40 socially-distanced singers performing ‘Spem in alium’ at the Tate Modern is profoundly uplifting

17 September 2020, 16:50 | Updated: 13 October 2020, 10:50

By Kyle Macdonald

Majestic Renaissance music, the striking surroundings of the Tate Modern in London, and a deeply moving experience for us all.

There’s no piece of music like Thomas TallisSpem in alium. It’s one of the most iconic works for the human voice, featuring the choir of 40 independent singers and interweaving lines of music.

Written 450 years ago in 1570, it’s a masterpiece of composition. Writing for 40 different voices requires elaborate musical architecture. Often the voices join one by one and sing in different combinations, but several times in the 10-minute piece, all 40 voices enter at the same time. The sound is majestic and overwhelming.

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It’s a piece that’s often sung in big, distinctive acoustics like cathedrals or cavernous basilicas. In May 2020, the leading British choir ORA Singers and their founder and director Suzi Digby planned to sing it somewhere quite different: one of London’s most strikingly modern spaces.

The Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames is one of the world’s most iconic galleries, with huge austere rooms situated in a massive Victorian former power station. The performance was to take place in the building’s Turbine Hall, to coincide with Tate Modern’s 20th birthday.

An exhibition in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, March 2020
An exhibition in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, March 2020. Picture: Getty

But, alas. As with so many planned concerts in 2020, it could not go ahead due to singing and distancing regulations due to coronavirus.

But last night the ORA Singers and the Tate Modern were able to perform after all. Their concert had no audience, and singers were spaced, but the enormous hall was at last filled with Tallis' music, and streamed to the world. It sounded incredible and powerfully spoke to our moment in time.

ORA SIngers at the Tate Modern
ORA SIngers at the Tate Modern. Picture: Ora SIngers

Listen to the incredible performance above. You hear each voice enter one by one, as if we’re slowly joining together. Then brace yourself for the overwhelming sound when all 40 voices enter together. It’s as if we are all together once again, enveloped by the music we have missed for so long.

Beautiful.

Wednesday night’s concert also featured music by William Byrd, Roderick Williams, and a new work for 40 voices by Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan. Watch it in full below.