Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir by Ruth Ostrow

Posted: October 6, 2011 by utsassignments in 2011, Uncategorized

“We are strangers that have come together to meet a common goal and have done so from the comfort of living and dorm, and even bathrooms, stretched out from sea to sea to sea.”


Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir

“For anyone who wants to believe in the possibilities of a connected world, here is your anthem” Chris Anderson, TED Talk Curator

 “You probably haven’t seen anything quite like it before.  It’s stunning”  Mashabal [6]

THE STORY

Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre wanted to be a pop star. “I dreamed of it, and that’s all I dreamed of.”  This was in the late 80s growing up in this little farming town in northern Nevada.

At university, with no pop star mentors in sight, he reluctantly joined the geeks in the choir only due to rumours of cute girls. He was sitting at his first choral get-together, bored stupid. when suddenly the conductor gave the downbeat and they launched into the Kyrie from the “Requiem” by Mozart.

“In my entire life I had seen in black and white, and suddenly everything was in shocking Technicolor. The most transformative experience I’ve ever had — in that single moment, hearing dissonance and harmony and people singing, people together, the shared vision. And I felt for the first time in my life that I was part of something bigger than myself!” he told a packed audience at Ted Talks [1]

The story that followed was that of a man who had found his calling. He was driven to then do a Master’s degree at Juilliard. And went on become one of the most famous and popular classical composers and conductors in the world today, with recent commissions including works for the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus the Philharmonic Orchestra, and a Visiting Fellow and Composer in Residence at Cambridge University. [9]

Already at the pinnacle of a brilliant career, life changed for him dramatically one day. A friend emailed him a link to a YouTube video. It was a young woman who had posted a fan video singing the soprano line to his piece called “Sleep.”

“Hi Mr. Eric Whitacre. My name is Britlin Losee, and this is a video that I’d like to make for you. Here’s me singing “Sleep.” I’m a little nervous, just to let you know. ♫ If there are noises ♫ ♫ in the night ♫

He was “thunderstruck”. He says: “I had this idea. If I could get 50 people to all do this same thing, sing their parts — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — wherever they were in the world, post their videos to YouTube, we could cut it all together and create a virtual choir.  Whitacre used social media — his blog, a Facebook page and YouTube — to assemble and audition singers for his piece. He sent the sheet music out so people could submit videos featuring them singing individual parts. He chose a work he’d written in in 2000 called “Lux Aurumque”, [11] which means “light and gold.”

And during the process a fan emerged, Scott Haines, who volunteered to sift through the videos, and edit the audio parts together to form a professional-sounding choir.

Out of this Eric created the first Virtual Choir in 2010, which saw 185 singers from 12 different countries record and post on YouTube the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts. The video shows a large stage with faces on computer screens next to and underneath each other, all along the podium; and him conducting the virtual singers. There are close ups of different people staring, uninhibited, into the camera as they sing blissfully in their private domain. Which is magically transformed into a public domain. It touched people’s hearts and yearnings for connection with strangers – something that is now possible through the new social mediums. The video went viral and received over 1 million hits in the first two months of its release.

 

WHITACRE IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The reason Whitacre had become a classic choir conductor was, he says, the love of the interactivity. He loved the interaction of people coming together but also the interaction of sounds: the cacophony which can fill a spacial zone with harmonics and discordance [2]. This is why he was so drawn to choral music.

So what does choir mean? Historically it’s a body of singers who perform together as a group led by a conductor or choirmaster. Most often choirs consist of four sections intended to sing in four part harmony, but there’s no limit to the number of possible parts such as a classic 40-part motet entitled Spem in alium, for eight choirs of five parts each; and now Eric Whitacer’s phenomenal 2000 voices using the power of numbers to capitalise on harmonics and discordance.

The most common form of choir brings together the voices of men and women singing soprano, alto, tenor and bass SATB. The choir can sing without accompaniment i.e. Acapella or with instrument [4] There are all sorts of choirs – such as church choirs and performance choirs [5]. My favourite is Gospel choir music. I was recently lucky enough to be invited into a Baptist gospel church in New Orleans and witnessed 1000 people singing in ecstasy whilst dancing in rhythm. Gospel choir singing formed the basis of R&B and Soul which why it’s so close to my heart.

Choir dates back to Greek times, but the earliest notated music of western Europe is Gregorian Chant. During the Renaissance, sacred choral music was the principal type of formally-notated music in Western Europe [3]. Choir remained popular over the centuries but choral music underwent a period of great change and experimentation during the 20th Century with the arrival of atonality and other non-traditional harmonic systems and techniques as represented in the works of Arnold Schoenberg [10] who changed things forever

At the end of the 20th century singer Bob Geldof made choir popularist when he gathered famous singers to sing Feed the Worldin a choral format. And the 21 century has already brought many new and exciting trends in choir because of remixing and sampling. Multi-cultural influences are found Golijov’s St. Mark Passion, which melds the Bach-style passion form with Latin American street music. [4] And now introducing a totally new form of choir by Whitacre – utilising new technology and new media to create the joy and togetherness and interactivity that only the digital era can bring.

