wed 23/06/2021

Interview: Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choirmaster | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choirmaster

Interview: Eric Whitacre, Virtual Choirmaster

How the Nevada-born composer taught the world to sing on the internet

McDonald's (the hamburger people) are rarely acknowledged for their contributions to the arts, but without them we may never have witnessed the meteoric rise of composer Eric Whitacre. When he was 14, he heard a casting call on the radio for a McDonald's TV ad, persuaded his mother to drive him into Reno, Nevada to join the throng of hopeful teenagers, and ended up making a brief appearance in the "McDonald’s Great Year" commercial.

This didn’t propel him up the yellow brick road to Hollywood, but it did net him $10,000 in royalties, with which he bought an ESQ-1 synthesizer and a Drumulator drum machine. At the time, Whitacre harboured yearnings to become a star of electropop, along the lines of Depeche Mode or Yazoo (“In fact I still do, frankly, but I think that boat has sailed,” he says now).
The hours he put into concocting pop tunes with his musical gadgets he now credits with teaching him the basics of counterpoint and composition.
Whitacre came to London to promote the release of his debut album for Decca, Light & Gold, which has given him his first-ever opportunity to record a selection of his best-known pieces with his own hand-picked choir. The Decca deal looks set to push him to something like superstar status, to which his sweeping blond hair and more than passing resemblance to movie actor Aaron Eckhart are unlikely to prove a hindrance, but he has already become one of the most in-demand modern composers, particularly for his choral music. Thousands of choirs worldwide have bought more than a million copies of his works in sheet-music form. His ear for unexpected chord progressions, spine-tingling harmonies and startling dissonances marks him out as a true original, rooted in classical tradition but somehow managing not to be hamstrung by it.

Light & Gold brings together a bath of his best-known pieces, including “Sleep”, “Water Night”, “The Stolen Child” and “Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine”, as well as his “Five Hebrew Love Songs” and “Three Songs of Faith”. The disc was recorded at St Silas’s church in Kentish Town, and the pieces are sung by his newly formed and all-British Eric Whitacre Singers, with contributions from Laudibus and The King’s Singers.
“It’s a chance for me to conduct my music the way that I’d always imagined it sounding,” Whitacre explains. “The Eric Whitacre Singers are my own group of professional singers, based here in London. I feel like a kid in a candy store when I’m conducting them. Just the tiniest gesture with my hand or my face or with my breath changes everything. Through them, I’m learning an entirely new subtle language that I’ve never really had the chance to use before.”
I paid a visit to the recording sessions in London, and the clarity and precision of the performances had the effect of making the music seem to hang in space like three-dimensional aural geometry. But it isn’t just on disc or in live performance that Whitacre’s music is making its presence felt. Though he specialises in the use of that most traditional instrument, the human voice, to many onlookers he is now best known as the creator of the Virtual Choir, which exploded all over the internet earlier this year. So far, the video of Whitacre’s cyber-chorus singing his piece “Lux Aurumque” (the title is Latin for Light & Gold, and it’s the opening track on his new disc) has scored about 1.4 million hits on YouTube. Edited together from 185 separate clips of singers from a dozen countries performing their individual vocal parts, the performance touched a mysterious chord in both participants and audiences. TV shows like The Choir and Glee have already demonstrated the unquenchable power of collective singing. Harness that to the limitless potential of the internet, and who knows where it might lead?
Eric_with_dog_small“The Virtual Choir took me completely by surprise,” Whitacre claims. “Frankly, putting it together was me procrastinating so I wouldn’t have to compose, and I never thought it would go any further than a small choral circle. Then it started going viral quicker than we had ever imagined. At one point we were getting 20 or 30,000 hits an hour and getting emails from all over the world. I was stunned by it.”
Whitacre is currently putting together the follow-up to “Lux”, and is recruiting new singers to form Virtual Choir 2011 who will perform his 10-year-old piece, “Sleep”. In fact, he oversaw a previous YouTube version of "Sleep" in 2009 which served as a prototype for “Lux Aurumque”, but this time the composer is determined to do it “for real”. The world record for the largest online choir apparently stands at 900, but Whitacre is confident that he can beat that.
Yet he came late to the idea of choral or classical music, let alone becoming a composer of it. The son of a father who worked in unemployment security benefits for the State of Nevada and a mother who was a graphic artist, the young Eric didn’t grow up surrounded by the strains of the great composers. Despite his dabblings with pop bands, he had never considered a serious musical career before he came to the University of Nevada. After auditioning for a music scholarship after he’d arrived at university, he was invited to sing for the choir director.
“I think he could tell I had a good ear but I certainly couldn’t read any music. He invited me to sing in the choir, I said ‘sure’, then I left the room and said, ‘There’s no way I’m joining the choir.’ About 10 days later a friend of mine said, ‘Listen, there are all these cute girls in the choir and they’re taking a trip to Acapulco.’ That was all it took for me to change my mind and join up.”
But in the end it wasn’t girls so much as Mozart who got Eric musically fired up. On his first day of choir practice they sang the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, and Eric experienced a supersized epiphany.
“I didn’t even know what a Kyrie was, because I was raised with no religion, but hearing that music in three dimensions, or four I suppose, all around me I was just totally transformed. After that first rehearsal, I left a completely changed human being. I became the world’s biggest choir geek.”
He wrote his first concert work, “Go, Lovely Rose”, as a thank-you gift to the choirmaster who’d opened his ears to the splendours of choral music. Perhaps it was Whitacre’s late arrival in the classical sphere that helped him to short-cut the usual weight of historical expectations. He had plenty of catching up to do in music theory and how to read scores, but he made such speedy progress that he was accepted into the Juilliard School in New York to study for his Masters degree. It wasn’t quite what he expected.
When you have some popularity, it's very rare for anyone to tell you what they honestly think. It's much better when you've got to stand up and defend your ideas

“I don’t know if you remember the movie Fame, where everyone was dancing on the tabletops – somewhere in my mind I thought Juilliard would be like that. What I found it to be was hyper-hyper competitive and more of a finishing school than an educational school. Everybody who’s there is either there to really make a go of it, super-ambitious people who want to have a career, or insane geniuses sort of touched by the hand of God.”
Although he would make some firm friends there, and would also meet his future wife, Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann, for a while he found the going tough.
“In my first year I studied with David Diamond. He was sort of old school, had studied with Nadia Boulanger, apparently he knew Ravel personally, he was fairly old, but boy was he a tough bastard! For six or eight months I was paralysed, I didn’t know what I was doing. And then, I’m not thankful for this, but he had a heart attack, so they shuffled up all his students and I ended up going to John Corigliano. That changed everything for me. John helped me get my mojo back.”
Corigliano’s teaching method combined constructive encouragement with a few oblique strategems, in particular encouraging Whitacre to draw pictures of what he aimed to do before he started composing.
“It’s incredibly helpful. In fact I’ve been doing that for the new piece I’ve been writing for the LSO Chorus. I’ve been in my practice room drawing pictures all over the place. You make a very broad abstract shape of the way you want the piece to play out, so here’s basically where the climax is going to be, and then here’s the haunting little opening. John would have me write adjectives, that ‘this is slush’, ‘this is crystalline’, or maybe very specific things – ‘this is going to sound like measures 12 to 14 of Brahms’s Second Symphony’. Then you take the big picture and break it into 10 pictures and you get more and more specific, all the while never writing a note. When you write down the notes is when you start to kill yourself.”
Thus, Juilliard and John Corigliano eventually sent Whitacre forth to strike out as a professional composer. As well as his choral works, he has written a number of instrumental pieces, such as the wackily titled "Godzilla Eats Las Vegas" (which he says is a bit like the monster movie Cloverfield). Indeed, his compositions for the concert bands popular in the USA earned him some of his first paid commissions as a working composer.
Eric_laughs_smallWhile choral writing seems to be his metier, and Whitacre is happy for his work to be compared to church music “because when people say that they mean that it’s contemplative, exalting and transcendent music”, he’s quite clear that he’s personally “a-religious”.
"Growing up in a small farming town in Nevada, I think my only religion really was the movies. So when I go to what I consider a very deep religious place for myself, I think of images. A lot of the music I write tends to be cinematic, almost like a film score for a film that doesn’t exist. I think that’s because I grew up in the church of cinema.”
Whitacre says he gets “bored to tears by oratorios”, and believes he can say all he needs to say in his choral writing within a five or 10-minute structure. This has met with popular approval, but how do classical critics react to his work?
"So far I haven't  been hit too hard by the classical critics, but I'm sure it's coming," he reflects. "The concert I'm doing at the Barbican on 24 October has high potential for getting kicked in the face, because I'm conducting a whole programme of American music, not just mine. I think probably more as a protective measure than anything, generally I think when I get a bad review the critics are idiots and when I get a good review they're geniuses, right? But I find occasionally that a critic might say something that's very helpful, because being a composer in the classical or concert world and now having some popularity, it's very rare for anybody to tell you what they honestly think about something. It's much better when you've got to stand up and defend your ideas, and I think now I'm confident enough to be able to do that."
There may be an inkling of how his work will develop in future in his piece Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, a huge musical-theatre fable he has been working on for nearly a decade. Based on Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, it somehow combines martial arts, Japanese manga and animé imagery, cinematic and techno music and a squad of opera singers. It has collected a string of theatre awards over the years, and was given a well-received concert performance at Carnegie Hall last June, but Whitacre would like to get it staged in a full-scale Broadway production. Better still, he’d love to see it as a multimillion-dollar movie.
“It’s got a sort of Lord of the Rings epicness to it, I’m proud to say,” he claims. “It sounds perfect for [Lord of the Rings director] Peter Jackson. I’d love to have him involved.” So Peter, if you’re reading this…
Watch Eric Whitacre talking about his new CD Light & Gold:


