Throwing Voices

A few weeks ago, I sang for British Royal Family.

Virtual Choir 4 performs at the Coronation Gala

With only a drop of natural talent and no Julliard training, I could never actually hope to do a solo act on any level, let alone for dignitaries and the Royal Family. However, through the magic of technology, human ingenuity, and the content distribution machine that is the Internet, I was able to be a part of Virtual Choir 4.

Eric Whitacre, an American Grammy Award-winning composer and conductor, stepped beyond the boundaries of the “traditional” when he began the Virtual Choir project in 2009. Inspired by a video sent to him of a girl singing one of his choral pieces, he went on to create a project in which regular people from around the world submit videos of themselves singing vocal lines from his compositions. The first Virtual Choir performance featured 185 singers from 12 countries. This year, “VC4: Bliss” was comprised of videos from 5,905 people from 101 different countries. VC4 was funded through a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $122,000 for technical, creative, and infrastructure support. The technical team set out to create a platform that would support the training materials, practice tracks, singer community, and uploads of over 8,000 videos.

The beauty of a collaborative project is in contributing bits and pieces that ultimately create a whole that is bigger than any individual could do alone. Like the thousands of other people who submitted videos, I set up my laptop and headphones in a quiet, brightly lit corner of my dining room and recorded the alto line for “Fly to Paradise”. The Virtual Choir site provided me with sheet music and practice tracks. I’m a novice when it comes to recording, so I found it frustrating that I didn’t get my line down in one take. Eventually, however, I finally had a version that I was happy with. I hit “submit” and agonized over the slow upload, fearing that my web browser would crash taking my recording with it. Soon enough, the upload was complete. I dropped a pin on the map that showed my location, made sure my name was spelled right, and quickly forgot about the whole experience. I didn’t know when the recordings would be mixed and how long it would take to put them up online.

Near the beginning of July, a post from Eric popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. Virtual choir was up and available on YouTube! Expecting to hear a very mellow, soothing, choral piece with an orchestral background, I was shocked to hear the bass drop and blast into a full electronica score (the practice tracks were done with piano, so I had no idea what the final result would be). The computer animation displayed the faces of all the VC members singing in their home videos. So far, we’ve got over 334,000 hits on YouTube. Although I haven’t found my face in the video yet, I’m still thrilled to know that by fully trusting and sending my little voice into the ether, it has become part of something so amazing.

There I am, nestled among the altos!

So, what’s this about the Royal Family? Somehow, when I decided to participate, I had missed that the Virtual Choir would be performed (video and with some live singers) at the Coronation Festival Gala on July 11 (in honor of the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation). This is the first year that the Virtual Choir was part of the event. 3.1 million viewers tuned in to the BBC to watch the event. My virtual appearance is probably the closest I’ll get to being in front of an audience, on TV, or in the presence of royalty.

It seems like highly collaborative experiences like this one are becoming more and more common. A couple weeks ago, Imogen Heap solicited submissions for her “The Listening Chair” project in which participants would record themselves speaking a phrase. She will then mix the collected voices together into her final piece. Just as it’s becoming common practice for colleges and universities to offer MOOCs and online learning portals, other experiences that seemed stuck in linear time are now become threaded together in asynchronous projects. The Internet sometimes seems to be more vast than anything we can imagine, but hopefully, initiatives like the Virtual Choir can globally connect people and make our world just a little bit smaller.

See the video here.