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Leading the world in song -- virtually

By Richard Galant, CNN
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Song from a global choir
  • Eric Whitacre conducted a virtual choir of 185 on YouTube a year ago
  • The video of his composition "Lux Aurumque" went viral
  • Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, he's unveiling a choir of more than 2,000 voices
  • Whitacre says it's a sign people want to connect to a community of interest

New York (CNN) -- The lights come up on the stage. The red curtain parts. The conductor begins leading a large chorus, its resonant voices chanting, in Latin, the words of a poem: "Light, warm and heavy as pure gold and angels sing softly to the newborn babe."

But it's no ordinary choir. The conductor stands in his own video rectangle suspended against a dark background on your computer screen. His chorus -- all 185 voices -- is arrayed before him, all the singers in their own webcam boxes, singing from their houses and apartments, in their living rooms, bedrooms and offices, at different times of day and in many countries and continents -- the world's first virtual choir.

A year ago, the release of "Lux Aurumque," composed and conducted by Eric Whitacre, caused a YouTube sensation in the world of choral music, gaining a million views in the first two months. On Thursday evening at the Paley Center in New York, Whitacre unveiled the Virtual Choir 2.0, taking the concept to a new level of complexity, with 2,051 voices from 58 countries singing another Whitacre composition, "Sleep." Video of the event is available on the Paley Center's website.

Whitacre received two standing ovations when he gave a talk about the Virtual Choir at the TED conference in Long Beach, California, in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas Worth Spreading" which it distributes through its website, and it has a partnership with

Watch Eric Whitacre's talk at

The virtual chorus got its start in 2009 when a young woman named Britlin Losee posted a fan video on YouTube, singing the soprano part of "Sleep," an a cappella composition by Whitacre.

"The video was so beautiful and moving and intimate in a way," Whitacre recalled in an interview with CNN, "that it struck me instantly that this would be incredible if we could get 50 people to do this all at the same time, all around the world. They would sing their parts -- soprano, alto, tenor, bass -- upload it to YouTube and then we could cut it together and make a virtual choir."

You can connect with people, with like-minded people around the world, and you never have to leave home.
--Eric Whitacre

Whitacre recorded a silent conductor track, which he posted to YouTube. He put the music on his website for people to download for free. When the webcam videos started coming in, producer Scott Haines put all of the parts together, scrubbing the audio tracks to optimize the sound.

"The reception really caught me completely off guard. It went viral and ... I started getting the craziest e-mails, including one from Chris Anderson, the head of TED here, who invited me to come speak."

Knitting together the parts of the virtual choir requires a huge amount of technical work, and it forces him to conduct in silence while trying to imagine "the perfect performance in my head." Still, there's something about it that's similar to a conventional choral performance. "The virtual choir would never replace live music or a real choir, but the same sort of focus and intent and esprit de corps is evident in both," he said, "and at the end of the day it seems to me a genuine artistic expression."

Is the virtual choir a stunt -- or the start of something new in music? "I'm not sure where it's going," Whitacre said. "In my wildest dreams I think that in a few years, technology will have caught up, and my iPhone 7 or my iPhone 8 will have a live virtual choir, ... a thousand singers around the world singing in real time to my conducting."

Much of the appeal of the virtual choir is its ability to build a community. "The biggest benefit is that you can become part of a community from your kitchen or from your garage or your dorm room," Whitacre said, "that you can connect with people, with like-minded people around the world, and you never have to leave home. I'm not saying you shouldn't leave home and join a real choir, but this gives you a chance to connect with people all over the world."

Whitacre's YouTube choirs have also led to the discovery of talent, in something like the way British singer Susan Boyle came to the world's attention through an audition for "Britain's Got Talent."

"I heard some singers that were just phenomenal, truly excellent, excellent musicians. The kind of singing that they're doing, choral singing, is a little different from what Susan Boyle might do. ... (She's) singing in a solo way, trying to express something. Choral singing is more contained, and even virtually, you're trying to be part of a group of people.

"But I certainly heard a number of people, including Melody Myers, the soprano in 'Lux Aurumque,' I think she should have a record deal. She's phenomenal and she's gotten a lot of attention from it. Just her video on YouTube has been seen something like 80,000 times." Myers is a college student in Tennessee, Whitacre said.

He says he feels lucky to be alive at a time when more and more people are showing an interest in singing as part of a group -- and when "Glee" is a popular program on television. "Maybe it's a reaction to heavily produced pop music," he suggested. "It's real voices and it's quite beautiful and genuine. It's just fun to do. Millions and millions of people all over the world sing together in choirs and I guess now their voices are finally being heard."

Video interview produced by Brandon Ancil, CNN.

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