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The Miraculous Virtual Choir of the Pandemic

Eric Whitacre's vast array of online singers brings solace and hope

spinner image Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM

Nothing about choirs is harmonious with COVID-19

Group singing, which generates respiratory droplets at high rates in close quarters, dramatically increases chances of COVID spread. Linked to multiple outbreaks, choirs have been silenced in most places.

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But that didn’t stop conductor and composer Eric Whitacre from assembling the largest choir in history to perform his new piece “Sing Gently.” The 17,572 singers were socially distanced online. Each had submitted videotaped vocals to Whitacre, who painstakingly stitched them into a massive online chorus, viewed so far by 1.4 million on YouTube.

Whitacre, a Nevada native and Juilliard School of Music graduate, has filled prestigious venues conducting orchestras around the world and won a Grammy for his 2011 Light and Gold album of choral works. He didn’t expect to become an internet choir wizard.

“I played synthesizer in high school,” says Whitacre, 50. “I played in a pop band. One day, the choir director invited me to sing. On the first day, I sang Requiem by Mozart, and that was it. My life was completely changed. I became the world’s biggest choir geek.”

spinner image Eric Whitacre conducts the National Youth Choir during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games
Eric Whitacre leads his virtual youth choir during the Opening Ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Virtual choirs before a pandemic

After unlocking the technical challenges to constructing virtual choirs in 2009, Whitacre began experimenting and producing giant cyberspace sing-alongs, building a reputation as a pioneer in the field. His first, 2010’s “Virtual Choir 1: Lux Aurumque,” included 185 singers from 12 countries. In 2013, Whitacre partnered with Disney to produce a virtual choir of 1,473 singers from all 50 states singing his Christmas song “Glow” for the World of Color: Winter Dreams show, which premiered at Disney’s California Adventure Park. He teamed with UNICEF for his Virtual Youth Choir featuring 2,292 young singers from 80 countries. It made its debut at the opening ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“The first one, which I didn’t think anyone would see, went viral and got picked up by international news media,” Whitacre says. “People started writing me, ‘When will be the next one? I have to be a part of it.” Each one gets bigger and grander. We don’t try to make them bigger. If anything, we reduce the length of time we accept videos.”

A stellar collaboration — with NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope inspired his 2018 “Deep Field” composition for symphony orchestra and chorus and led to a collaboration with NASA to create Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of our Universe, a film of stunning imagery captured by the telescope. The accompanying virtual choir features the Eric Whitacre Singers, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and 8,000 singers ages 4 to 87 representing 120 countries.

“I thought that the NASA collaboration would be the last one,” he says. “But when the pandemic hit, I said if there was ever a time for a virtual choir, it’s now. People were going out of their way not to be near anyone. And choirs were branded as super-spreaders. This art form is so delicate and gentle, and suddenly we’re a threat. I thought, It’s important for people to keep a sense of togetherness and compassion and to be delicate with each other as we go through this.”

A virtual choir with a deeper purpose

So he embarked on Virtual Choir 6. He wrote the music and lyrics for the graceful, uplifting “Sing Gently,” and then built a website that included lyrics, sheet music, detailed instructions, guidance videos and an invitation to singers interested in joining the choir. A staggering 41,820 people signed up.

“We made it as accessible as possible,” Whitacre says. “We made videos to help people who don’t sing and have never done this. They record on their phones or whatever they’ve got and send it to us. With everyone staying home, a lot of people recorded themselves in their cars because it was the only quiet place they could find.”

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The “Sing Gently” virtual choir includes a dozen singers with hearing impairments who participate with sign language and a dozen singers with visual impairments who were able to download materials that could be reprinted in Braille. All the singers followed Whitacre’s guide track, a video of him conducting four professional singers.

As submissions poured in, Whitacre’s 16-member team became overwhelmed and unsure it could shoehorn every usable track into the video.

“We always make sure every face is featured in the video somewhere,” he says.

In the end, many were discarded for technical reasons. The 17,572 who made the cut do indeed appear in the video and in the credits, which run for seven minutes. The singers range from 5 to 89 years old and represent 129 countries.

None was excluded for being off-key. The sound? Heavenly.

“Voices have this unique property,” Whitacre says. “When you mass voices, it smoothes out the edges. At a football game, 60,000 people singing sounds terrific.”

Singing to find joy in a time of excruciating separation

Joy is the payoff for Whitacre’s labor-intensive, time-consuming passion.

“It’s the opposite of profitable,” he says. “It costs a small fortune, and none of us makes money. It happens through generous donations. We won’t monetize it. There’s a purity in keeping it what it is now.”

“Sing Gently” “is a communal experience,” he says. “We’re all having an intense shared experience. When the internet became such a part of everyday life, it became a natural extension of the concert hall. These virtual choirs feel like an extension of my aesthetic. They help people feel something larger than themselves.”

The lockdown “has been excruciating,” says Whitacre, who yearns to gather with a group of singers. “I never realized how important it is to me. It’s like oxygen. I will never again take for granted being in a room together making music. There’s a natural thing that happens. Everybody breathes together in exactly the same way. Heartbeats synchronize. Stress levels are reduced. It’s magical.”

The abiding comfort of music

Whitacre just released the album Sacred Veil, a 12-movement work recorded with the Los Angeles Master Chorale in January before COVID-19 shut down live performances. The collaboration with poet-lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri, Whitacre’s best friend, tells an intimate story of love and loss based on Silvestri’s wife, Julie, and her death from ovarian cancer at age 36 in 2005.

“About four years ago, Tony wrote the first poem of Sacred Veil and I set it to music,” Whitacre says. “I told him, ‘I think there’s more here.’ It’s a real journey from the moment they fall in love, struggle to have children, deal with her cancer and death, and then ends with a benediction or surrender. I felt an intense connection to these words, which are so layered and beautiful.”

Whitacre and his wife, an operatic soprano, are expecting a boy in November. Like most people in the clutches of pandemic anxiety, he is nervous about the future. Music, he says, has been a constant comfort.

“It’s essential, like breathing. It has a positive effect on the body and the mind, especially during times of stress and isolation,” he says. “It’s been amazing during the pandemic. It’s really a medicine you can count on.”

To learn more about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, follow on YouTube.

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