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TED2011

Eric Whitacre: A virtual choir 2,000 voices strong

March 1, 2011

In a moving and madly viral video last year, composer Eric Whitacre led a virtual choir of singers from around the world. He talks through the creative challenges of making music powered by YouTube, and unveils the first 2 minutes of his new work, "Sleep," with a video choir of 2,052. The full piece premiered a few weeks later (yes, on YouTube!).

Eric Whitacre - Composer, conductor
After creating and conducting a worldwide virtual choir on YouTube, Eric Whitacre is now touring with an astonishing live choir. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I wanted to be a rock star.
00:15
I dreamed of it, and that's all I dreamed of.
00:17
To be more accurate, I wanted to be a pop star.
00:20
This was in the late '80s.
00:22
And mostly I wanted to be the fifth member
00:24
of Depeche Mode or Duran Duran.
00:26
They wouldn't have me.
00:28
I didn't read music, but I played synthesizers and drum machines.
00:30
And I grew up in this little farming town in northern Nevada.
00:33
And I was certain that's what my life would be.
00:36
And when I went to college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas
00:38
when I was 18,
00:40
I was stunned to find
00:42
that there was not a Pop Star 101,
00:44
or even a degree program for that interest.
00:47
And the choir conductor there
00:50
knew that I sang
00:52
and invited me to come and join the choir.
00:54
And I said, "Yes, I would love to do that. It sounds great."
00:56
And I left the room and said, "No way."
00:59
The choir people in my high school were pretty geeky,
01:03
and there was no way I was going to have anything to do with those people.
01:06
And about a week later, a friend of mine came to me and said,
01:09
"Listen, you've got to join choir.
01:11
At the end of the semester, we're taking a trip to Mexico,
01:13
all expenses paid.
01:15
And the soprano section is just full of hot girls."
01:17
And so I figured for Mexico and babes,
01:21
I could do just about anything.
01:23
And I went to my first day in choir,
01:26
and I sat down with the basses
01:28
and sort of looked over my shoulder
01:30
to see what they were doing.
01:32
They opened their scores, the conductor gave the downbeat,
01:34
and boom, they launched into the Kyrie
01:36
from the "Requiem" by Mozart.
01:39
In my entire life I had seen in black and white,
01:41
and suddenly everything was in shocking Technicolor.
01:44
The most transformative experience I've ever had --
01:48
in that single moment, hearing dissonance and harmony
01:51
and people singing, people together,
01:54
the shared vision.
01:57
And I felt for the first time in my life
01:59
that I was part of something bigger than myself.
02:01
And there were a lot of cute girls in the soprano section, as it turns out.
02:03
I decided to write a piece for choir
02:07
a couple of years later
02:10
as a gift to this conductor
02:12
who had changed my life.
02:14
I had learned to read music by then, or slowly learning to read music.
02:16
And that piece was published,
02:19
and then I wrote another piece, and that got published.
02:21
And then I started conducting,
02:23
and I ended up doing my master's degree at the Juilliard School.
02:25
And I find myself now in the unlikely position
02:27
of standing in front of all of you
02:29
as a professional classical composer and conductor.
02:31
Well a couple of years ago,
02:35
a friend of mine emailed me
02:37
a link, a YouTube link,
02:39
and said, "You have got to see this."
02:41
And it was this young woman who had posted a fan video to me,
02:43
singing the soprano line
02:46
to a piece of mine called "Sleep."
02:48
(Video) Britlin Losee: Hi Mr. Eric Whitacre.
02:50
My name is Britlin Losee,
02:53
and this is a video
02:55
that I'd like to make for you.
02:57
Here's me singing "Sleep."
02:59
I'm a little nervous, just to let you know.
03:05
♫ If there are noises ♫
03:10
♫ in the night ♫
03:19
Eric Whitacre: I was thunderstruck.
03:25
Britlin was so innocent and so sweet,
03:27
and her voice was so pure.
03:30
And I even loved seeing behind her;
03:32
I could see the little teddy bear sitting on the piano behind her in her room.
03:34
Such an intimate video.
03:37
And I had this idea: if I could get 50 people
03:39
