Virtual Choir 6: A Review
Eric Whitacre’s Sing Gently was released last week, the latest (sixth) and largest (17,572 singers!) collaborative work from the composer who created the genre with his first Virtual Choir in 2010. These works are widely celebrated as groundbreaking, and this technique has obviously come to greater prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be honest, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Whitacre’s previous Virtual Choirs (VCs). The compositions are fine, but the alignment between performances and visuals has gone from originally experimental (VC1) and ambient (VC3) to overreaching (VC2’s space theme) and bizarre (VC4’s computer-generated characters and cityscape). VC5 arrived at a more natural fit, layering the images of singers over our globe, but that was primarily an orchestral piece set to NASA images, with only a short choral segment.
VC6, Sing Gently. is different, perhaps because it was written and conceived for this moment of separation and social isolation. Whitacre started writing only in March, collected video submissions over a few weeks in May, and then released the final piece on July 19. The piece is a flowing choral song with piano accompaniment, simple, understated, and beautiful. The performance lasts only about 3 1/2 minutes (the remaining 7 minutes of the video are for credits… everyone gets acknowledged!).
The visuals for this work take greater prominence, moving away from the faux conductor and chorus placement of some previous videos, leaning into the current moment of separation. Each singer is depicted as a fractured and irregularly shaped piece (no Zoom rectangles!), but part of a larger mosaic that is fused together, healing the fissures between the individual pieces and later, larger sections.
I think it comes together quite beautifully. I also appreciate the incredible amount of work it must have taken to piece together so many source videos, especially dealing with irregular (non-rectangular) shapes. Current video editing software was not designed for these kinds of projects… (that’s an opportunity for a software developer, btw). A video with just 60 singers brought my desktop to its knees. I’m really not sure how you deal with 17,000+, and my hat’s off to the VC6 team.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I believe good virtual works unlock or enable something that we can’t do in the physical world. Sing Gently does that in two ways:
- Obviously, there is no live choral singing happening in the US or in many parts of the world. There is no other (safe) way to sing together, other than virtually.
- Scale: we can’t stage 17,572 singers for a performance (well, you could, but it’s impractical), and honestly, there are diminishing returns acoustically once you get to around 100 singers. One nitpick is that the scale of this chorus is not visually apparent until 2/3 into VC6.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the project is that many thousands of singers jumped at the chance to participate in this work in a short timeframe. Virtual choirs are a form where nearly anyone can contribute and experience being part of something much larger than themselves (plus, there’s the excitement of catching a glimpse of yourself, either in the visuals or at least the credits). I celebrate this work as a shining example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times. As conveyed by the lyrics…
May we hear the singing
And may we always sing along
Sing, sing gently always
Sing, sing as one
(Socially) Distant Creations
- New York Philharmonic & Shanghai Orchestra Academy Side-by-Side [NY Philharmonic] Members of two orchestras on different sides of the planet share a virtual performance from the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”.
- I Still Can’t Breathe [PBS Newshour] A recent segment on PBS’ nightly news program about this emotional piece by the Chester Children’s Chorus, previously featured in this newsletter. Also, a revised version for 2020, with a message from CCC founder, John Alston.
- This Too Shall Pass: Creativity in the Time of COVID-19 [Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences] A panel on the ways art and creativity often thrive in a crisis, giving form to some of the most powerful expressions of science (next Wed. 8/5).
- RITMO Entrainment Guitar [U. Oslo’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion] A unique remote-control music installation where you watch live via Zoom. It’s truly creating at a distance!
- Send in the Clowns [VOCES8] Your weekly musical theater reference… A beautiful a cappella rendition of Sondheim’s classic by our friends and collaborators across the pond.
What I’m creating
My TEDxDrexelU 2020 talk on Creating at a Distance is now available on ted.com. This was originally streamed on May 31 (feels like longer), but it encapsulates much of the thinking that led me to create this newsletter. Also, use your phone to play along with a performance I created especially for this talk (instructions in the video).