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Music

A composer's virtual choir strikes a chord with YouTube viewers

American composer Eric Whitacre began an interesting new choral project by way of a simple question: Does a choir have to be together to sing together? The result has garnered millions of YouTube hits.

Screen capture from the Virtual Choir video

Faces of the hundreds of singers appear in the YouTube video

Before the advent of the Internet, joining a choir might have required dressing in black and walking over to the nearest church - but not anymore.

Now, a tenor sitting at his desk in Alaska can sing the descant to a soprano at home with her webcam in Indonesia - thanks to an idea from Eric Whitacre, an American choral composer who has attained rock-star popularity on several continents.

In his "Virtual Choir 2.0," Whitacre and his team spliced together the voices of over 2,000 people from 58 countries singing from his choral work "Sleep." The final video, posted in early April on YouTube, features the faces of these individual singers in a digital scape of revolving planets. Whitacre conducts silently from his own sphere. As the voices emerge, the composer's signature floating dissonances and dusky harmonies beam through the starry background.

The idea for the online ensemble came to Whitacre when a girl posted a clip of herself singing the soprano part from one of his compositions. It occurred to him that if he could find a way of having individuals sing at the same speed, it would possible to create a virtual choir, although he has said he never imagined that it would be more than "a proof of concept."

"Frankly, for me, it was a way to procrastinate from composing," he said. "It wasn't until I saw the final video that I realized it was much more interesting and poetic that I ever dreamed it could be."

Millions of viewers

Screen capture from the Virtual Choir video

Whitacre conducts in the center of a moving galaxy of chorists

After uploading a clip of himself conducting as well as piano accompaniment (which is not heard in the video), Whitacre was able to gather 185 singers from 12 countries and launch his first visual choir "Lux Aurumque" in 2010. The video became a hit with over 1 million views in its first 60 days. The Virtual Choir 2.0 YouTube channel, which includes a tutorial about diction and phrasing as well as uploading instructions, has now received over 3 million views.

Whitacre admits that he wasn't quite prepared for the community that sprang up this time around.

"A little village emerged," he said. "People started encouraging each other online and sending each other messages. They even began dating."

The composer, who recently presented the project at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in California, added that many seemed to be treating the connections as actual, not virtual. One woman commented that she used to sing all the time with her sister before she became an airman and had to travel regularly. Whitacre says he was moved by her perception that she was singing with her sister despite the lack of physical contact.

Getting connected

YouTube logo

Submissions for the "Sleep" project were acceoted for several months in late 2010

The project may also have an educational dimension. Klaus-Jürgen Etzold, conductor of the Junges Vokalensemble Hannover, believes that the choir has afforded some a musical opportunity which they wouldn't otherwise have.

"Someone who lives in a remote part of the world must feel incredibly good by connecting with other people in this way and participating in such an important choral event," he said. "It's a huge challenge for people who don't sing regularly in choirs, so from a pedagogical perspective the results are fascinating."

Rather than having an isolating effect, Etzold believes that the project is offering people an opportunity to trust themselves and share their performances with other people. Whitacre also rejects notions that the Internet is antisocial, comparing it to the telephone, which no one would consider an "isolating" mechanism.

"The internet is just another way of connecting people," he said. "Although, I guess if you're spending all your time at home alone in front of a computer screen it could be isolating."

Whitacre's online ventures stem from the belief that it is a fundamental human need to sing.

"All children sing," he said. "At some point we may lose the urge maybe because of societal issues. Maybe it's the fall of the church, but I think there's something primal about singing and watching others sing. I at least connect with it very deeply and immediately."

Just the beginning

Composer Eric Whitacre

Whitacre plans to keep combining digital tech with his approach to composing

The choral guru hopes to capitalize on digital revolution as it gathers speed, with visions of inviting people sing to sing via smartphones from wherever they are, noting that we're not far away from those technologies being pervasive.

Meanwhile, he is in the process of building a virtual classroom on his website to host open forums and instructional videos with experts in everything from film scoring to poetry.

As for the Virtual Choir 3.0, the composer and his team are exploring the idea of launching it as an art installation in one of the world's major galleries. Although he has been courted by big corporate sponsors, Whitacre says he would rather keep the project a "labor of love" or "art for art's sake."

The composer, who most recently premiered a work for cello and strings with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, also takes the time to post regularly on Facebook and Twitter. He explains that social media is a pleasant break from the lonely act of writing.

"You're alone with paper and pencil and all your demons," Whitacre said. "Interacting with these communities is not a chore for me."

And while the Internet revolution is causing critics to decry a debasement of social values and perhaps the end of the traditional music industry, Whitacre sees communities like Facebook and YouTube as forces of good.

"There's a lot of ridiculousness out there, but there's so much profound creativity," the composer said.

"People are using music, video and dance in ways that I never could have dreamed were possible. I personally feel very lucky to be living in a time when the internet is in its first evolutionary stages."

Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Greg Wiser

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