American composer Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir has united singers from around the world.

The musical revolution will be streamed online… In May 2009, American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre was sent the link to a video posted on YouTube by Britlin Losee of Long Island, New York. The young singer had recorded the first soprano part of his work Sleep. While the video won’t win any awards for filmmaking, Losee’s rapt performance of her soaring part, isolated from the rest of the choir, is haunting. On seeing the video, says Whitacre, an idea hit him “like a brick”. “I was struck so hard by the beauty of it, the intimacy of it, the sweetness of it.” He wondered what would happen if more people recorded a part: if you combined them, would it result in a satisfying musical experience? Whitacre called for submissions via his blog, combined the results and discovered that it actually sounded like music.

 In the next phase of the experiment, Whitacre pushed for more musicality, posting a video of himself conducting his a cappella piece Lux Aurumque on YouTube and making the vocal parts available for download. Harnessing the power of Facebook and his blog, he was able to “form” a choir of 250 singers from around the world. Their performance is indeed musical, with ebb and flow and dynamics. The video on YouTube depicts the singers floating in space in their own windows of light (glimpses of their bedrooms in the background), led by a video of Whitacre. 

Eric Whitacre is perhaps one of the most popular contemporary composers you’ve never heard of, but his interest in online music making is putting him on the digital map. His work is really only beginning to gain traction outside of the choral community (last year he signed an exclusive contract with Decca and released his first CD, Light and Gold, with his hand-picked choir). For amateur, student and professional choirs – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs will give the Australian premiere of his little man in a hurry in August –  his evocative and expressive music is a gift, but don’t confuse popularity with populism; Whitacre’s pieces are uncompromising and depend on accurate intonation and musicality, though the composer says he aims to make the music “sound more difficult than it is”. 

His songs typically consist of slow oscillations between radiant triads and knotty clouds of dissonance; the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses might be split into eight parts to create richer, more thrilling sonorities, and the words might be in Latin, or perhaps Spanish or Hebrew. Both restless and serene, it’s music that communicates eloquently without pandering to the singers or the audience. Consequently, Whitacre has attained the rock-star status to match his well-groomed good looks and charismatic podium style. Previously, few singers had the chance to be rehearsed by Whitacre, but now anybody who can hold a tune can be part of his virtual choir; in fact, 2,052 singers have done just that, recording a part, or two, or even all eight, of Sleep.

In early January 2011, a week before the deadline, Whitacre was predicting that perhaps only a few hundred singers would contribute – but as January 11 loomed, videos were uploaded in the hundreds, doubling and then tripling the number he’d hoped for. “If nothing else,” Whitacre laughed, “It proves that singers are all procrastinators.”

It proved also that the singers – predominantly young – are eager to rise to the challenge of Whitacre’s work. “Of course the composer in me wants to believe they’re connecting with my music. But there’s also something broader at work and I think it has to do with a sense of community. In a poetic sense, they all just need to be together, to connect with other people. For young people, connecting this way is so second-nature that it’s as natural as picking up a telephone.”

Another phenomenon developed in the course of the project: the singers acted as coaches for each other, communicating via comments on each other’s videos and posting how-tos for the less tech-savvy members. Somehow, the numbers of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses also naturally balanced out to form the ideal blend of voices. There’s a notion that there’s wisdom in crowds, but there seems to be kindness and enthusiasm too. “In the oddest way, my role was just to be cheerleader and the rest of it kind of happens on its own,” says Whitacre.

In spite of his collection of gadgets, the very “now” use of social media and the digital magic involved in compositing the choir, Whitacre remains a pencil-and-paper composer, preferring the old-fashioned way of writing to using the computer.

Virtual ensembles such as Whitacre’s are hinting at how the Internet can change the way we listen to, create and perform music. While sites like YouTube and Facebook have been around for ages (five and six years, respectively – an eternity in the highly volatile online environment), it’s only been in the last few years that social media have begun to be harnessed by classical musicians. While the pioneering Myspace was developed as a way for bands to connect directly with their fans, there was little opportunity to do more than post tracks, videos, or spruik upcoming gigs – a relatively one-sided conversation. The ailing Myspace’s (they recently cut half their staff) sprawling network of garishly hued artist pages was a great place to discover your new favourite indie band, but the teen and tween-focused site was perhaps alienating to more mature generations of surfers – or ones with different taste in music.

Whitacre believes a live virtual choir is not far off – but “in no way will it ever replace live performance.” Even so, while it’s hard to top the spontaneity and joy of live music-making, there’s something very moving about these individuals alone in bedrooms, living rooms and classrooms around the world, peering into cameras at the fellow musicians they’ve never met, making the web sing. 

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs perform Whitacre’s little man in a hurry  and i thank You God for this amazing day August 19 and 25 at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place. View details here.