to all do this same thing,
03:41
sing their parts -- soprano, alto, tenor and bass --
03:43
wherever they were in the world, post their videos to YouTube,
03:45
we could cut it all together and create a virtual choir.
03:48
So I wrote on my blog, "OMG OMG."
03:51
I actually wrote, "OMG,"
03:54
hopefully for the last time in public ever.
03:56
(Laughter)
03:59
And I sent out this call to singers.
04:01
And I made free the download of the music
04:03
to a piece that I had written in the year 2000
04:06
called "Lux Aurumque," which means "light and gold."
04:08
And lo and behold, people started uploading their videos.
04:11
Now I should say, before that,
04:14
what I did is I posted a conductor track
04:16
of myself conducting.
04:18
And it's in complete silence when I filmed it,
04:20
because I was only hearing the music in my head,
04:23
imagining the choir that would one day come to be.
04:25
Afterwards, I played a piano track underneath
04:28
so that the singers would have something to listen to.
04:30
And then as the videos started to come in ...
04:33
(Singing)
04:38
This is Cheryl Ang from Singapore.
04:42
(Singing)
04:46
This is Evangelina Etienne
04:51
(Singing)
04:53
from Massachusetts.
05:00
(Singing)
05:03
Stephen Hanson from Sweden.
05:05
(Singing)
05:07
This is Jamal Walker from Dallas, Texas.
05:09
(Singing)
05:12
There was even a little soprano solo in the piece,
05:20
and so I had auditions.
05:22
And a number of sopranos uploaded their parts.
05:24
I was told later,
05:26
and also by lots of singers who were involved in this,
05:28
that they sometimes recorded 50 or 60 different takes
05:30
until they got just the right take -- they uploaded it.
05:33
Here's our winner of the soprano solo.
05:36
This is Melody Myers from Tennessee.
05:38
(Singing)
05:43
I love the little smile she does right over the top of the note --
05:58
like, "No problem, everything's fine."
06:01
(Laughter)
06:03
And from the crowd
06:05
emerged this young man, Scott Haines.
06:07
And he said, "Listen, this is the project
06:09
I've been looking for my whole life.
06:11
I'd like to be the person to edit this all together."
06:13
I said, "Thank you, Scott. I'm so glad that you found me."
06:15
And Scott aggregated all of the videos.
06:18
He scrubbed the audio.
06:20
He made sure that everything lined up.
06:22
And then we posted this video to YouTube about a year and a half ago.
06:24
This is "Lux Aurumque" sung by the Virtual Choir.
06:27
(Singing)
06:29
I'll stop it there in the interest of time.
07:49
(Applause)
07:52
Thank you. Thank you.
07:56
(Applause)
08:00
Thank you.
08:08
So there's more. There's more.
08:10
Thank you so much.
08:13
And I had the same reaction you did.
08:15
I actually was moved to tears when I first saw it.
08:17
I just couldn't believe the poetry of all of it --
08:19
these souls all on their own desert island,
08:22
sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.
08:26
And the video went viral.
08:29
We had a million hits in the first month
08:31
and got a lot of attention for it.
08:33
And because of that, then a lot of singers started saying,
08:35
"All right, what's Virtual Choir 2.0?"
08:37
And so I decided for Virtual Choir 2.0
08:39
that I would choose the same piece that Britlin was singing,
08:41
"Sleep," which is another work
08:44
that I wrote in the year 2000 --
08:46
poetry by my dear friend Charles Anthony Silvestri.
08:48
And again, I posted a conductor video,
08:50
and we started accepting submissions.
08:52
This time we got some more mature members.
08:55
(Singing)
08:58
And some younger members.
09:08
(Video) Soprano: ♫ Upon my pillow ♫
09:11
♫ Safe in bed ♫
09:16
EW: That's Georgie from England. She's only nine.
09:20
Isn't that the sweetest thing you've ever seen?
09:23
Someone did all eight videos --
09:26
a bass even singing the soprano parts.
09:28
This is Beau Awtin.
09:30
(Video) Beau Awtin: ♫ Safe in bed ♫
09:32
EW: And our goal -- it was sort of an arbitrary goal --
09:39
there was an MTV video where they all sang "Lollipop"
09:42
and they got people from all over the world to just sing that little melody.
09:44
And there were 900 people involved in that.
09:47
So I told the singers, "That's our goal.
09:49
That's the number for us to beat."
09:51
And we just closed submissions January 10th,
09:53
and our final tally was 2,051 videos
