Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Virtually singing

Some time at the beginning of last year I saw a video of Lux Aurumque that I found interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it is a piece that was in the repertoire of my choir at the time and it is always useful to hear how it is performed by other choirs, especially when conducted by the composer. Secondly, it was performed by a "virtual choir" made up of people from various countries, many of whom have probably never met each other in real life.

The idea of collaborating over the Internet is certainly not a new idea, nor is the notion of using social media to bring together musicians as was shown by the YouTube Orchestra that performed its first concert in 2009. The virtual choir, however, brings together both of these and the result is, in my opinion, something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. I think that one reason why it has been successful is that it is being driven by the enthusiasm of one of the world's leading contemporary choral composer, Eric Whitacre. I don't doubt that some of his enthusiasm for the project comes from all the extra publicity he is getting as a result but having met some professional musicians who are trying to make a name for themselves I have come to realise that being an unashamed self-publicist is an essential part of the job.

After seeing the first virtual choir video I was keen to try to get involved with the follow up, which was being anticipated at the time. Sure enough, in September of last year version 2.0 of the choir was announced with a piece that I was not familiar with called "Sleep" and a deadline of the end of the year. Having been so keen to get involved I did what anyone else would in my position - I procrastinated. In fact, I was clearly not alone in doing this as the rate of the submissions appeared to be far below what the organisers had expected. At the announcement they stated that they were aiming to getting over 900 but when I posted my video, around about the half-way point for submissions, there were only around 200. In fact, I was secretly trying to get in at exactly video number 200 but then someone gazumped me by posting himself singing all eight parts from bottom bass to top soprano.

As it turned out there was a rush of videos towards the end and this, together with an extension of the deadline by a couple of weeks, meant that there were a massive 1752 participants from 58 different countries in the finished product. My face doesn't appear but my name is there in the credits, going past at around 8:20. For those interested, there was a TED talk when this was produced to explain a bit of the history.

It is now a year on and just today, virtual choir 3 (we appear to have dropped the '.0') has been announced. Again, it is a piece I do not know so I will probably spend a bit of time procrastinating about it but I saw just three hours after it went live that there were already six submissions and now it is up to 27, including two from here in the UK. I don't suppose you can really tell much from this as the rate will probably die down after an initial flurry but it looks like a number of people were chomping at the bit to get started.

This time it they are going a step further, with on-line masterclasses using Google+ hangouts. For the past versions people learnt their own parts individually and sang as they thought best but anyone who has sung in a choir knows that the conductor does more than just wave his hands around hoping that someone will glance his way from time to time. A lot of fine tuning goes on into a rehearsal and things like ends of phrases and breathing are difficult to get right if you are unable to get everyone in a room together. It remains to be seen, however, if Google+ hangouts are the answer.

The deadline for virtual choir 3 is 31st of January and nearly 800 people have registered so far. I'm not entirely sure when I'm going to get a chance to do anything as I will be particularly busy in the run up to a world premier on the previous Friday (quick plug) so we will have to see what happens.

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