{Sun 13 June 2010}   Alone Together
Alone Together

There’s something so poignant about the phrase, “alone together”. It stuck in my head after I saw this CNN video about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir on YouTube. I presume that most readers of this blog have seen it too. I wonder whether the same phrase at the end of John Vennavally-Rao’s report has also intrigued, delighted and troubled you?

I’m putting down here some random thoughts that haven’t fully coalesced yet into a coherent philosophy, but I’m chasing something/ some things that are hard to see.

The haunting beauty of the choral sound and the inclusive arc of differently coloured faces and backgrounds on the red-curtained stage of cyberspace pleased me deeply. I smiled. I watched it again. I forwarded it to a few friends. I watched it again. I studied a few of the faces — each singing peacefully and unselfconsciously as one can only do in one’s own private space. I felt glad and privileged to have access to those private moments mixed together in an enormous public display that reached and continues to reach across continents and across time. It was/is something precious. I googled Eric Whitacre. I was pleased to read that he’s working on more pieces for the Virtual Choir, perhaps some original work…

And yet, why does it haunt me so? The sense of longing, of reaching out for connection that is communicated to me, the viewer-hearer, is largely a function of the strangeness of the presentation, not of each individual’s communication. Most of the singers look extraordinarily serene, like people absent from the world because they’re in “flow” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).  People who are physically together when singing together, no matter with how much joy or harmony, don’t wear exactly the same expression as an individual in private rapture. Or didn’t, anyway. As we reach out for connection in this new way, are we inviting others to steal a part of our soul that previously only revealed itself to the walls or landscapes of our private spaces?

Even as I delight in the confluence of digital media that make possible this self-revelatory joining of humans who know nothing of each other besides that all (all of those who are featured, anyway) can sing, I cannot help but be conscious of all those intervening media, “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data”. They make the fragile meaning that could not exist if the electricity failed.

But isn’t this just a logical 21st century extension of the artistic process? Artists have always used materials and techniques to transform base material into something else. It’s what artists do. Why does this seem different to me?

Partly, it’s the ephemerality of it — the is-and-notness that flickers on and off at the whim of the switch. Also, it’s the way the human sources are both enhanced by and subsumed in the media. Their “togetherness” is something that the media help us (and them) to imagine. We imagine willingly, but the compulsive clarity of video entices us to go further — to believe, despite ourselves. This mixture of the not-real and the real is disturbing. The putative “togetherness” (not-real) painfully emphasizes the aloneness (real) of the participants. We see each person’s aloneness clearly, multiplied a hundred times in an instant. Usually, we would suspect it only by extension from our own aloneness, when we can risk being conscious of that, and only one-by-one, from the occasional glimpses provided by circumstance.

On the other hand, we also see some elements that inspire us to seek togetherness… that give us hope. Despite our different countries, languages, cultures, genders and body types, we can all sing; we all aspire to make beautiful sounds; we can participate and cooperate to harmonious effect (albeit with the help of a strong guiding and editing hand); we all seek out private time or space to connect with ourselves, we can all be receptive; we can all be gentle. We also all enjoy and depend on similar electronic equipment for our communication and pleasure, so we are patient with each other as we struggle with its vagaries.

As the days passed, my thoughts turned to the creator/conductor/guide/editor — the uber-artist who put it all together. The reach of the work in terms of participants and, even more, of audience, and the fact that the harmony is created in his own private space by one over/above/outside the private spaces of those making the sounds, made me think of him in godlike terms. He is a small god, but with incredibly long digital arms. And now we can all be like him. We “little kings” are no longer held in check by the limitations of our physical resources. We are let loose with the power to make our megalomaniac dreams come true — in a sense — but we pay with the constant awareness of our aloneness.

This aloneness has always been the human condition, but before these digital joinings in eternally-preserved and universally accessible public spaces, we only dipped in and out of this awareness occasionally. Well, there is no way back, unless we have a Butlerian Jihad in our future. Until then, humanity is working out the Zen of our growth into full and constant consciousness of how we really are — just google the phrase “alone together” to see how much this concept exercises us in the current age.

Published simultaneously on www.transliteracy.com.