09:56
from 58 different countries.
09:59
Thank you.
10:01
(Applause)
10:03
From Malta, Madagascar, Thailand, Vietnam,
10:06
Jordan, Egypt, Israel,
10:09
as far north as Alaska and as far south as New Zealand.
10:12
And we also put a page on Facebook
10:15
for the singers to upload their testimonials,
10:19
what it was like for them, their experience singing it.
10:22
And I've just chosen a few of them here.
10:25
"My sister and I used to sing in choirs together constantly.
10:27
Now she's an airman in the air force constantly traveling.
10:29
It's so wonderful to sing together again!"
10:32
I love the idea that she's singing with her sister.
10:35
"Aside from the beautiful music,
10:37
it's great just to know I'm part of a worldwide community of people I never met before,
10:39
but who are connected anyway."
10:42
And my personal favorite,
10:44
"When I told my husband that I was going to be a part of this,
10:46
he told me that I did not have the voice for it."
10:48
Yeah, I'm sure a lot of you have heard that too.
10:50
Me too.
10:52
"It hurt so much, and I shed some tears,
10:54
but something inside of me wanted to do this despite his words.
10:56
It is a dream come true to be part of this choir,
10:59
as I've never been part of one.
11:02
When I placed a marker on the Google Earth Map,
11:04
I had to go with the nearest city, which is about 400 miles away from where I live.
11:06
As I am in the Great Alaskan Bush,
11:09
satellite is my connection to the world."
11:11
So two things struck me deeply about this.
11:14
The first is that human beings
11:17
will go to any lengths necessary
11:19
to find and connect with each other.
11:21
It doesn't matter the technology.
11:24
And the second is
11:26
that people seem to be experiencing an actual connection.
11:28
It wasn't a virtual choir.
11:31
There are people now online that are friends; they've never met.
11:34
But, I know myself too, I feel
11:37
this virtual esprit de corps, if you will, with all of them.
11:39
I feel a closeness to this choir --
11:42
almost like a family.
11:44
What I'd like to close with then today
11:47
is the first look
11:49
at "Sleep" by Virtual Choir 2.0.
11:51
This will be a premiere today.
11:53
We're not finished with the video yet.
11:55
You can imagine, with 2,000 synchronized YouTube videos,
11:57
the render time is just atrocious.
12:00
But we do have the first three minutes.
12:03
And it's a tremendous honor
12:05
for me to be able to show it to you here first.
12:07
You're the very first people to see this.
12:10
This is "Sleep," the Virtual Choir.
12:12
(Video) Virtual Choir: ♫ The evening hangs ♫
12:17
♫ beneath the moon ♫
12:21
♫ A silver thread on darkened dune ♫
12:30
♫ With closing eyes and resting head ♫
12:42
♫ I know that sleep is coming soon ♫
12:52
♫ Upon my pillow, ♫
13:07
♫ safe in bed, ♫
13:12
♫ a thousand pictures fill my head ♫
13:20
♫ I cannot sleep ♫
13:32
♫ my mind's aflight ♫
13:35
♫ and yet my limbs seem made of lead ♫
13:40
♫ If there are noises in the night ♫
13:54
Eric Whitacre: Thank you very, very much. Thank you.
14:07
(Applause)
14:10
Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.
14:20
(Applause)
14:23

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Eric Whitacre - Composer, conductor
After creating and conducting a worldwide virtual choir on YouTube, Eric Whitacre is now touring with an astonishing live choir.

Why you should listen

Eric Whitacre began his music career singing in his college choir; by 21, he had written his first concert work, Go, Lovely Rose, and advanced to Juilliard, where he studied under John Corigliano. Today, he has published more than four dozen choral works, conducted in some of the most esteemed halls in the world, and featured on dozens of recordings. His album Cloudburst and Other Choral Works earned him a Grammy nomination in 2007, as did his Decca debut Light & Gold, while his new album, Water Night, debuted at #1 in US iTunes classical charts.

You may know him, too, as the creator and conductor of the virtual choir, a network of YouTube-connected singers whose voices blend together online to become true magic. And he's now touring with the Eric Whitacre Signers, a 28-voice choir (yes, they're all in the same room).

The original video is available on TED.com
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