Published by
WQXR Features

Virtual Choir Composer Aims for World Record

Email a Friend

Voices on the Internet are not always harmonious, but the California-based choral composer Eric Whitacre has found a way to unite strangers seated at computer monitors around the world. 

Earlier this year, Whitacre created a "virtual choir" performance of his piece Lux Aurumque, assembled from individual video clips of 185 singers from a dozen countries around the world. The YouTube video has attracted over 1.3 million views.

Now the Juilliard-trained Whitacre is inviting the world to sing together again, this time in the hope of smashing a world record. He has launched "Virtual Choir 2011," an attempt to create the world's largest online choir in a performance of his piece Sleep. The current record-holder for an online choir is 900 voices, according to Guinness World Records.

Whitacre, 40, an in-demand choral composer whose compositions have already sold more than a million copies in sheet-music form, announced the new project on his blog last week. As with Lux Aurumque, Whitacre posted a video online of himself conducting Sleep with a simple piano accompaniment. Choristers are invited to obtain the printed music and record themselves singing their individual part in front of a webcam, following his cues on screen and listening to the accompaniment in earphones. The closing date for entries is December 31, 2010.

"For the people at home, the recording part is very much a technical process -- trying to stay together, trying to stay in tune,” Whitacre explained in a phone interview. “There probably isn’t immediately a sense of community. But what is interesting is how compelled people are to be a part of it, knowing only months from now will they symbolically be a part of a community. It’s really fascinating that that desire is there.”

Whitacre's virtual choir underscores a certain paradox of crowd-sourced music projects as they grow in prominence. On one hand, it’s a composite of ordinary people sitting in front of their computer screens -- including those who live far from major cultural centers. But the new project also promises to be so large and imposing that it’s receiving a very un-grassroots push from corporate backers.

In June, Whitacre signed a long-term recording contract with Decca, a major label that is releasing his upcoming album "Light & Gold." Offers from corporate sponsors have also started to trickle in. “For me, I want to be very careful,” said Whitacre. “It would have to be the right fit if they were brought on board. For instance, [I'd consider it] if they could provide extra resources to make the final product better.”

The immense technical challenges of splicing together over 900 video tracks puts Whitacre’s new project on a far different level than the 180-voiced Lux Aurumque, which was assembled by a young producer and editor named Scott Haines.

There are also musical hurdles. Unlike Lux Aurumque, which has a watery, mostly chordal sound, Sleep splits into fourteen converging vocal lines. Getting singers from around the world to approach the English text with a unified accent may prove challenging. In the instructional video, Whitacre asks singers to focus on clarity of consonants combined with "long, fluid, unbroken lines."

Whitacre's virtual choir pieces come at a time when professional musicians are seeking new ways to capture the organized presence of classical music on YouTube and other online communities. In late 2008, Google organized the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, a group whose musicians auditioned via the video-sharing Web site and then assembled to give a concert at Carnegie Hall. Last year, the Royal Opera House in London staged Twitterdammerung, an opera whose entire libretto was confected from the tweets of 900 contributors.

Whitacre has also created a version of Sleep for concert band, and is pondering a similar virtual collaboration using instrumentalists. For now, a team of audio engineers and producers is already assembling the choral entries for Sleep, which is slated to debut in February 2011.

"We have these really great sound engineers but who are saying, ‘what do we do if we get 3,000 tracks? I’ve never dealt with 3,000 tracks,'" Whitacre noted. "I know we’re surrounding ourselves with really great people, but I think for everybody it’s a big learning curve.”