“My God, I can really feel the fabric of society tearing.”
That thought haunted Eric Whitacre as he saw the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in its early days in the US and the UK.
“Suddenly people on the street – you know, people just walking toward you, strangers on the street – they became a threat, they became dangerous,” Whitacre said in a recent phone interview.
Awareness of that danger heightened in March when a choir in Washington state made headlines for a coronavirus outbreak that infected dozens of choir members and left two dead. Those headlines were followed by a widely reported medical verdict declaring singers to be virus “super spreaders.”
Suddenly, the joyful act of singing in a choir had become deadly.
And suddenly Whitacre, who in 2010 created the virtual choir, saw a deeper and more urgent purpose for his creation.
Over the last decade, Whitacre’s virtual choir has grown into a global phenomenon that has brought thousands of singers together in video recorded performances. Those five earlier performances garnered tens of millions of views online
“If ever there was a time for a virtual choir, we need to make one now,” Whitacre said.
Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently is his largest virtual choir to date, bringing together 17,572 singers from 129 countries. The project joins the voices of professional singers with those who have never sung in a choir and unites people of very different ages and backgrounds. Whitacre composed the work Sing Gently specifically for this virtual choir.
At a time when simply being together is a global health threat, Whitacre says that Virtual Choir 6 has created community – and, moreover, a diverse one.
“We have all races, colors, creeds represented. We have singers as young as 5 and as old, I think, as 92 or 93 in this virtual choir. And then this time around we had tools and helped people who normally would not be able to sing in a traditional choir at all,” Whitacre said of Virtual Choir 6. “So, I think we had 14 or 15 deaf singers. They’re not singing but they’re signing along with us. There’s members of the Cystic Fibrosis community. These are people that, because of their condition, couldn’t possibly sing in a traditional choir ever – it’s just too dangerous – but they’re able to join.”
Sing Gently is an anthem for an age of pandemic, an uplifting piece with a text bearing a message of kindness and togetherness. Whitacre’s gift for creating singable melodies is in full bloom. His melting harmonies and yearning phrase shapes create the kind of scaffolding for Whitacre’s text that the text itself encourages people to create in times of illness, death and anxiety.
May we sing together always, / May our voice be soft / May our singing be music for others / And may it keep others aloft
But along with the devastation of the pandemic, Whitacre says inspiration for Sing Gently also came from what he describes as the “many acts of service, great and small” that he saw people doing for others who are isolated and in need during these times.
“… I think maybe the best way forward in this is to sing gently, as a metaphor to live compassionately and empathetically with each other, and to do it together,” Whitacre said. “That’s the only way we’re going to make it through it."
In the complete interview with Eric Whitacre, he discusses his inspiration for Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently and his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He also explains the extraordinary effects singers report of singing in virtual choirs, despite the distance factor involved, and why virtual choirs are still controversial in the professional choral community.