamic whole.
Cardiff has said about the piece that it explores her interest in “how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way.” For her, the eleven-minute Motet illustrates “the piece of music as a changing construct.” Despite my not knowing the words to Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in Alium,” or even the language being sung (Latin), I identified with the voices, the immense rising and falling sculptures of sound. Around me, people wept or smiled or closed their eyes or did any and every combination of the three. Our expressions became a secondary performance.
The clarity of a single voice is a remarkable sound, but it was the confluence of all forty that filled me, like a levitation. I felt lifted like the buoys I saw out the window, sent adrift with the gulls. I am not an aficionado or even much a fan of choral music, but in seven years, the Motet hasn’t left my memory. Maybe it was its invitation to inhabit a score kinetically by moving the body from note to note, or the agency it offered to alternate between contraction and swell: to be with one and then many, singular then numerous.
Or maybe it was that hearing the voice of your species in song does something really uncanny and mysterious to your body and mind.
Earlier this year, a group of neuroscientists led by University of Rochester Medical Center professor Sam Norman-Haignere, a former MIT postdoc, released findings showing a set of neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex that respond specifically to singing.
Building on fMRI research from 2015 that showed the brain’s high response to music, this team used electrocorticography, a brain-monitoring method usually performed on epilepsy patients about to go into surgery, to test participants’ responses to over 150 noises. In the cacophony of test sounds, including traffic noise, barking dogs, flushing toilets, and even instrumental music and non-musical speech, these neurons lit up only to the voice in song.
The why behind this novel finding remains unknown, but researchers agree that the neural ability to distinguish between auditory nuance is key to human evolution and survival. It makes sense that the brain would use its neuroauditory abilities to identify threats, but even more fascinating is the opposite: that the brain is just as often listening to ascertain safety—and that the sound of it might be singing.
Singing together has been a form of community-building for all of human history. Like birds chirping in the dawn chorus to tell their flock they’ve made it through the night, people sing to demonstrate their vitality and build resilience. Look no further than the practice of protest, or at the rituals of any one of the world’s many, many religions. Singing a collective message is powerful and unifying for those singing it, and communicative to those listening.
But it’s not just about the words. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem explains how singing, humming, belly breathing, buzzing, and rocking can all be used to regulate the soul nerve—his term for what mental health professionals call the vagus nerve or wandering nerve—on a cellular level. Imbuing the body with musicality regulates breathing and heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and can lift the soul by formulating a sense of connection to self and others. These are, as Menakem explains, practices Black communities have used for centuries to persevere through enslavement and its ongoing aftermath.
The human voice is extremely individual and dexterous, able to express at least twenty-four different emotions in non-verbal “vocal bursts” according to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, which makes its ability to achieve common ground in song, whether sung in unison or four-part harmony, pretty impressive. And, no matter how unique its frequency, it is always going to register as a human voice, eliciting a variety of memories and emotions for those receiving its timbres.
The voice isn’t commonly referred to as an instrument though that’s exactly what it is, in both senses of the word. It’s a music-making device and also a tool. The intimacy and efficacy of it was recognized by Jon Natchez who composed OneClock’s original waking tones and incorporated two vocal tracks. Back in the room with forty speakers and forty voices singing phrases written 500 years ago, I felt this instrument’s influence. I didn’t know that a small slice of my cranial cortex was illuminated or that an evolutionary response was being activated or even that my soul nerve was being regulated. I just knew that it sounded beautiful, that it felt good to hear, and that even in my silence I was part of the chorus. I didn’t want to stop listening.