The 'Cloudburst' That Started Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir Phenomenon

Aug 10, 2017

"In 1991, I had maybe the most profound and transformative experience in my life."

That’s how Eric Whitacre began his February 2013 TED Talk about how his choral work Cloudburst and his history-making Virtual Choir project came about.

On that fateful day in 1991, Whitacre was on a college choir tour in northern California. After spending all day on the tour bus, the singers had stopped for a break and were relaxing beside a lake in the mountains, listening to birdsong, chirping crickets and croaking frogs.

"As we sat there, over the mountains, coming in from the north were these Steven Spielbergian clouds rolling toward us," Whitacre continued. "And as the clouds got about halfway over the valley, so help me God, every single animal in that place stopped making noise at the same time—this electric hush, as if they could sense what was about to happen. And then the clouds came over us and then boom—this massive thunderclap and sheets of rain. It was just extraordinary."

That experience inspired Whitacre to compose what would become his choral work Cloudburst to a poem by Mexican composer Octavio Paz.

And in 2010, Cloudburst would be featured in the first of Whitacre's Virtual Choir performances, sung by vocalists Skyping in from around the world.

In his February 2013 TED Talk, Whitacre conducted a performance of Cloudburst in real time, featuring singers onstage with him as well as joining virtually via Skype.

Whitacre's Virtual Choir has now produced four episodes. Some are champing at the bit to learn what Virtual Choir 5.0 might bring, while other organizations are picking up on the trend and creating virtual choirs of their own.

This week on The American Sound, hear Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst performed by musicians whom Whitacre says have particularly strong insight into his music. Join me for The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.