PRECEDENT

But choir is not the only influence on Eric Whitacre’s work. There was one who trod before him. Not in the same way. But nevertheless utilizing social mediums like YouTube to create an original composition.

You can’t even begin to imagine how awesome this is. Nothing I can write here will do it justice. Mashable [7]

In 2009 Israeli musician, Kutiman, (thru-you.com) [8] took hundreds of YouTube samples – often non-musical ones – and turned them into an album that Mashable described as “So awesome on so many levels that it left reviewers stunned…it’s amazing to see all those unrelated YouTube bits and pieces fit together so perfectly.”[7]

Watching Kutiman’s work is uplifting. In a nutshell he has taken the best pieces –chords, voices, jam sessions, from YouTube-posted performances by the likes of Miles Davis; Jimi Hendrix to any Joe Blow sitting at home banging out a song. Kutiman, whose self-titled debut received high praise from sites such as Pitchfork Magazine, proves that any sound can be music if you know what to do with it.

Says Mashable

Welcome to the future of music.

But Kutiman never recorded original material himself… and so back to the extraordinary story of Eric Whitacre and where the story is now.

THE FRUIT OF WHITACRE’S LABOUR

On receiving his final cut of his first virtual hit Eric was moved to tears by the poetry of  “These souls all on their own desert island, sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.” And decided to do it all over again bigger and better. So back on to social media he went.

His blog:

Here we go, gang. For the next version of the Virtual Choir we will sing Sleep, and this time around, we’re shooting for the Guinness title of “world’s largest internet choir.” All of you are invited. Any age is welcome.

Please visit the official YouTube page to see the instruction videos and the conductor track, and visit the Virtual Choir page to download the sheet music.

Let’s make history!

The final tally was 2,051 videos from 58 different countries. From Malta, Madagascar, Thailand, Vietnam, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, as far north as Alaska and as far south as New Zealand. Again the video was a massive hit, around the world. The visuals are simply magnificent. Eric in the middle of a vast universe of stars conducts his choirs. The choir consists of individual YouTube videos, superimposed on planets, and all planets are tied to each other with golden threads. It has to be seen and listened to with the volume up high to appreciate what has been achieved. Enough to get him the only ever full-standing ovation at prestigious Ted Talks.

Utilising social media, he and his team posted a page on Facebook for the singers to upload their testimonials, what it was like for them, their experience singing it. One woman summed it up

“It is a dream come true to be part of this choir, as I’ve never been part of one. When I placed a marker on the Google Earth Map, I had to go with the nearest city, which is about 400 miles away from where I live. As I am in the Great Alaskan Bush, satellite is my connection to the world.”[9]

This quote captures in a few words the incredible power of digital media!

REFERENCES

  1. Eric Whitacre, Ted Talks 2011, April 2011, accessed, 19 Aug 2011, <http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_whitacre_a_virtual_choir_2_000_voices_strong.html&gt;
  2. Daugherty, J. Spacing, Formation, and Choral Sound: Preferences and Perceptions of Auditors and Choristers. Journal of Research in Music Education. Vol. 47, Num. 3. 1999.
  3. Joseph Jordania. 2011. Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution. Logos
  4. Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911) Choir, Encyclopedia Britannica  (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  5. Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911) Chorus, Encyclopedia Britannica(11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  6. Samuel Axon, March 24, 2010, Eric Whitacre Virtual Choir, Mashable, accessed 20 Sept 2011,
  7. March 11, 2009 Music for the YouTube Generation, accessed 23 Sept 2011, <http://mashable.com/2009/03/11/music-youtube-generation/&gt;
  8. Kutiman, 2009, Thru-You, accessed, 16 Sept 2011,
  9. Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choir, accessed, 23 Sept 2011, <http://ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir&gt;
  10. Library Think Quest Organisation, accessed, 24 Sept 2011, <http://library.thinkquest.org/27110/noframes/composers/schoenberg.html&gt;
  11. Phillip Cooke, Lux Aurumque, accessed, 24 Sept 2011,
  12. Supportive reading
  13. Essential Musicianship Series: Essential Elements Choir from Emily Crocker, & John Leavitt, (eds) 2011, Oxford Press, England.
  14. Voice Cast: The Distribution of the Voice via Podcast  from Neumark, N. Gibson, R. & Van Leeuwen, T. (eds), 2010, Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
  15. Quantum Improvisation from Miller, P. 2008, Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge MA
  16. New media & new technologies; from Lister, M. 2003. New Media: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London.
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Comments
  1. karjadi15 says:

    This is awesome. Wow at the mashable video never seen anything like it. How the choir started was interesting as well, nice to know successful artist out there still gets blown away at fans singing their own pieces. 😀

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