THE ARTS IN EDUCATION
Eric Whitacre & the Advent of the Virtual Choir
ED, an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design, a nonprofit that started in 1984 as a conference about “ideas worth spreading” and has broadened its mission beyond running conferences. Their mission might at first seem to be just another nice innovation, because who wouldn’t want to believe “in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world,” or admire the organization’s commitment to provide “free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers” and build “a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other”? But take a look, and in particular at a video of a TED conference that took place this past March — http://on.ted.com/Whitacre — and be prepared to be wowed. It features the engaging, articulate composer / conductor Eric Whitacre talking about how he discovered classical music, especially choral singing, and how he has moved from his breakthrough moment to bring together joyous voices online from all over the world. This is a site you’ll be recommending to colleagues and friends as one of the most exciting and celebratory enterprises to come along in a while — and an inspiration for school children.
Clearly, a lot of the attraction to this TED talk is the speaker himself, a tall, hip presence in jeans and rock shirt, with longish blond hair and a dazzling smile. His story, told to a packed auditorium, is a knockout of charm and drive. A Juilliard graduate with a Master’s degree in music who studied with Pulitzer-Prize winner John Corigliano, Whitacre, at 18, had been a freshman at The University of Nevada at Las Vegas who couldn’t read music. He did play synthesizer and drums and thought of joining a rock or pop group.
Friends suggested he join the college chorus, but his feeling from high school was that choirs were full of geeks, he said. The friends persevered, telling him that the choir traveled free to Mexico and that the soprano section contained some hot girls. And so he joined. But the effect was not what he had anticipated. When he heard the Kyrie, the opening movement of Mozart’s Requiem, its haunting dissonances and harmonies blew him away. Before that life had been in black and white. Suddenly it was in “Technicolor,” he said.
Four years later Eric Whitacre was composing, getting published, conducting and beginning to get commissions and invitations to speak from all over the world. But not too long after that, he had another OMG moment. A young girl had sent a video to his blog — she was singing the soprano line from one of his pieces. Another light went on, as they say, and it, too, proved to be golden.
What if aspiring young singers from around the country and, indeed, from around the world, were to send videos to him — all voices represented — soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB), and what if he and tech assistants were to aggregate these videos into one great performance that would be posted on YouTube? He sent out word on his blog, inviting auditions, and did the videos start coming in! And thus was born Virtual Choir 1.0, a video performance of his 2000 choral composition Lux Aurumque — 185 young voices — individual “souls, all on their own desert island” joined together online. The idea went “viral,” with, reportedly, over a million hits the first month it ran on YouTube. Virtual Choir.2.0 Sleep has just come out, having its premier on YouTube — a spectacular video pastiche of over 2,000 voices from close to 60 countries — singers of all ages — including a video from a nine-year-old girl from the U.K. and one from a singer who sent in separate videos of himself doing each vocal part — SATB!
Whitacre’s hardly through mining gold. His Web site now contains testimonials from participants talking about what the project has meant to them. One girl from a rural area in Alaska wrote that she traveled pretty far to make the video, a commitment, says Whitacre, that proves that human beings will go to any length to link up with each other, to belong to a wider community. It also suggests that virtual connections can lead to actual connections. Friends are made in the virtual choir. It’s “like family,” he said. The album, “Light and Gold” (the title is a translation of Lux Aurumque), released this past October, shot to No. 1 on the classical charts in the U.S. and U.K.
Whitacre’s versatility seems to know no bounds. He enjoys great popularity and continues to be courted by prestigious orchestras from around the globe and to serve as a kind of ambassador of choir for the United Nations. He’s married to the award-winning Israeli soprano, Hila Plitmann, whose own spectacular career, especially in contemporary music, is also worth an online visit. They live in Los Angeles. The video makes it clear why Whitacre’s was the first TED Conference to garner a standing ovation. And, yes, he does traditional performances too! #