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What Eric Whitacre’s ‘virtual choir’ teaches us about globalization and community

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virtual-choir-whitacre-water-nightThe rise of globalization and the expansion of trade are continuously decried for their disruptive effects, particularly as they apply to “authentic community.”

Indeed, our strides in global connectedness have often come at a local cost, with the small and familiar being routinely replaced by the big and blurry, the intimate with the superficial, and so on. The shift is real and widespread, but it needn’t be the framework of the future.

Disruption is sure to continue as collaboration expands and innovation accelerates around the globe. But while we’re right to be cautious of the merits of such change, we mustn’t forget the opportunities it presents, not just for our economy or personal wellbeing, but for community itself.

Examples of these fruits abound and surround us, from trade to technology to niche hobbies to global missions and so forth, but I was reminded of it recently while watching a “virtual choir” performance by Eric Whitacre, the famous composer and conductor.

Known best for his choral works, Whitacre continues to leverage the technological tools of globalization to gather singers from around the world, each submitting an individual video to contribute to a massive global choir.

In their recording of “Water Night,” for example, Whitacre gathered 3,746 singers from 73 countries:

It’s a beautiful picture of what’s happening across the economy and how our newfound interconnectedness might be leveraged beyond the temporal and material. The new global economy is one that can be looming and intimidating, but it’s also one wherein the personal and permanent can be amplified and elevated — wherein distant strangers can become close friends and co-creators, unlocking new relationships and partnerships that would otherwise have been impossible.

In the following TED Talk, Whitacre explains the backstory:

Whitacre mentions one isolated woman in Alaska who up until now had lacked the sort of community or outlet that would even think of such a project. Now, thanks to the tools now available, she was able to participate in a choir.

Here is a letter she wrote to Whitacre, which he reads for the audience:

When I told my husband that I was going to be part of this, he told me that I did not have the voice for it. It hurt so much, and I shed some tears, but something inside of me wanted to do this despite his words. It is a dream come true to be part of this choir, as I have never been a part of one. When I placed a marker on the Google Earth Map, I had to go with the nearest city which is about 400 miles away from where I live. As I am in the Great Alaskan Bush, satellite is my connection to the world.

Whitacre summarizes the takeaway as follows:

So two things struck me deeply about this. The first is that human beings will go to any lengths necessary to find and connect with each other. It doesn’t matter the technology. And the second is that people seem to be experiencing an actual connection. It wasn’t a virtual choir. There are people now online that are friends; they’ve never met. But, I know myself too, I feel this virtual esprit de corps, if you will, with all of them. I feel a closeness to this choir — almost like a family.

Anyone who has sung in a choir knows that as beautiful as the project above may be, it is no substitute, just as an “online community” is no standalone replacement for embodied relationships. But again, embracing the community benefits of globalization is not a zero-sum game. Whitacre still conducts traditional choirs.

As it relates to trade and commerce and everything else, the lesson is the same. Those “impersonal forces” are not so impersonal after all if we choose to approach them as such. On the contrary, they have the potential to result in a great and mysterious collaboration of creative persons created in the image of God.

“Our work is not just toil, or something that concerns just us,” says Stephen Grabill in For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. “It’s something that creates a huge organic mass of relationships between human persons…The fruit of that tree and all of our creativity is not only products, but relationships…The fruit of our labor is fellowship. It’s community.”

Expanding opportunities for trade and globalization is not the enemy of “authentic community.” It’s bound to pose its risks, but if we can resist the relevant temptations, it poses a profound opportunity to connect the work of our hands to the hearts of our neighbors, wherever they may be.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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