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Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir will be unveiled Thursday

April 6, 2011 |  1:50 pm

 
WhitacreOrchestral musicians had their date with Internet destiny a few weeks ago with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Now the spotlight moves to choral singers with Thursday's release of the Virtual Choir.

Los Angeles-based choral composer Eric Whitacre created a choir that allows lone choristers from Lebanon, Kazakhstan and Madagascar to join 2,049 other singers from 50-plus countries in a performance of Whitacre's composition "Sleep."

The result will be revealed at 6 p.m. Thursday online and at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

The project, overseen by Whitacre, invited choral singers from around the world to submit a video of themselves singing either the soprano, alto, tenor or bass part of Whitacre's  "Sleep."  The audio was mixed into one track, so all four parts sounded at once as they would in a live concert.

Interest in the project has been intense, with more than twice as many videos submitted via YouTube than Whitacre dared hope for and many more than the 185 singers in last year’s Virtual Choir, seen in the video above.

Everyone who submitted videos is included in the final track. As you might expect, half the choir is from the United Stage, but amazingly, a full 20% are tenors.  Anyone familiar with choral singing will know that something closer to a 4:1 soprano-to-tenor ratio is more usual in amateur choirs.

"The choir is a beautiful, poetic expression of a seemingly fundamental human need to connect with each other nd to commune," Whitaker said in a recent telephone interview. "These people came from all over the place to be part of something with whatever technology they had." 

For some reason, choral singing has always been near the bottom of the classical-music pecking order in North America.  Cities boast of having fine opera companies and orchestras but rarely about the quality of their choirs.

"I never understood that," Whitacre said. "Maybe it's because I came to classical music late, but to me it's just as elevated an artform as anything there is, especially its ability to speak directly to the human condition. I think singers get a bad rap."

With an estimated 32.5 million American adults participating regulary in choral singing (up 40% from the previous reports eight years ago), the choral movement is definitely gaining momentum. If children's choirs are included in the mix, about one in every five Americans is involved in some way in choral singing.

The point of the Virtual Choir is to bring people together, but for some, watching nearly 200 people sitting alone in their homes singing in the first Virtual choir video seemed to accentuate the loneliness of modern life.

"I find this kind of bittersweet beauty in that message," Whitacre said. "When I first saw it, the first thought that popped into my head was message in a bottle. It was almost like these marooned souls on islands all over the world sending out messages in a bottle hoping to connect with someone that understood them. Everything we do is trying to overcome this abyss of loneliness."

It seems that the Virtual Choir Facebook page is what kept the project from being just 2,000 ships passing in the night, leaving only a video to mark their passage. Participants threw Internet commenting convention to the wind ("I'm doing 9th grade choir, so I know you're flat in bar 34") and actually supported each other. 

"The whole thing became sort of self-policing and self-regenerating," Whitacre said. "People would leave tips with each other and lots of encouragement. Once someone would post their video, people would write 'Great Job!' and 'Really love the way you did this.' A very affirming experience.  It's something I didn't remotely expect when I started this."

Technically speaking, the project represents an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes work.  Although there was a video of Whitacre conducting "Sleep" for participants to follow, just like in real-life choirs, every singer has his or her own internal rhythm.  Even those entries that were perfectly synced to the conducting track had to be adjusted due to lags in the uploading process. 

The emotional punch that all this kilobyte crunching packs is disarming for those not used to life in Choirland.  For long-term observers, it's par for the course. "People in chorus tends to be much more emotional or at least wear their hearts on their sleeve," Whitacre said. "They are generally the kind to hold hands and cry. It's just a different personality type.  You'd think it would be something we'd celebrate, not segregate."

Check back on Culture Monster Friday to see the video.

-- Marcia Adair

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