YouTube was a different animal in 2009. Not quite the cultural ubiquity it would soon become, but not some hidden corner of the internet, either. It was popular enough for one singer to upload a clip of herself performing the choral piece "Sleep," but still novel enough that it lit a creative fire for its composer, Eric Whitacre.
From one video singer came many.
That clip led to the birth of the "Virtual Choir" in which independent performances of the UNLV alumnus’ "Lux Aurumque" were stitched together to become a 185-person choir. The result evoked the power and intimacy of a choir singing the Grammy-winning composer’s work, despite none of the performers ever sharing a room.
Fans propelled the first Virtual Choir to 6.5 million views over the course of a decade. Since then, Whitacre did four more Virtual Choirs, each bigger than the last and culminating in last year's "Deep Field" — a collaboration with NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute to celebrate 30 years of the Hubble Telescope.
And that was going to be that. Whitacre took the Virtual Choir to the edges of the known universe. He thought he had explored everything that could be said with the concept.
Then, first in China, then in Italy, a wave of pandemic-born confinement and separation washed over the globe. As the world grasped to forge digital connections when the physical was no longer feasible, Whitacre found himself 10 years ahead of everyone else, in a position to understand immediately what people were facing.
"What I see now is that it has very little to do with making music," said Whitacre, ’95 BA Music. "It has everything to do with being part of a community.
“What we've done over the last several Virtual Choirs is we've leaned really hard into this idea of community. We try to really engage the performers for weeks and weeks and connect them with other singers and make them feel really like they're part of this big thing. The video itself is secondary to the project. It's really about the community building first and foremost."
The end result was the largest Virtual Choir of all, "Sing Gently," featuring 17,572 singers from 129 countries connecting for three minutes from their bedrooms, living rooms, or wherever else the coronavirus has confined them.
The composition came from a place of initial shock and dismay. Whitacre was taken aback by walking down the street and seeing people cross to the other side, even when everyone was wearing a mask. Both by the act itself, and by how normal it had become.
"Every day people were a threat, and even worse in my little corner of the world, chorus singers became super-spreaders," he said. "Early on there were these terrible stories about choirs. They got together and three or four members died just from that one choir practice. The idea that our art form was dangerous, it really rattled me. The whole idea behind the piece was that to sing gently and to sing as one is a metaphor — for what we have to be with each other, compassionate and empathetic."
The making of a Virtual Choir begins with a call for submission on Whitacre's website and social channels. The Virtual Choir Facebook group alone boasts more than 56,000 members. Then his audio, video and web teams, along with executive producers Claire Long and Mike Davies, start to lay the groundwork.
For this edition, choristers were provided a track to sing along to. The website included videos with vocal teachers, psychologists, people discussing the poetry of the lyrics, and more.
"It was like we've been training for 10 years,” Whitacre said. “We knew exactly how much work it was going to be, how much money it was going to cost, and how much we'd have to go out and raise to do this. It's a thing that we couldn't have just done on the fly. There were lessons learned from years and years of doing this."
Submissions poured in. A cornerstone of the Virtual Choir is that anyone who wants to participate is welcomed in, unless there are technical problems with the submission. Along with their voice, each singer gets to see their face in the Virtual Choir video. But the response started to threaten the upper limits of what would be possible. With more than 17,000 joining in, Whitacre and his team had to settle for each person taking up 23 pixels as they smiled out from "Sing Gently."
So listen close, and bring your computer's magnifying glass in. But even at angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin dimensions, the onslaught of submissions kept coming.
It's the tension of art at the intersection of isolation and connection that drives the Virtual Choir, and the tension that's fueled the world’s ad hoc, do-what-you-must-to-get-by year.
"When I look at the visual poetry of all of these disparate videos, people physically isolated from each other, I get choked up because it speaks to a much larger human truth, which I think is that people are incredibly inventive and they will find any way to find and connect, and I'm moved by that," Whitacre said.
"I believe there's a universal phenomenon that people need to sing together. Singing is something that choirs have done since the dawn of time and I think it has not only this metaphysical property, but also a real physiological benefit. I find great optimism and hope in that idea. It makes me think that something like pandemic, or climate change — we're all going to survive it because built into our souls is this genuine altruistic spirit that there's a desire to find connection and be part of something larger than oneself."