Virtual Choir Project Brings Together Distant Strangers in Performance

Is a chorus still a chorus if the singers are singing from their computers?

When composer and conductor Eric Whitacre originally announced his idea to put together a "virtual choir," it was met with equal parts skepticism and enthusiasm. The idea was that singers would upload videos of themselves singing Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque" to YouTube, which were then composited to create one video, one sound, and one virtual chorus of singers.

The final video, featuring 185 voices from 12 countries, has received nearly 3 million views on YouTube. There was mention of the beauty of the faces, of the connection between singers so far away, and of music made from many different moments in time—all brought together by a technological medium.

So when the opportunity presented itself again this year to submit videos for the second Virtual Choir project—this time on Whitacre's "Sleep"—I decided that I ought to participate. I became a Whitacre fan after singing the brief tenor solo in his "Go, Lovely Rose" in college and especially after accompanying a chorus singing the Five Hebrew Love Songs.

When I got to thinking about it, though, I had a lot of questions about the Virtual Choir and, I must admit, I became a bit skeptical. Wasn't it missing almost all the things that made me enjoy singing in a chorus—like connecting with people and making live music?

So, I sat down with Eric Whitacre himself to get his take on the Virtual Choir project.

Cory Davis: In the liner notes to your new CD, Light & Gold, you say that your goals for the first Virtual Choir project were to "bring singers together from around the world" and to "make music." Do you think that you achieved those goals?

Eric Whitacre: Yes, I absolutely did feel those goals were achieved, and we're going to push it even further with this next Virtual Choir project. But with "Lux Aurumque" I felt it was an incredible musical performance. I was astonished at how well the singers responded to every gesture of mine, and not just tempo, but dynamics and their breathing. And to have people from 12 different countries represented—that was really thrilling. For the second Virtual Choir project, we already have people from 15 countries represented. It's amazing: I still can't wrap my head around it—how small the world has become with the internet.

So, to you, what is the importance of doing this, other than bringing people together?

"There are some people who live in places where there aren't choirs. So participating in the Virtual Choir project gives them a chance to reconnect with that activity."

Truthfully, the reason I started it is because I have this childlike fascination with building little machines and seeing if they work. To me this project is like building a little machine; I have this idea, and if I put that over there and that over there and then push the button, will it do what it's supposed to do?

I've decided to submit a video to the second Virtual Choir project and I'm curious to see how I'll feel when I'm watching you conduct virtually, and how that will be different from singing in a "live" choir. What is it you hope singers will get out of participating in this project?

I have a feeling that on your end, it'll be very technical, and incredibly naked. But you obviously sing in a chorus, and one of the beautiful things about being in a choir is that you never feel that horrible feeling that everybody can hear every syllable and every breath that you're taking. And so, it's a weird leap of faith, where you're sort of saying, "All right I'll just try to get this right and try to be as musical as I possibly can." And just somehow hope that when it's all cut together, it will sound like a choir. So, I guess the best I'm hoping for when someone is uploading their video is that they just don't wanna kill themselves. Because I can just imagine how difficult it would be, you know, listening to your one video and saying, "Ok, well I guess that's it."

There's a guy who just posted to my Facebook page, he finally uploaded his video, but it was his sixtieth take. He said it took him three days. And I can appreciate that, because you feel so exposed. But at the same time, I know everybody who participated last time feels like they were a part of something much, much larger than themselves, as do I. And for me, that's the same feeling I get when I sing in an actual choir in a room. I'm hoping that you'll experience that, too.

Me too. I sang in a recording studio once and it astonished me how many takes we did and that the producers were able to just mush them all together in the end—this video project seems to apply that same concept to choral singing.

Yeah, that's it exactly. But as the individual, you really have to have faith, right? And unlike a recording studio where it's just a few people hearing it before they fix it all up, it's YouTube, and the terrifying thing about YouTube is that you put up your video and anybody you know can see it—God knows, on your 75th birthday somebody could whip this video out. It's a real commitment to the thing, and I appreciate everyone who is doing it.

Now, just to play devil's advocate, I think that some might argue that this virtual choir is not really a choir, because it doesn't include some of the things we're talking about, like singing in a group of people, and listening and reacting to the others around you in real time. So what would you say to those people about the value of this and why it's useful?

