No. 12 • 2020-07-29

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Watch Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently a worldwide chorus of 17,572 persons united in song.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

More about Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently, plus an interview with creator Eric Whitacre, on CBS This Morning.

(Socially) Distant Creations

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).

No. 4 • 2020-05-27

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Virtual TEDx

Like everything else, conferences have been dramatically reshaped by COVID-19. Some have been cancelled or postponed and others restructured as virtual events. These are interesting experiments and likely to have a lasting impact, since conference travel (and housing) is expensive, tiring, and presents a high barrier to access. Ultimately, it depends a great deal on the particular conference whether it makes sense as a virtual event. One of the biggest experiments will be Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), normally an extremely hot (and expensive) ticket, which is going completely virtual (and free) this summer.

The canonical TED/TEDx Talk is already well established as a video-based medium, so a virtual conference with streaming video presentations makes a lot of sense to me. This Sunday (May 31 at 2pm) is TEDxDrexelU 2020, a free event featuring speakers representing our University and the Philadelphia region:

  • Nancy Volpe-Beringer, Fashion Designer and Project Runway contestant
  • Christopher J. Ferguson, Boeing Test Pilot and former NASA Astronaut
  • Dr. Eric A. Zillmer, Director of Athletics (Go Dragons!) & Professor of Neuropsychology
  • Jane Golden, Executive Director and Founder Mural Arts Philadelphia
  • Nadia Malik, Director of the Porch Light Program, Mural Arts Philadelphia
  • And yours truly.

I’m honored to be presenting alongside such prominent speakers, and I’m excited to hear from all of them. I can’t tell you anything about my presentation, except that it will be a different topic from my TEDxPhiladelphia talk last year. I’ll just say that I’ve thought a lot about how best to utilize the medium of a virtual presentation.

There will be a chance to interact online after each presentation.  I hope to “see” you there!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra is a fantastic series of recorded performances and education programs from one of the best orchestras in the world. A recent offering is the April 2018 premiere performance of Philadelphia Voices, a “crowdsourced city symphony” by composer Tod Machover, which the ExCITe Center had a small role in developing.
  • Fill the Walls with Hope, Rage, Resources, and Dreams [The Philadelphia Citizen] An inspiring project, displaying the work of local artists and poets around the city to uplift, educate and provoke. Click here to view some of the exhibitions.
  • Virtual Tours and Town Halls [National Constitution Center] While the Center is closed, they’ve posted 360° virtual tours of four of their exhibits, and the Virtual Town Halls welcome guest speakers on topics related to our nation and its history.
  • Knight Rider for 8 Cellos [YouTube] – London-based cellist/arranger Samara Ginsberg has been posting some awesome 8-part cello videos, including this one released last week. As a child of the ’80s, and a big fan of K.I.T.T., I felt an obligation to share this. Her performance of The Imperial March is also great.
  • 2020 CX Report [formerly Design In Tech] This week, friend of ExCITe John Maeda posted his annual review of computational and consumer experience trends (he usually presents this at SXSW). As always, it’s stuffed full of great insights, and he’s also posted a 13 minute highlight version.

What I’m creating

We have an ExCITe tradition of occasional Friday musical jam sessions at the Center. Truly live collaboration isn’t really possible over the Internet (there’s too much delay to stay in sync), so my Music & Entertainment Technology Lab students and I have been experimenting with “pass the baton” sessions where we add instrument tracks to quickly hear and build upon each other’s work. It’s not ideal, but you can judge for yourself if it worked well enough for this week’s video.

  Johnny B. Goode