We like to think of ourselves as individuals (the slightly mocking term “special snowflake” comes to mind), and that there’s great truth, richness and value in our being distinct. We worry, act, judge, and take pride at that level – that level of “me” or “you”, that one person did this thing, deserves that reaction. At the same time, when we allow ourselves to be just an indistinguishable small piece of something bigger, amazing things can happen.
The concept of emergence, or Aristotle’s “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is perhaps one of the reasons I love choral music so much, and why my original posterous blog was facetiously called “epic.gibberish” (“‘epic gibberish’ is the term I like to use to describe my favourite type of music – over-the-top, climactic orchestrations with godly choral voices raining fire and brimstone upon my puny mortal head. Epic because self-explanatory, and gibberish because while I may sometimes understand the language the song is in, I don’t really care much if I don’t; it just makes the epic that much more awesome because it is beyond my plebeian comprehension”).
I remember hearing a joke that if you can’t sing, you’re in a choir. And there’s of course a truth to that joke. I sang in the choir when I was in elementary school. I’m not a great singer by far – I hope I’m not awful, and maybe I could have been a good singer with training and discipline, but the fact is I’m not. And I struggle, certainly, with karaoke (boohoohoo).
But in a choir, the music that we could make was impressive. One of my favourite things was singing rounds. It’s so simple a bunch of impatient third graders can do it, but the effect is magical, and one you can’t get it by your lonely little self. (Although thanks to the wonders of technology making it so easy to record yourself over and over and sync it all together, you can! As many fantastic YouTube videos prove.)
About a virtual choir.
I was surfing Kickstarter and spotted Eric Whitacre’s Kickstarter campaign for Virtual Choir 4. For those who don’t already know, a few years back, this composer/conductor was inspired by a video posted to YouTube, where a fan sang the soprano line from his composition Sleep. He thought it would be awesome to try to compile a bunch of singers from all over the world, each recording their portion independently while watching a video of him conducting, and then edit them all together to create a choir. Of course, it snowballed from there.
It’s not necessarily a new idea, and Whitacre isn’t without his critics (it was kind of amusing to see a comment in the TEDtalks stream describing Eric Whitacre as the “Justin Bieber” of composition). But regardless, the moment when you watch these examples of hundreds, thousands of people – some trained singers, others not, from almost everywhere and nearly every age – singing individually and then assembled together into this incredible, lush, ocean of sound, dissonance magically transforming into harmony you could barely imagine just listening to the individual voices – at that sheer scale and in the face of the reality of that transformation … it’s really, really hard not to be moved. Or to not get philosophical.
About a bigger picture.
One of the biggest fears that I, and I think a lot of people have, is the sense of losing your individual identity. Death is scary, but what comes after is even scarier – does the “me” that I am, that I know, cease to exist? That’s why conditions like Alzheimer’s are considered so devastating, and why the reassurances of some religions that pain and suffering come from our individual egos, that we are merely tiny manifestations of some greater, larger consciousness – a mere atom in some massive celestial soup – which we will one day return to … bother me. I find that notion viscerally unsettling and disturbing. But when I see something like this take place, where that kind of melding creates something so wonderful and awe-inspiring, it makes me feel that being lost to something bigger isn’t necessarily something so terrible.
Did this kind of end on a weird note? Oh well, then.
But if you haven’t already seen one of these virtual choirs, watch it. It’s lovely and spine-tingling.