So, first—and yeah, there have been those critics of course—in no way am I trying to replace a choir or an actual choral singer. I hope that it doesn't, and I can't imagine that real choral singing will ever go away. For me it's really just a game of "can we do this." That being said, now that I've seen the "Lux Aurumque" video, it's become a little work of art. And a lot of that is because of Scott Haines, the young man who cut the video together. It speaks about people's basic human need to connect with each other, using whatever technology available. When I very first saw it, I teared up, and the first thought that I had was, "It's like a message in a bottle." Someone stranded on an island somewhere leaving a message in a bottle with really no hope ever of connecting with anybody, but you still need to do it. So I think it's become something different than what it is. It's not really a choir—it's a little multimedia piece, showing people trying to connect with each other.

"I like the poeticism of the fact that these videos were recorded over three months time in different parts of the world, but the final piece itself is all happening at the same time in the same place."

Technically a choir is just a bunch of people singing together. So, yeah, that's what we're doing. There are always those critics, though. I'm certain that there were people, who when the telephone came out said, "This is going to destroy conversation." Or the telegraph, or letter writing, or whatever new technology that came about to help people communicate—I'm sure there have always been a group of people who thought it was a bad idea.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is a middle school teacher in Brooklyn. She pointed out that the Virtual Choir is great exposure for kids who aren't able to sing in a group because they can't make it because of scheduling conflicts. What do you think about that?

Well, I was gonna say that anybody who goes to all the trouble of making one of these videos probably loves chorus so much that they're most likely in a chorus somewhere. But there are some people who have uploaded videos who live in places where there aren't choirs. So participating in the Virtual Choir project gives them a chance to reconnect with that activity. Also, if your friend is a middle school teacher maybe she's showing it to her middle school kids. If we can do a single thing that helps people see choirs as being a little bit hip, or cool, then bring it on. That can't be bad.

I think that you've definitely done that with this project. And that's something that I think your music does, if I can just say that.

I hope so. It's interesting; the cool quotient is so low in classical music, isn't it? People still refer to me as "young composer" Eric Whitacre. And I'm turning 41 in January! Only in classical music is 41 still considered "young." Being cool in classical music is a good thing, but it's not a tough thing.

How do you feel about Glee? People have been saying that it's making choral music and a cappella groups more popular. To be honest, one of my first thoughts about the show was, "Why isn't Eric Whitacre's music on there?"

First of all, I love Glee. And second, I would love to be on Glee. I don't know what would have to happen or what stars would have to align. In season two, it has become the hottest TV spot—Britney Spears and Gwyneth Paltrow were on there. So the odds of getting a choral work, even one that's popular among choristers, is going to be difficult. That being said, I'm pretty good friends with Jayma Mays, the guidance counselor on the show. I conducted a concert of my choral music at her wedding in Los Angeles three years ago. So she knows my music, and there's a connection. Again, though, those are big dollars they're playing with. But if somebody asked me, I would jump in a heartbeat to be part of it. It would be very, very cool.

Okay. I'll try and start a Twitter trending topic about that.

I will take you out to dinner anywhere you like if you can make that happen.

It's a deal. Speaking of friendships, little social communities usually form in a real choir. Do people in the Virtual Choir engage with each other in the same sort of ways as in a real choir?

It's really interesting. There are now these little groups of people who have become best friends online, and they only met because of the Virtual Choir. Some of them came to sing at a performance in New York of the musical I wrote called Paradise Lost. They came from all over the place, and they all met—there are videos online of them singing "Lux Aurumque" outside on a sidewalk together. You see them constantly posting on each other's pages. Probably for the rest of their lives they'll be able to say, "We met in a virtual choir." And I'm hoping with the next one, or as we continue this, that there will be people who meet and get married or something because of the Virtual Choir. You know, all the same crazy stuff that happens in choirs!

Do you think there is any downside to a virtual choir?

Well, it's a lot of work! No, I can't see any. All of the criticisms so far and the stuff that we talked about, I don't think really hold much merit. And frankly, its whole existence is just to do something interesting and beautiful and hope that people feel connected to something larger than themselves. So, I don't really think it has any downsides. This project is a totally different beast.

Also, if you think about it, we listen to recorded music probably way more than we listen to live music. In fact, I like the poeticism of the fact that these videos were recorded over three months time in different parts of the world, but the final piece itself is all happening at the same time in the same place.

So, what is the next big thing with you? Do you have any other music-technology projects in the works?

Well, I can't talk about it too much, but I've got some meetings in London over the next couple weeks to talk about iPhone and iPad apps. I think that is the biggest untapped market out there for musicians and singers. Almost certainly the next iPad with have a camera and FaceTime, and hopefully will have the Retina display that the iPhone4 has. And then I think everything can kind of go "kaboom" very quickly. I don't know what form it will take. But I think we should try to embrace it as much as possible.