“Human beings will go to any length necessary to find and connect with each other.”
—Eric Whitacre, in a 2011 TED Talk
Even anti-maskers, I suppose, are dimly aware of the heightened risks of human contact at this time in our history. Yet intrinsic to who we are as a species is the need to be seen and heard. In short, to be witnessed. To that end, one of the world’s most-performed composers, Nevada native Eric Whitacre, has created his sixth composition for virtual choir, entitled Sing Gently. It will debut Sunday, July 19, at 1:30 PM, EDT on Whitacre’s YouTube channel.
“With everyone unexpectedly far apart from each other, I found myself thinking about the virtues of empathy, community, and service, and a new Virtual Choir felt like a deeply human way to address all of those virtues,” Whitacre said in a media release. “I tried as best I could to keep the lyrics of Sing Gently straightforward and unadorned, to simply say what I felt needed to be said.”
Whitacre might be a veteran at virtual conducting, but this is no less amazing than his previous oeuvres. In fact, it is perhaps his most stunning achievement to date. Written and recorded during lockdown, Sing Gently combines more than 17,000 audio and video files into one, a digital feat he and his production team accomplished along with the multi-award-winning audio engineering group Floating Earth. The Colburn School and The NAMM Foundation also collaborated.
Along with helping guide rehearsals for the all-comer choir, the collaboration included performance coaching, breathing exercises to sing better and to calm anxiety, and best of all, the chance to connect with others who are isolated but who wish to celebrate their humanity.
Here is what one of the participants said about her experience:
This virtual choir has meant the world to me, especially because I’m actively getting chemotherapy right now for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went back and forth about wearing a wig for recording since I have lost all my hair, but in the end, I decided to record just as my authentic self, bald as can be. It’s a reminder to me that even in the toughest times we have music to soothe our minds and bodies.
Research conducted by the University College of London into virtual cultural experiences has shown that singing in a virtual choir boosts participants’ self-esteem and sense of personal agency while reducing feelings of social isolation. In short, it promotes better mental health and expands our capacity to care for ourselves and others.
I have been troubled lately to recognize that we are in this nation in peril because of our national obsession with “winning,” and all that entails, including a hierarchical harshness that sees anyone in need or hurting more than we are as inferior, a burden, pitiable. During these COVIDtimes, I have written virtually nothing in service to my usual classical music beat, but that is only because we at DCMTA, like so many in the arts world, are hampered in our ability to function currently.
Yet of late, witnessing the efforts of so many creators on the local, national, and international level, including what promises to be Whitacre’s gargantuan testament to the power of a community, my faith has been redoubled that the performing arts can help us overcome this sickness that has left us afraid to care.
Sing Gently was written in April 2020 for choir (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) and piano. Sam Glicklich, a student at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is the pianist heard in the recording. Sheet music will be available from Hal Leonard later this year; the copyright is administered by Boosey and Hawkes.