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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Composer/Conductor Eric Whitacre Talks About ‘Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently’

By Paula Citron on July 17, 2020

Eric Whitacre (Photo: Marc Royce)
Eric Whitacre (Photo: Marc Royce)

Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently, lyrics and music by Eric Whitacre, July 19, 2020, 10:30 am PT, 1:30 pm ET, 6:30 pm GMT+1, virtualchoir6.com.

Grammy Award-winning American composer and conductor, Eric Whitacre, 50, is one of the most popular musicians on the planet, be it in classical music, or on film and television. His works for choir, orchestra and wind ensemble are performed all over the world, while videos of his music-making on YouTube attract millions of hits.

Whitacre’s greatest claim to fame, however, is that he is widely regarded as the creator of the global phenomenon known as the virtual choir, an experimental concept linking music, social media and digital technology, that he pioneered in 2009 and 2010. In this time of plague, virtual performances are everywhere, but ten years ago, his Virtual Choir 1: Lux Aurumque, was a sensation.

On July 19, Whitacre will unveil Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently on YouTube, which showcases 17,572 singers from 129 countries. Each performer recorded and uploaded their version of the song Sing Gently, which Whitacre’s team then synchronised and combined into one single performance.

From his home in Los Angeles, and via the magic of Zoom, Whitacre discussed how the idea of a virtual choir first came about, the motivation behind Virtual Choir 6, and the intricate process involved in crafting the finished product.

I understand it was a young girl who was the wellspring for the virtual choir idea.

Her name is Britlin Losee and she was a 17-year-old from Long Island who was a fan of my music. She recorded herself singing my choral piece Sleep, that she then shared on YouTube. I was profoundly touched by both the intimacy and spirituality of her video. There she was in her bedroom, so pure of voice and intention, singing along to a recording of Sleep. I thought to myself, what about bringing together videos that people recorded in the intimacy of their homes, so that we could make music together.

What was your reaction when you heard the virtual choir for the first time?

I wasn’t prepared for how well it worked as music — all those disparate faces coming together. It was poetry. The notes on sheet music are just instructions. The real thrill of composing is in the performance, hearing the magic as music unfolds.

Every time you have done a virtual choir, you say it is the last time, and yet, here we are with Virtual Choir 6.

Initially, it was the reaction from the choristers themselves that led to subsequent virtual choirs. We did Virtual Choir 2 because we were inundated with people wanting to take part. Other virtual choirs were commissions for specific events. I really thought that Virtual Choir 5: Deep Field would be the last. It was done in conjunction with NASA, and celebrated the Hubble Space Telescope and it’s deep field images. I thought, where can you go after you’ve showcased pictures from the edge of the known world? What could possibly follow that?

And yet, something did follow. What was the inspiration for Virtual Choir 6?

I was thunderstruck by the speed and breadth of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly those early reports of choir members being superspreaders. Choral music is such a benevolent and benign art form. What is better than singing together? I met with my managers and music producers, Claire Long and Meg Davies of Music Productions, and told them we needed to do a virtual choir because people needed a sense of community right now. The basic truth of the arts is its humanity. Doing Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently is a call to service. I also knew it had to be an original composition born out of the moment. I was compelled to get the message right.

And what is the message behind the lyrics of Sing Gently?

That we sing gently as one. That we be together. That we are kind and delicate with each other. By just having a piano score adds a level of intimacy, because the piano has such a human sound. I didn’t want the message overwhelmed by an orchestra. What is wonderful is that these thousands of singers understood the hushed sensibility of the music, that they found that soft power, which was very gratifying to me.

How long did it take to pull everything together?

It took 3 1/2 months to do 3 1/2 minutes of music.

How did you get the word out for the first virtual choir?

I posted on my blog the idea of a virtual choir, and asked them to buy the recording, then upload their versions onto the dedicated website we created. I did a couple of test runs of Sleep and Lux Aurumque, and then we did the official Virtual Choir 1: Lux Aurumque in 2010. It featured 185 singers from 12 countries, and has been seen by nearly five million people.

How did you get people to sing at the same tempo?

I put out a conductor track, keeping time with the music that I heard in my head, but when I realized that we needed actual music, I added in the piano parts under my conducting.

But how did the 185 videos in Virtual Choir 1 become one voice?

I knew nothing about video editing, but I found a 22-year-old kid, Scott Haines, who did. I bought him a computer and let him go at it. It took him about three months.

What are some of the evolutionary changes that have happened between Virtual Choir 1 and 6?

