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.

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5 thoughts on “Alone Together

  1. Hi Tia, I enjoyed your analysis of Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir. I think the first harmony to be heard is inside ourselves, in our bodies, memories and dreams, as Pauline Oliveros http://paulineoliveros.us/ has taught to us. We need space and time alone, in private spaces, but also, we need to listen and to be heard.
    To be ‘alone together’ regardless if is the physical or virtual space the one that is linking us.
    Best wishes,
    Ximena

  2. As a former choir member, I have to say that I enjoyed singing alone and in a group setting. They each brought their own kind of personal peace. Singing alone was time for practice and just emotional release, whereas the choir work was exactly that -WORK. Fun, soulful work, but work nonetheless. But choral performance was quite gratifying, as individual voices magically become, together, more than the sum of their parts. It’s overwhelming to perform with a good choir. It’s bigger than you and sometimes brings forth a voice from you that you didn’t realize you had.
    Whitacre’s virtual choir is an odd mixing of the two kinds of singing, alone and together. Not sure a YouTube video really counts as “alone” though, as any singer would know that someone, somewhere, will see the performance. The singers most probably sang especially for the project, so although they had no physical company, they were performing, not practicing or singing for its own sake. The conversation, the dialogue, between performer and observer is there. The dialogue’s existence guarantees these are not people singing in the shower. So, as with the choir, “alone” is a virtual term in this sense. We need a new term, something between “alone” and “solo performance,” the former term meaning “no other performers, no audience” and the latter meaning “no other performers, in front of an audience.” “Solo broadcast”, perhaps?
    All of that aside, I was quite moved by this project; Something about it validates me yet makes me sad at the same time. I feel validated because half my time is spent online, and yet I feel sad because I don’t know what it says about participation. I don’t know if it’s sad or beautiful that these singers sang to cameras in order to add their voices to something bigger than them. Perhaps it’s both. Perhaps my own life is both sad and beautiful in the same way, a bittersweet song sung between cultures online and off.
    Definitely (virtual) food for (very real) thought. Thanks for posting this.
    -Christine Cavalier (PurpleCar)

  3. Hi Ximena, I hear you saying that to be constantly aware of our aloneness is good, no matter what the medium, and that we need to speak and hear from this awareness. I agree, in principle, but I wonder whether we always have the strength for that degree of self-responsibility? Thanks for the link to Pauline Oliveros.

  4. Hi Christine, I know what you mean about singing together, physically – I’ve not been in a big choir, but I do sing with a small group and I recognise that sense of the voices together becoming “more than the sum of their parts”, and also that happy sense of discovery as it “brings forth a voice from you that you didn’t realize you had”.
    You are right about the intention to communicate with an audience meaning that the participants are “not singing in the shower” (Eric Whitacre’s blog describes exactly how the piece was made, here: http://ericwhitacre.com/blog/the-virtual-choir-how-we-did-it). However, I still felt that it differed from both live performance and physical participatory performance, because a.)each participant could always do it again until their own piece was right and b.)there is a much greater degree of safety in performing alone in one’s own familiar surroundings than with a group full of emotions on a stage.
    Yes, this is yet another experience that requires new vocabulary!
    Tia

  5. The other big mistake that most people make is including what I call ‘perceptions’. By this I mean things which are not facts but simply a matter of opinion.

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