How Lincoln Center’s 1,000 Singers United New York

This weekend’s ‘Public Domain’ will bring together 1,000 volunteer singers from around New York City, crowd-sourced from an online campaign, to participate in a choral event whose lyrics originate from online autocomplete searches.

Michael Kemp/Alamy

One of the largest choral events in Lincoln Center history will take place on Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza on Saturday, Aug. 13 at 5 p.m.

A thousand volunteer singers from around New York City, crowd-sourced from an online campaign, will participate in a choral event whose lyrics originate from online autocomplete searches.

the public domain is co-presented by the Mostly Mozart Festival and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and will be conducted by Simon Halsey, choral director of the London Symphony Orchestra, with choreography by Annie-B Parsons.

For the public domain, Lang, whose “Simple Song #3” was nominated for best original song at the 2015 Academy Awards, “crowd sourced” the lyrics by inputting the phrase “One Thing We All Share is Our…” into internet search engines and allowing them to autocomplete. After editing out the pornographic, the political and the profane, the list of responses was varied and an attempt by him to get a true cross section of what people in the world thought and felt they shared.

The lyrics he selected from his search range from the profound to the mundane. “Our Passion,” “Our Time,” “Our Pain,” “Our Power to Choose,” and “Our Favorite Sandwich” are among the phrases to be sung in what will be an enormous 25-part choral canon for 1,000 singers.

Lang explained to The Daily Beast, “[A] while back I started thinking, if I really want to make something that has universal meaning, I have to figure out what universal meaning is in this age, so I started making texts by asking questions of the internet and making the texts out of the answers without editing them too much…and what you’re left with is a bunch of really serious answers and the things that people reveal to the ether daily.”

Similarly the Lincoln Center team used an online campaign to attract and crowd source volunteers for the project from throughout New York City. The main Lincoln Center page for registering to volunteer listed five different rehearsal groups, four throughout Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, to get as wide a variety of participants as possible. Registration opened in March and closed July 31.

The participation requirements posted online were purposefully broad and inclusive. “No singing experience required! You don’t need to read music. You do need enthusiasm, the desire to join in an extraordinary communal experience and the willingness to make time to rehearse before you make your debut at Lincoln Center!

The volunteer campaign was very successful and they filled up far more quickly than expected. A wide cross section of New Yorkers volunteered, many without singing experience of any kind.

Amateur participants were a key part of Lang’s vision for the piece, to have the color and character of each city in which it is performed expressed through the volunteers’ performance.

The Daily Beast sat down with several of the volunteer participants during a break in rehearsals for the public domain at St. John the Divine Cathedral last week. This was one of several rehearsals of 200 volunteers each. Amazingly, the entire ensemble cast of 1,000 will meet to rehearse en masse only once, on Saturday morning the day of the actual show.

Shiva Ganapathy, who works in financial services in Manhattan, told The Daily Beast he brought his 16-year-old son so they could experience participating together from different perspectives,

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“I was trained in singing in a different tradition, which is Southern Indian classical music, so I could sing. The idea came from my wife. She thought it could be a unique experience, not just singing in the outdoors along with thousands of people, but also it gives an opportunity for my son, Ajaya. He sings for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. He’s a trained singer in this tradition. I’m a trained singer in a different tradition, so we said, ‘Why don’t we do this as a father-son bonding?’”

Amelia Blanquera, a young woman volunteer of Filipino descent who lives in Brooklyn and is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Columbia University, heard about the public domain while attending the Lou Reed Celebration at Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

In between live tweeting her observations of the rehearsals she told The Daily Beast, “I like the idea of community and so I'm curious to know how it will be on Lincoln Center in the Plaza… I'm writing about New York City community gardening and so I'm interested in community and I'm interested in how people in New York City get together and form community. How you take people who have all different kinds of backgrounds and different experience levels and make it work? It’s amazing to watch happen.”

Andel Koester, a young female Associate Director at the non-profit Results for America said, “I had no idea what to expect. This has been surprising and delightful in so many ways. I described it to my friends as an immersive sound experience more than a traditional choral concert… I just think it's going to be one of these once in a lifetime experiences to just be making noise with so many people.”

Jean Anne Knowlton has a background in the performing arts and choral singing but still finds the public domain a unique experience and opportunity for something positive.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to have so many people come together and really make local energy, musical energy. The planet needs it right now,” Knowlton told The Daily Beast. “There are children here, so it’s kind of a family event for some people I think. We need everything positive that we can manage to do communally to try to make this a better planet right now. This is the opportunity.”

Choreographer of the public domain, Annie-B Parson, added, “This is the best of New York. I think the conceit of New York is that we’re very tolerant and we’re very open. the public domain is a New York kind of community theater. It’s the highest class.”

After the New York premiere outdoors at Lincoln Center, the public domain will be performed in London and Berlin in 2018. But for the New York premiere, Lang is very interested in how the character of New York will be expressed in the performance in ways he cannot predict. That is part of the excitement and unique nature of the project.

“I do think that the character of who’s in each city will come out,” Lang said. “There’s a way in which we New Yorkers, we don’t like to stand in line. We like to complain about things. There are things about our personality which I think will get in to the way the movement works, and the way the grouping works, and the way people move through the crowd, and the way the people in the audience respond to it.”

Lang’s previous crowd sourced choral piece for 1,000 volunteers, Crowd Out, was based on chants he heard at soccer matches in England and was performed in Berlin and London in 2014.

Crowd Out was done in London and it was gloriously chaotic. It was also done in Berlin, and in Berlin they had rehearsed every single movement for months in advance and it came out completely different. It really felt like these are characters of the people who live there,” Lang explained.

the public domain also has a very timely message in this uncertain and markedly ugly period in our political history.

Shiva Ganapathy said, “It fits in very well with the character of this city. We’ve been here, we raised our children and so on, been here as longtime residents. It’s quite reflective of what the city represents, especially in this day and age, it is very relevant. To a large extent, I think the lyrics capture the essence of our times, so I think David Lang has brought together a very interesting set of words, which clearly obliquely refer to a lot of big many things that are going on in our midst.”

For Lang continues, the piece is “an act of faith. No one knows what this is going to be like. The entire cast of people aren’t coming together to rehearse it until that day. We’re not going to know if this thing works, so these people would’ve put in all of these hours of rehearsal and all of this logistical planning just in the hope that something magical will happen. Because they believe that something magical can happen, something magical can happen. To me, that’'s what we are missing in our political discourse.”

the public domain will be performed at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13, outdoors on the Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center. Attendance is free. For information, please visit