Eric Whitacre – Choir 2.0

Throughout my education, music and performance have played a pivotal role in my development.  In high school and college, I was a full time student by day, and a full time performer by night – often juggling rehearsals for two concert bands, three choirs, a solo performance repertoire and a musical or two. Stylistically, this breadth of performing opportunities grounded my appreciation for music in several genres, from classical music, to jazz, to popular music today.

Particularly for classical and choral music, I marveled at the intricacies and beauty of 100 voices singing with perfectly aligned vowels to achieve sounds conceived by great men like Beethoven  hundreds of years ago. Great men like those classical composers are on a whole other level. They hear in their minds the wisps of great master works and somehow have the ability to condense that to paper in a digestible  form for the artist to recreate.  All these great men don’t just exist in history.  Eric Whitacre is one of the most lauded composers of our time, and I consider to be a great, possibly the greatest of this generation.

Listen to the haunting poetry of Waternight, a poem by Octavio Paz, widely considered to be one of Whitacre’s most popular works. I first performed this song in a High School Regional Choral Festival in Pennsylvania.  With 140 of the best singers from over 50 schools, I drank in the dense harmonies and rich language.  Listening still gives me chills. I will never forget the waves of chill after chill I felt being in the middle of 139 other singers hearing the sounds weave into audible tapastries of harmony above my head and all around me.

Opera-House-Sawyer-399x600Eric is a vibrant, youthful man that has a way with young singers.  His music is accessible to them, challenging, and engaging.  For lack of a better expression, he makes classical music look cool!  And it is cool. Another track I highly recommend is Lux Aurumque, a simple latin poem about light.  Check out his other work on his site.

Virtual Choir – Choir 2.0

Eric has begun a project to make massive choral undertakings more accessible to the masses.  I am extremely pleased with the results so far, that I felt compelled to write about this.

When Britlin Losee – a fan of Eric’s music – recorded a video of herself singing ‘Sleep’ and shared it on YouTube, Eric was deeply moved by the spirit of her performance and responded by sending a call out to his online fans to purchase Polyphony’s recording of ‘Sleep’, record themselves singing along to it, and upload the result. Scott Haines generously volunteered to cut the video together.

Eric was so impressed by the result that he decided to push the concept to the next level by recording himself conducting ‘Lux Aurumque’, and asked Virtual Choir members to sing along to that. Once again, Scott edited the audio and video and produced the very first Virtual Choir.

Britlin Losee’s first video has been like a drop of water on the surface of a still lake, rippling the musical and online landscape to reach millions. Now with more than six million views collectively on the first three Virtual Choir performances, the VC phenomenon has reached all corners of the world, inspiring more and more singers to join each year. The VC has grown from 185 singers in VC1 to an amazing 5,903 singers and 8,400 videos for VC4 this year. These singers use webcams, smartphones, tablets, and video cameras to record themselves in bedrooms, bathrooms and basements across the World, creating a truly global choir that this year includes 101 countries.

Why is this good?

Consider the disparity in arts education across the schools in the United States, and other countries.  Even the schools that can afford large programs and good teachers can’t all have access to the best composers of our time. Giving singers the opportunity to be part of this collective is a chance to build an global community that supports the arts that has nothing to do with funding and everything to do with personal initiative and access to a recording device.

More than that, I truly believe that to collaborate to produce music is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It taught me control, discipline, collaboration, how to place my voice among hundreds to produce one unique voice.  I applaud Whitacre’s projects for spreading that experience, while providing the opportunity to forge global relationships, and evangelically spread the arts using the technology of my generation.

Why Could This Be Bad?

Let me preface this by saying that I have not yet had the opportunity to  participate in virtual choir.  I have apprehensions that the experience is not as good as it looks on paper.  6000 voices is a powerful choir, no question… but none of the members will ever have the experience of that collective performing live, in real time, balancing volume and tone.  All of that happens with the editors splicing thousands of videos together.

Part of what makes choral music a powerful experience for the singer is that they are creating a work of art that is actually living and breathing and swirling around them.  The best seat in the house for a choir concert is not actually in the house, but in the first row of performers in an angled, tiered formation.   There are moments when an emotional performance of a fellow choir member has stricken me, live and in performance;  it affects my emotions and  performance in turn. Many people, one voice.  This collective is more than the some of its parts, and it is symbiotic, reacting to its pieces and responding to its own stimuli.  I am concerned that the creative potential is in some way muted by these limitations.

It puts an incredible onus on the conductor, to manage to elicit a cohesive performance, technically, and emotively, from each and every member.  When addressing members on the fence about participating, he says to those that may feel that they are not good enough that,

“Any imperfection you may think about your recording is melted into the velvety texture of all those voices. With that many, it becomes extremely difficult to pick out individual flaws.”

I would take it a step farther.  Imperfections in vowel shape will get lost in the texture, but so will each singer’s ability to react to the texture, to have to balance, to learn from each other.  I view this as a huge loss to the participants. Hopefully the technology can improve to a point where a truly virtual live choir is feasible.  I am confident that Eric’s work will push the boundaries of what is possible for years to come as he perfects this modern choral paradigm.

What’s Next?

The latest Virtual Choir Initiative, with the largest number of participants, is unique in that it blends choral styles with electronica and dubstep beats to create a unique hybrid piece that I feel I could listen to in many situations not normally suited for classical music, like a dance party.

The making of this video is fascinating, but too long to discuss here. Check out this link to read all about the logistics required in undertaking such a project.

I have high respect for Eric and his work.  If you are moved by his work with virtual choir, and want to get involved, I encourage you to do so, either vocally or with other relevant talents.  Choral music is not nearly as appreciated as it may have been in the times of Mozart and Bach, but it is not dead. It is vibrant and alive in the hearts of young people across the globe, in no small part due to the efforts of men like Eric Whitacre.

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