As Eric says, "TV shows like The Choir and Glee have already demonstrated the unquenchable power of collective singing." It's something we know all about at Vale Connection as we have a 30-strong ladies chorus that meet every week to sing acapella. It's great to see singing becoming so much more popular thanks to the talents of people like Eric. Keep up the good work! x Vale Connection Ladies Chorus

Oh dear...has anyone actually heard this album? The singing is awful, the music is old - it's all been released before. What on earth are Decca and Whitacre thinking? Listen to the disc first before writing a puff-piece like this; then read the dire reviews of the CD from your colleagues...

Glad you mentioned the American concert band commissions. Ask him about "the snow is falling," the one he accepted payment for but never delivered.

Seriously, your stuff is really good, great staff, good reporting, but you've fallen for the Universal spin machine with this one without doing any due diligence. Get out the CD, have a listen (note that's it's dire), then start researching Eric's alleged habit of non-fulfilment of commissions... Get with it!

Well, certainly I wouldn't buy a second hand car from a man who looked like that in several of those publicity shots...

Seeing as all his music is second-hand, the publicity shots are quite appropriate...

Where are these dire reviews? I've yet to see one. And the consumer reviews on Amazon (by choral afficionados) are highly positive. And The Independent gave a highly positive review to his concert at the Barbican. I know Eric. He is deeply committed to music, and an all-around good person.

Are we talking about the same Whitacre? His London concert in Union Chapel in August was fantastic, and I love the new album. Yes, he's pretty, but I can't hate him for that as some contributors seem to (jealous perhaps?), and I love hearing him conducting his own music on the new album. Old? Is Beethoven too old to listen to???

I'm glad you made those points, Meg D and Opera Tenor. The level of comment here (Vale Connection ladies excepted) was becoming worse than embarrassing. The observation that "the singing is awful" was particularly insightful, I felt. As for "what are Decca thinking?" - they're thinking they're going to sell a shed-load of CDs.

I'll try and give a balanced opinion: I feel this disc is not as good as the Polyphony disc (in terms of performance and production), although obviously it's a coup to have EW conduct his own stuff. There is also quite a bit of crossover of material. And, no, I'm really _not_ a fan in general of the Polyphony sound, which I find too bass-heavy and "neat". I've taken a look at the reviews and the most alarming thing is the lack of them, actually. I can find two reviews of the album and only one of the concert. This has to be disappointment, I would think for Decca - especially considering what appears to be a ridiculously pushy campaign. I'm not sure it's "dire", but calling EW the "American equivalent of Karl Jenkins" seems to a bit of a mean jibe in the Independent. Also, 3 stars "ain't good", that's for sure. Anyway, I'm sure the disc will go to top place in the specialist charts, but - very sadly nowadays - you only need to sell 1-2k copies across the UK for that to happen. I can't vouch for his personality, I've never met him, however there is a certain sheen of over-production, over-hype, over-keenness maybe, which I'm not drawn to. The saddest part in all of this is that Decca signed another American composer called Nico Muhly at the same time and it's very obvious which side their PR bread is buttered. Again, I'm not a big fan of Muhly's work, but it seems very obvious that Decca has gone for the "easy" option and put most of their PR budget into EW in what is, in my opintion, a very mediocre disc indeed. I hope this raises the quality of discussion!

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