LINCOLN CENTER, 2 April — At the nexus of TED’s elitism, Thomas Kinkade’s populism, Sigfreid & Roy’s beauty, and Ashton Kucher’s charisma, composer Eric Whitacre premiered here tonight Virtual Choir 3 – Water Night. A virtual choir aggregated from 3,746 parts sung by vocalists across the globe and posted as online videos, Water Night is an exceptional example of the power of online media and virtual experience.
• Above: 2010: Virtual Choir 1 – Lux Aurumque – 243 videos
• Below: 2011: Virtual Choir 2 – Sleep – 2051 videos
• Bottom: 2012: Virtual Choir 3 – Water Night – 3746 videos
For me the most successful of the trio, the one that moved me to tears, is Virtual Choir 1. Somehow it found the most compelling balance of instantiated humanity and global community. To be sure Whitacre et al’s 2nd and 3rd installments are still beautiful, and still sublime, yet in the ever-growing numbers they begin to take on Matrix-like or Borg-like qualities. Of course even Virtual Choir 3’s 3,746 videos is the smallest trifle of humanity on a planet that surpassed 7 billion souls six weeks ago on about 12 March 12. 3,746 is in fact such a small number compared to 7,010,000,000. Perhaps in Whitacre’s visualization of so much humanity we see a glimpse of our true infinitesimalness in the human ocean on earth. There is no beehive, no ant colony, where the individual is as tiny as in the global ocean of humanity. That so many of our egos still find a way to imagine ourselves unique is remarkable. To be fair, the depersonalization I worry about is clearly neither Whitacre’s intention nor the experience of any of the participants who truly seem to become magnificent parts of a larger whole.
Again, while both are still remarkable, Virtual Choir 3 is gargantuan in setting, Virtual Choir 2 with it’s cosmic setting is a little new-agey, and it is Virtual Choir 1 that offers for me the best sense of global connection, of unity and diversity. Regardless of where you calibrate your own litmus test, these are extraordinary human collaborations that would be realistically impossible sans the global village of the World Wide Web. As much as Philip Rosedale or Pardo, Kaplan & Chilton, Whitacre and his many collaborators have created a massively “multisinger” virtual world of exceptional beauty and grace. A Massively Multiplayer Online Part-Singing Game or “MMOPSG” if you like.
As a rabid convert to the church of Free Culture, I tend to want everything to be all Open all the time, yet no one less than my hero Charlie Nesson has argued that all closed is a prison, all open is a desert, and that in his judgement the richest culture is found in a mix of open and closed. Eric Whitacre has done an impressive job of tightly controlling his copyrights and making a fortune, and providing freely downloadable music and videos in support of the Virtual Choir projects. It may be worth noting that while thousands had fun and experienced participation, one got rich and famous, and no doubt every single singer in the videos is also among the legions who then buy Whitacre’s records, still Whitacre has embraced the best of the World Wide Web.
• Instruction video for participants in Virtual Choir 2 – Sleep:
For me the most important thing to say about Whitacre and Virtual Choir is that is an extraordinary virtual experience, a compelling evocation of human possibilities, and a celebration of the true power of humans interacting with their technology. A love poem in a world where Hollywood and Old Media so often try to villanize technology and New Media. My caveats should take nothing away from the importance of this achievement.
Still, as so many have done and strive to do, Whitacre has harnessed connectivity, community, and virtuality to dramatically advance his career. I have no doubt that each and every participant had a real and powerful experience and is delighted to later pay for his records, nonetheless this is a common contemporary “perversion” of new media. In the old media of the 20th century we had the famous “six rich white guys” who controlled the bulk of global media. It was the definition of one-to-many communication. In the online world of of this century, we celebrate many-to-many communication even as “nodes” like Whitacre or the yet larger hubs like Amazon or Facebook in some senses recapitulate the hegemony of the century past.
The legions participating in Whitacre’s projects and the unending hordes embracing Facebook all find tremendous gain and little loss in their participation on these platforms. Yet just as there is something paradoxical about Web2.0 projects using Open Source tools to create their proprietary platforms, so it is noteworthy that Whitacre’s nation of copyrights and profits is, if not built on the back of, then at least enhanced by, his followers willingness to post works on YouTube and apply a Creative Commons Attribution license to it for his aggregatory purposes. (The parts for Virtual Choir 3 were uploaded directly to Whitacre’s Virtual Choir website)
Incredible community building meets incredible self-promotion. Eric Whitacre has been called “the Deepak Chopra of choral music.” Perhaps he is its J. K. Rowling.
R E L A T E D . M A T E R I A L S
• Whitacre’s TED Talk: