12/27/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Crowd-Sourced Music With a Touch of Chaos

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Eric Whitacre writes and conducts beautiful music. But he's also done something extraordinarily creative that leaps far beyond the notes and bars which have, for thousands of years, captured music on the page. Whitacre has created a continually evolving new art form, the virtual choir, a bottom-up approach to connecting people from all over the world.

A few years ago, a woman sent Whitacre a video she'd created of the soprano part for one of his compositions. That set in motion the idea of the virtual choir. He recorded a video of himself conducting, with a piano background. For his second project, over 25,000 people downloaded, for free, the music to sing their parts for his composition "Sleep." Exactly 2,052 people from 58 countries eventually uploaded their videos. Some of the individual stories were amazing-- a daughter, standing in a hospital room, held her dying mother's hand as she sang her part.

There's a heavy tech side. Uploading a video is just the start. All the thousands of videos have to be woven together, then audio synched. They strip the audio from each video and pull them all together. Then there's the tying in with Google Earth, so when you go to, you can choose to listen to just the singers from one country. Then, as Whitacre described, "there's video-- design, color scheme, architecture, and then, there's the hard-core processing, making all the videos synch."

Two years later, technology had not come to the rescue, so Whitacre embraced the technological challenge and came up with a creative, artistic solution. -- Rob Kall

With each new virtual choir project, there have been new technological and artistic approaches. Two years ago, I interviewed him on my Rob Kall Bottom-Up Radio Show and asked what he wanted to do next. He told me that he didn't want to just make bigger choirs. He wanted it to evolve. He wanted to do a live, real-time choir. But there were problems with latency, or lag time, and he speculated that he'd have to wait for a technological solution--until an "iPhone 8, or something like it" would come along. Back then, I observed that the latency added a variability like chaos theory describes. He replied, "I'm not a religious person, but I would call that God if I were."

Two years later, technology had not come to the rescue, so Whitacre embraced the technological challenge and came up with a creative, artistic solution. "There's a one-second latency," he said. "So I've adapted Cloudburst so that it embraces the latency and the performers sing into the latency instead of trying to be exactly together."

I love the idea of embracing the variation by weaving it into the art rather than "fixing" the problem. This new, real-time, latency-embraced version, has a loose naturalness and susurration of voices, evoking memories of sounds of rain in the forest. In the spaces between the voices, there really are spiritual moments.

I've sung in a few choruses--in a synagogue and in a barbershop chorus. You drive somewhere, then get on a stage. As a writer, I commute from my bedroom to my desk. I love the idea that Whitacre's virtual choir concept allows people to dial in to participate from anywhere in the world, and for the non-real-time ones, at their convenience.

Any doubts Eric Whitacre has created something extraordinary? Consider, I inquired who came up to him after his 2011 TED talk. He replied, "Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Peter Gabriel and Cameron Diaz."

I asked what lessons he'd learned. "People come out of the woodwork and share their disparate talents. It's a kind of crowd-sourcing," he replied. "I was stunned by the effort that people exert connecting with others."

I'd say that connection, in new ways, is where the magic is. Ethan Zuckerman, in his book, "Rewire," says that people who are able to bridge between cultures "have certain superpowers.. They can translate what's wonderful about a culturally specific art form and make it accessible to a new audience." These people build connection bridges. That's what Whitacre does.

"What changes does it make in the lives of the people who participate," I asked. "You are naked, uploading yourself, singing alone, for the entire world to see. And some singers' videos have had over 50,000 views," he answered. Some have put their participation in their resume and some have gotten considerable local media attention.

About six years ago I was bouncing around website ideas with my son Ben, a sound engineer. He described the idea of a site where singers and musicians could lay down tracks and jam with other people's tracks. I asked Whitacre if this fit in with the virtual choir model. He replied, "the trick with this is it all costs a lot of money." He told me that TED founder/organizer Chris Anderson had told him about a related project he was involved with, Infinite Anthem--a piece that never ends, in which people can upload six or twelve bars to add to it.

Personally, I'm hoping that in two more years, in 2016, James Cameron will use one of Whitaker's virtual choirs in "Avatar 2." Whitacre told me he's up for it.

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