Zach Crowle says:

I’m an avid fan of Eric Whitacre. His music is astoundingly beautiful. I am also extremely interested, as it happens, in the effect of isolation (and our fear of it) on the human condition. This is one of the most interesting things I have ever read, and I thank you. It really made me think about our place in the world, and the possibilities that the connection of the internet can provide on our collective awareness. Thank you.

Tia says:

Hi Zach,

Thanks for stopping by to comment. Your thoughts have made me think again, too! You use the word “isolation” where I spoke of “aloneness” and I realised that part of the mystery of my mixed feelings in watching the Virtual Choir arises from the fact that “aloneness” is a broad and fairly neutral term which encompasses many concepts. These might be “isolation”, “separateness”, “independence”, “hermitage”, “retreat”, “loneliness”, “privacy”, “responsibility”, etc. These are positive and negative, and sometimes the same one may be both desirable and undesirable, depending on context. We need our “aloneness”, but we do not want to be swamped by it and we are afraid of the possibility that if we embrace it, we might not be able to find our way back to community.

I too am a Whitacre fan, and the Virtual Choir is an astounding achievement that brings people together from all over the world in a new way. It is possible to build relationships and have real human interaction online. I am doing it with the members of the growing Music Educators Professional Learning Network http://musicpln.org

Even when performing “live” with an ensemble, we each still have our own personal revelry and serenity. We still are the one experiencing that moment. Doing it actually in the same space with other humans has an indescribable characteristic of “sharing each other’s energy” however. Also, ensembles who rehearse together automatically build their own community, and it is that community that is as memorable as the actual performance.

Can you build community online? Most certainly yes. Can you build community with a composite virtual choir? Only if all of those individuals are given the opportunity to commune online outside of simply uploading their individual performances to YouTube.

There is a Facebook Fan group for the Virtual Choir, but it is not a community for the performers. Perhaps there is a way to make this kind of composite choir experience extend into a vibrant community online? Oh, the possibilities!

Tia says:

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for your comments. It’s great to feel the energy of your commitment to building online community with music-makers. What kind of online “communing” did you have in mind for the participants in a virtual choir?

Anne says:

I fell in love with Whitacre’s music about 7 years ago. I purchased a CD, some of the music and I have been teaching it to myself, singing along with the CD. I have tried to convince the directors for two of the three choirs that I sing with, to try his music. The largest choir even tried out “A Boy and A Girl”, but too many members didn’t like some of the words. I liked the reaction to the performance of “A Boy and A Girl” from Delia on April 14th that gave an explanation that perhaps might change the choir members minds. We will have to see about that. The select group out of that choir is quite small at the moment at least, (we have lost two members to the Minnesota Chorale) and the director thought we were too small to do any of the 7 pieces that I had purchased to show to him. I plan to try again after I buy a few more.

The virtual choir may be my only chance to perform Eric Whitacre’s music with others. The high I get, the electric charge when connecting with the other singers and the audience, when singing in a choir, a cappella or combining with the orchestra to make wonderful music, would not be present while singing in my office. Maybe that was what made me want to cry. That reaction when listening to the virtual choir doing “Lux aurumque” did seem strange. Still, at least I could be a part of something tangible.

Tia says:

Hi Anne,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. My husband and I are part of a small singing group (definitely not a professional choir), but I do know what you mean when you talk about the “charge when connecting with other singers and the audience”. That is wonderful and I don’t think the same thing can be achieved remotely, even if you were singing together simultaneously. However, your thought that at least you could be “part of something tangible” has really stuck in my mind. We often are so busy reaching for an ideal that we don’t take advantage of what is available. Surely it must be better to sing “with” others in some way than not to share the music! And especially if one doesn’t have anyone close by to sing with, this is a brilliant solution.

Well, communing in a traditional ensemble occurs during rehearsals. The process of learning the music provides laughs, frustrations, and shared determination and joy. In order for a virtual choir to have a similar experience, there would have to be a venue where they could collaboratively practice in some way, perhaps by voice part. It’s an interesting idea to ponder.

Tia says:

Yes, Thomas, that’s an interesting thought. A communal space to experiment with the imperfections of making music, rather than just the delivery of the polished performance. That’s definitely where relationships would really be deepened.

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