All together now (on YouTube) ! Last chance to join virtual choir

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 11:24 AM

The curtain opens, the voices rise, but it takes a moment or two for a viewer's senses to sync with the component parts of the "choir." The layered notes of American composer Eric Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque" register first. Then the earnest faces of singers engaged in a startling unanimity of purpose come into focus on dozens of small screens.

The 185 singers from 12 countries recorded their pieces individually, over six months, and uploaded them to the video channel YouTube, where Whitacre assembled and broadcast the "performance" in March 2010 as the Internet's first virtual choir.

Since then, the video has received nearly 1.6 million views. For his next virtual concert - to the music of his composition "Sleep" - Whitacre hopes to assemble a choir of thousands. The deadline for online submissions, open to all voices, is Friday (ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir).

The virtual choir is viscerally a marriage of art, connectivity and social media. It plays with ideas of scope and accessibility in music. And, in some sense, seems to portend the future of music itself - at least one future, where those who can't buy a $100 concert ticket can still experience the art.

"People will do anything necessary to communicate and connect with each other," Whitacre says. "I don't think it will ever replace people being together in a room, but I'm sure people said the same thing about the telephone."

Whitacre got the idea after watching a video of a young girl singing one of his chorale pieces. The intimacy of her performance moved him and made him want to get more voices virtually together. He uploaded a silent video of himself conducting "Lux" and invited singers to send in their parts. As long as they were largely in time and in key, they made the choir.

In the YouTube performance, the camera alternates between Whitacre, the wide frame of all the videos together, and screens of individual singers. The emotion of the music plays across their faces, while just over their shoulders viewers see photos or bookshelves or the artifacts of their lives.

Whitacre says he has been "awestruck" by the response. Singers send their videos and say, "It's such an honor to have been able to make music with you," he says.

A precursor to Whitacre's experiment held the same promise. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra began two years ago as a notion to expand the range of material on the video channel. Musicians were invited to audition online and winners became part of a live orchestral performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009 and, of course, broadcast on YouTube.

Three hundred finalists from this year's contest were voted on by YouTube viewers and winners - to be announced Jan. 11 - will perform at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in March.

The reaction has been "uniformly positive," says Ed Sanders, a YouTube marketing manager who was involved in the idea's inception. "For music and the arts in general, it's showcasing the power of technology in creating new fronts."

It aids in talent discovery. And it gives people a chance to "meet, interact and develop ideas from conception to performance that breaks barriers," of time, resources and geography. "Art that embraces these things is better," Sanders says.

Whitacre says he hopes one day to be conducting his virtual choir of thousands in real time. There will be an app for it in three or four years, he says. "And if there's not, I'll make one," because the love of music and the need to connect will always find a platform.

The composer expects a crush of submissions before Friday's deadline, but says he has already received 500 - "from little, little towns in Indonesia, Syria, Malta and three or four from American soldiers in Iraq, somehow singing as part of a choir, which I find beautiful and touching."


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