The first three compositions were hard to sing — Lux Aurumque, Sleep and Water Night. As the choirs got bigger, I chose easier pieces. While the virtual choirs featured works from my choral canon, I wrote Sing Gently specifically for Virtual Choir 6. It’s a straight-forward tune featuring traditional four part harmony. In fact, I had to force myself to keep it harmonically simple because I’m used to writing more complex musical lines. The more simple you make things, the more inclusive it will be. Also, over the years, people have become more familiar with the technology. They’re at home with recording and uploading.

You also have increased your repertoire of guide tracks.

In fact there are 26 of them for Virtual Choir 6. The piano track was recorded by 19-year-old Sam Glicklich, a student at the Colburn School here in Los Angeles. For the four voices, I chose my favourite singers from my London choir, the Eric Whitacre Singers.

To practice the music, participants can choose to listen to the four voices with piano, or without piano, or you can hear each vocal line separately. Then there are lots of variations. For example, you can listen to a track that highlights your own part, while the other voices are more quiet in the background, or another track without the other voices at all. Or tracks with the piano, or without the piano, or just the piano without the voice. We also provided other learning tools like Braille sheet music, American Sign Language videos, and multiple formats for download.

You also include an all-important video on how to record and upload.

We have worked very hard to make instructions cleaner and more simplified. The key is the hand clap that begins each recording, like the clappers they use when shooting scenes for movies. When we get the videos, we look for that sound spike that is the hand clap, so we know that the recording follows. The clap is the starting line.

Can all the participants carry a tune?

Our ethos has always been to never turn anyone away, unless, for some reason, the video is not usable. Indeed, some singers are not perfect, but you’d be surprised by how thousands of voices soothe away the rough edges. When you combine voices together, you don’t hear the mistakes.

How on earth did you process over 17,000 videos?

To help us, we used interns from the Colburn School, which is one of our partners in the project. You can actually go through the videos very quickly with just a sampling. You just have to determine if the video is usable, and do the audio and video work together. For a smaller choir, you’d have to be more selective about voice quality.

How do you go about combining them into a single entity?

We did them in batches. For example, there were about 7,000 sopranos, so we put 200 on a single track, then we combined that single track with more single tracks, until we had all the sopranos together. Happily, everyone followed my conducting video, beginning with the clap, so they were synchronized to start together. The conducting track also meant that they sang at the same tempo. I stumbled onto the idea of a conductor’s video, when I realized that the conductor’s job in the real world is to keep everyone together.

The first few virtual choirs needed singers who had choral experience. No. 6 features people aged 5 to 88, many with emotional, psychological, and physical disabilities. Accessibility and inclusivity seem to be the watchwords with this project.

True. We also did not identify gender. Anyone could sing anything they wanted as long as they could make the notes, so we have men singing soprano and women singing bass, many of whom are transitioning. All we asked is that they click on which musical type they were on their profile.

With each new virtual choir project, the presentation has become more creative and polished. It seems you’ve taken filmmaking more and more seriously.

We realized early on that the virtual choir was more than just about singing, that we also had to convey the meaning of the music and the larger message. A choir is usually a static visual event, but for us, we spend a lot of time on how the visual will be presented, particularly in terms of intention.

What is the visual metaphor for Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently?

The Japanese call it kintsugi, or the art of golden repair. When a bowl is broken, for example, you put it back together with glue that has gold in it, which makes the repair more visible. Just like you can’t hide the scars of life, you can’t hide the break in the bowl. It’s part of its history. Kintsugi is a beautiful idea for the times we’re living in. The two opening notes of Sing Gently are very far apart, but then I bring in a middle that helps unite them.

How did you get 17,000 plus faces on one screen?

They are all there, albeit in miniscule form. Claire and Meg had to rent a movie theatre so they could use the giant screen to check that each video was in good condition. It was the only way to see them.

I’m sure with all your concerts cancelled because of the pandemic, working on Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently must have been a boon, especially in lockdown.

The theatre is a temple, where the truth of our lives is revealed, and I’m in mourning for its loss. Technology, at least, has been a key to creativity. If I can’t perform live, I can live vicariously through the virtual choir.

Will there be another virtual choir?

I’m truly done with it, but I realize that the virtual choir is an idea that is bigger than I am. Singers are passionate about it, so virtual choirs will carry on, and magic will continue to happen. I’ll just be the spokesperson.

Sing Gently

Poetry by Eric Whitacre

May we sing together,
Always,
May our voice be soft,
May our singing be music for others,
And may it keep others aloft.
Sing,
Sing,
Gently,
Always.
Sing,
As one.

May we stand together,
Always,
May our voice be strong,
May we hear the singing, always,
And we you always sing along.
Sing,
Sing,
Gently,
Always.
Sing,
As one.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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