Friday, 31 December 2010

Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir

Today is the last day for submitting video entries for Eric Whitacre's latest Virtual Choir project. Here's a short video explaining what it's about:

It seems to be a lot of fun. The end results (for the first project, performing his Lux Aurumque) are quite absorbing, as the individual videos of people singing their individual parts are cut together in a rudimentary, as 3-D montage. No doubt the participants can feel not only a sense of achievement despite being a self-evident diaspora. Also, again, despite being far apart, they are able to come together in some meaningful way. Socially it has a value. Such is the power of the internet.

Given that one can find plenty to appreciate in this project, I'm loathe to pour cold water on it. But this is why I'm writing a blog post on it.

I'm mindful of an interview Whitacre gave to Gramophone Magazine recently concerning the odd list of the world's 20 'leading choirs', in which he said
perhaps the most powerful weapon in the technical arsenal of a choir, choristers in the UK are taught from a very early age not only to sing in tune but to listen to those around them.
Clearly one thing none of the Virtual Choir participants is doing is listening to those around them, as each performs in isolation.

This may be a single fracture in the worthiness of the project but it is a fundamental one. From here we must ask further questions about the authenticity of the music. Are the participants really responding to the conductor? Clearly some indication of tempo and beat hierarchy are necessary to chart a course through the music. That's why there's a bouncing ball in many karaoke machine animations. There's no transaction between the conductor and singers though in this format. Whitacre is indicating the music that he hears in his head. Live conducting is creating music from the idea of how a piece should sound in creative conflict with the cumulative response to that of the ensemble reacting to an indication of that idea. There are a number of facets of tension here which make music what it is.

Scrutinising the authenticity of the performance and maybe even the nature of music is arguably a conceptual issue. What is not is the addition of post production on the choralised conflagration. It is, of course, impossible that several hundred individuals recording themselves in bedrooms will produce a sound that accumulates to recall the acoustic of a church or concert hall.

Immediately, here again is the issue of the live performance being an indivisible part of music making. The sound of individual singers, sections and the whole ensemble as well as the behaviour of the conductor inevitably changes in response to the acoustic properties of the space in which the music is being made.

I don't think that Whitacre is a disingenuous man. He's clearly aware of his own appeal (which is considerable - "Oh my god. I need to have sex with this man right this second." reads one of the comments under the conducting track video for Lux Aurumque). For all its good intentions, Whitacre's project is equally about self-promotion. The videos are self-publicising and give form and figure to that curious truism that choral singing (or indeed any ensemble music making) has no obvious face. There's more gloss as Whitacre speaks in the practised vernacular of a corporate salesman when talking through the score. That's the nature of modern, cross-genre marketing, the neglect or violation of some aesthetic precepts in order to more effectively render others. I remember a recent edition of BBC Radio 3's CD Review in which choral conductor and guest reviewer Jeremy Summerly recalled a visit to a Whitacre concert. Though was impressed by Whitacre's enthusiasm and noted the adoration of the majority of the audience, he took issue with Whitacre's melodramatic tale of heartbreak at having to substitute a friend's text for that of Robert Frost's copyright-embargoed original when publishing his big hit Sleep. Creating the story isn't necessary if the music has its own worth.

Ironically, there are probably many other genres of choral music that would work much more effectively in this composite, multimedia format. It's the homogenised, micro-balanced, acoustic-dependant mush of Whitacre's compositions that seem the least likely to work. But then Handel, Byrd or Brahms aren't attractive, blonde 30-something Americans. Or alive.

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