Teenage girls wear T-shirts bearing his image and swarm his Facebook page with declarations of love. He plays to sold-out houses all over the world. He just locked in a contract with Storm Models, the London-based agency that represents Cindy Crawford and Alek Wek. And his original sheet music has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, according to the artist and his management.
But he’s not a mainstream pop artist or crossover vampire movie star. Eric Whitacre is a choral composer-and a good-looking one, at that.
“From where I’m standing,” he says, “choral music is really cool.”
If that’s true, it’s safe to say that Whitacre, 41, has had a thing or two to do with that.
The Nevada-born artist has harnessed the power of social media to thrust his form of music-which last visited the mainstream in the ’90s with fluke singing-monk hit “Chant”-into the digital age, forming a community of students, local musicians and fans who perform his work, connected through his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages (more than 67,000 followers combined). In the process, he created something so unique that he was invited to speak about it at the recent TED Conference, the bleeding edge thought-leader symposium in Long Beach, Calif.
The project is called Virtual Choir, and the idea is elegant yet simple: Create a singing group that exists only online, composed of individual singers performing separate vocal lines into their webcams. After a trial run in 2010, Whitacre is set to debut the second Virtual Choir video in early April, timed with the first official wide release of his album “Light & Gold” (Decca), following an Amazon-only release in October 2010.
The notion of a crowd-sourced choir first came to Whitacre in early 2010. “A young woman from New York posted a video on YouTube of her looking into the camera and singing the soprano part to one of my choral pieces, like you might cover a pop tune,” he says. “It was really beautiful and very intimate, and I wrote immediately on my blog, ‘I’ve got this idea.’ ” That small call to action to his fan base resulted in 185 video responses from 12 different countries.
After painstakingly scrubbing and overlaying the audio and video (“Sound quality was all over the map; you could hear some people’s mothers screaming in the background,” Whitacre says), the first Virtual Choir, of Whitacre original “Lux Aurumque,” was posted on YouTube on March 21, 2010. An amalgam of voices and faces from all over the world singing in harmony, like a global community action for the sake of art, it was as moving as it was beautiful. It garnered more than 1.8 million views.
The next edition, of Whitacre’s “Sleep” (also on “Light & Gold”), is a decidedly bigger production. This time, Whitacre received more than 2,051 performance videos from 58 countries, and has enlisted the help of London production company rehabstudio to assemble it.
Decca is using the video as a promotional vehicle for the “Light & Gold” rerelease, which the label hopes will find a new audience through its natural one. “Eric has a younger demographic than the average classical music consumer: the young people who are actually performing his music,” says Joseph Oerke, VP of Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Classics. “They have the drive of already being a part of it, and they know who Eric is. The next level is their parents or their friends.”