“Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.”
So writes Anne Lamott in her book “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.” She was referring to the gospel music that pushed her along on a mottled journey from nonbelief, but a person needn’t have traveled nor sought such a path to understand the power of a choir.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has interrupted the flow. In late March, a choir practice in Washington state became an early example of a superspreader event. Singing is, unfortunately, one of the more effective ways to propel the virus if it’s present.
By one estimate, 54 million people nationwide participate in choruses ranging from school and children’s choirs to religious groups to professional ensembles. That’s a lot of voices subdued by the specter of a spiky microbe.
So, instead, performers are staying apart and letting technology bridge the distance.
Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream explored the phenomenon — as evidenced recently in Minnesota — in an article published last weekend. The online version (tinyurl.com/st-virtual-choirs) embeds several examples. One performance comes from the established St. Olaf Choir. Another comes from Schola Diffusa (“dispersed choir”), assembled by a St. Paul lawyer via a Facebook call for participants.
Though multitracking is not new — think: “Bohemian Rhapsody” with its many Freddie Mercurys and mates — doing it on video with a large, far-flung group in a medley of recording arrangements is a recent idea. The sounds can be exquisite and the synchronization flaws, if any, imperceptible. Or they can be imperfect but charming in their sincerity. With one’s eyes closed, one would not necessarily know the voices were captured in isolation, nor would one want to dwell on the postproduction work needed to wed them.
Especially when contemplating the biggest virtual-choir endeavor of all — from Grammy-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, the pioneer of the technique, first with 185 singers a decade ago, then in subsequent efforts with 2,000, then 3,700, then 6,000, then 8,000. Last weekend, he premiered Virtual Choir 6, featuring his composition “Sing Gently,” with 17,572 singers from 129 countries.
Seventeen thousand voices brought together in harmony on the internet? Technology, it turns out, can give us a few things, despite the sundry interpersonal ways it takes away. As always, well-channeled passions produce the best results.