Virtual voices

The evening hangs beneath the moon, A silver thread on darkened dune. With closing eyes and resting head I know that sleep is coming soon.

These simple words, sung by an 18-year-old economics student, pierce the silence of a room in Cambridge. With a piece of sheet music in her hand, Catherine Shaw is standing in front of a laptop perched at eye-level.

The screen shows two images – on one side, the laptop’s camera-view of Shaw, and on the other, a man conducting, his movements synchronised with a piano accompaniment she can hear on earphones. The man is Eric Whitacre, who in the space of a year has become the most commercially successful choral composer in history. It is his song, “Sleep”, with words by Charles Anthony Silvestri, that Shaw is singing and Whitacre is conducting, as part of a project to create the world’s biggest online choir.

The choir is open to anyone who submits a video by December 31 ( explains how) but the project is being kick-started by a group of choral scholars, scions of Cambridge’s renowned choral tradition. Each has agreed to record their individual contribution during a “Virtual Choir Party Weekend” at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where Whitacre is on a three-month visiting fellowship.

Shaw has downloaded music and moving image from Whitacre’s website, and is now uploading her version of the song to his virtual choir page on YouTube, where it and up to 1,000 others will be edited together. Whitacre is expected to play clips at a Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference in California in February, and the finished audio track will be available online sometime in April, with an audio-visual track following later.

Earlier this year Whitacre did a pilot version of the online choir. A group of 185 singers from 12 countries, most of them professionals, performed “Lux Aurumque”, another of his a cappella works. The resulting video attracted more than 1m views in 60 days. On the back of that phenomenon Whitacre signed a recording deal with Decca and launched a second, much larger virtual choir project, devoted to “Sleep”.

Unlike other contributors, who can make any number of attempts until they get it right, the Cambridge students were given 10-minute slots: no messing about. Shaw does it at one go, beautifully, as one might expect of a soprano who has already inspired Whitacre to write a Grace for her to sing at formal college meals. But not all the student contributors sing with similar assurance. Without the sound of their choral colleagues around them, most admit to feeling exposed.

Staff working on the project say the less successful videos – those with dodgy intonation or excess vibrato – will be toned down in the final mix, to which a cathedral-like acoustical overlay will be added. But no matter how true or massaged the result may be, Whitacre’s virtual choir has put him on the global map. Sales of Whitacre sheet music have been rocketing across Europe and Asia, and such established performers as the London Symphony Chorus and Julian Lloyd Webber are now commissioning him to write for them.

Whitacre’s success stems not just from his technological savvy, but an ability to create music that spans the classical and pop markets. Few of his pieces last longer than five minutes. They are neatly crafted and soothingly harmonised. If you listen to them one after the other, as his new Decca album Light and Gold invites us to do, you can’t help noticing a dreamy sameness. But choirs love Whitacre’s music because it is graceful to sing. Non-classical buffs warm to its simplicity, its mood of spiritual calm and the quiet euphoria it induces.

If the music is tailor-made for a mass market, so is its composer. Whitacre, 40, has the looks of a rock star and the charisma of an evangelist. He was born and brought up in Gardnerville, a small town in Nevada, and did not study music until he was 18. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the soprano Hila Plitmann, and their five-year-old son, but Whitacre says that a permanent move to the UK is possible. Decca has already set up a UK-based professional choir exclusively to record and perform his works.

A skilled public performer, he nevertheless admits to surprise at the media frenzy surrounding his virtual choir. “Technology is developing so fast that in three years we’ll all have our iPhone 7s and we’ll have a worldwide choral concert. That’s my dream. Even with the new iPhone 4, we can do a crisp video-chat anywhere we like, so all it needs is for technology to enable 1,000 people to have a video-chat at the same time. I think we’re close to that.”

So much for the technology. What about the music? Whitacre describes himself as “a fan of the miniature. Maybe it’s my pop background. I have a hard time sitting through Mahler – it’s so excruciatingly long. The human attention span lasts about 10 minutes, so when composing, I try to take the audience on a journey. So far I haven’t found anything that needs to be a longer journey.”

I ask him why, given the perceived spirituality of his music, he has resisted setting religious texts. He says the architecture of liturgical texts is “too formal and unbendable. I’d rather create my own architecture.”

Whitacre does that very well, sometimes using Latin texts created for him by Silvestri, a long-time friend. But there’s a magpie quality in his music that makes you wonder how much is Whitacre and how much he is aping other composers of choral music, from the Renaissance masters to John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.

How does he react to the charge that some of his pieces sound derivative? Most composers would wince at this; Whitacre’s reply is sweet reasonableness. He acknowledges Pärt as “a huge influence”, but says composers throughout history have lifted and adapted ideas from others.

“You mean that [Pärt and others] are the real artists and I’m simply popularising their message? If I hear something and find it to be true, I have no hesitation in using it in my music. With all respect to Pärt, I think you’ll find I have also been influenced by Björk, Thomas Newman, Debussy, The Beatles and Britten. I’ll happily write in another style if it serves to communicate the text or the message. I guess you could call that derivative. But my hope is that, if the intention is pure and honest, people will respond.”

He believes his lack of formal musical training worked to his advantage. “[When I started] I flouted so many traditions without knowing they were there to be flouted. I’m happy I was untethered. There’s great power in being a dumb hick from Nevada. You’re too naive to know what you don’t know.”

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