“I wanted to be a rockstar,” composer Eric Whitacre stated at his TED Talk in 2011. He then explained how he went from playing the synthesizer and not being able to read music to becoming obsessed with choral music in college to earning a master’s degree in composition at Juilliard. Whitacre’s early interest in popular music must have had an impact on his career in composition and conducting, as evidenced by his slightly-more-diatonic-than-average compositions, his generally casual nature, and his use of technology in musical projects.
Inspired by a video of a girl singing the soprano part of one of his choral pieces, Whitacre made a blog post in 2009 with an open call for amateur and experienced singers to film themselves performing single parts from his piece “Sleep,” using a recording as a reference. When this proved successful, he invited more singers to perform his “Lux Aurumque,” this time to a video of him conducting the piece. The result was Virtual Choir 1.0, a technological collaboration effort that connected the choral art music community in a completely new way. Whitacre proceeded to virtually conduct another one of his pieces each year for the next three years. The most recent project, “Fly to Paradise” from Whitacre’s musical Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, features close to 6,000 singers from 101 countries. It was also a change from the three preceding a cappella pieces in that it was recorded over an electronic dubstep-esque instrumental track, bridging the gap between the popular and “art” styles. Whitacre’s website includes more details about the Virtual Choir, such as testimonials of hardship and loss from participants and a forum where Whitacre’s fan community can discuss past and future projects.
In the age of communications media, artistic collaborations are easier and more abundant than ever: One only needs to search the term “collab” on YouTube to find a myriad of examples. However, the typically anti-technology art music world does not easily allow for these kinds of projects, which is a shame due to their nature of bringing people together and making a more tightly-knit community. Whitacre confessed in his TED Talk that in the Virtual Choir he felt like he was part of something greater than just a set of people in front of computers connected by data. In my opinion, Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir is a pioneering effort to bring art music, modern and otherwise, into the digital age. I have already read of some other virtual choirs inspired by Whitacre’s, and I hope that this kind of mass collaboration makes a difference overall in the world of classical music.