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Talking to… Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre talks to CHORALLY Partner Musicroom about the composing process, his current and future plans and why he thinks that despite the coronavirus pandemic, we are heading for a golden age of choral singing.

Eric Whitacre talks to CHORALLY Partner Musicroom about the composing process, his current and future plans and why he thinks that despite the coronavirus pandemic, we are heading for a golden age of choral singing.

This interview first appeared on the Musicroom blog.


Musicroom: First, congratulations on your latest virtual choir project – tell us a bit about that!

Eric Whitacre: When we had finished Virtual Choir 5: Deep Field, which was all about the Hubble Telescope, I honestly thought that was the last Virtual Choir project we would ever do. In the video we go to the farthest reaches of the known universe, so I thought that’s hard to top! Then of course the pandemic hit and I thought if there was ever a time for one of these Virtual Choirs, it’s now. Every other Virtual Choir I’d done, I used a piece of music that I’d already written, something from my catalog. This one is so specific and it really needed something ‘of the moment’, and so very quickly I wrote this little piece called Sing Gently.

We ended up with 17,572 singers from 129 countries

I wrote the text, which is something I don’t normally do. What I was trying to do is capture ‘that’ moment, there was real tension in the air and the fabric of society had the potential to really pull apart. So I was writing about a path through with compassion and empathy.

We ended up with 17,572 singers from 129 countries, which is surreal to say out loud. More than the project itself, the events leading up to it and afterwards truly gave me a sense of community, family and purpose. I’m not sure I would have stayed sane had we not all been working on it together.

I listened to it around the time Musicroom released the sheet music and it’s so beautiful. It’s a masterpiece, and it all came together so perfectly in the recording.

The editors, led by Mike Hatch, are just brilliant at what they do. People keep asking how we got it to sound so good, and I keep telling them that one of the advantages you have with 17,000 singers is that the rough edges get smoothed out on their own. It’s like being in a football stadium and hearing a bunch of people sing, not everybody is singing the right notes and not everyone is even sober! It’s a mass of voices, it’s forgiving.

These days people are making their own virtual choirs with 30, 40 or 50 people and that is much more difficult to blend and to align. So, strangely, the volume of singers helped us!

Is there anything you’d do differently next time and what are the challenges you faced putting together a virtual choir project of that magnitude?

I think since number 3 we’ve said that’s it, that’s the last one. I think what we’ve learned over the past several Virtual Choirs, and something that we really doubled down on this time, was building community. We had some guest interviews, as well as people giving masterclasses in singing and interpretation, and there was an active Facebook group that had around 23,000 people in it at one point.

The community is as important, if not more important, than the actual virtual choir itself. So I think we would take everything we’ve learned there and then triple down on it and really make it into a community experience so that people had lots of things to do. All of them pointing towards the goal of the Virtual Choir, which is to be a part of something larger than oneself.

The community is as important, if not more important, than the actual virtual choir itself

On a technical level, when I write myself, I always write the lyrics first. I wrote the poem, knowing exactly what I wanted to say, and I can remember writing the words ‘sing gently’. I’m laughing because I know from experience that it’s the sibilance and it’s the consonants that are the hardest part to edit together, and writing down ‘sing gently’ just thinking, oh God! So if we were to do another one, the text would probably be something like ‘ooo ahh’!

The timing was, in some ways, perfect to do another virtual choir?

That’s the oddest thing, right? It’s the best time to do a virtual choir. This time around we leaned into the goal of accessibility, to make it as accessible as possible. We had 12 deaf signers and two dozen blind singers. One of the blind singers made braille sheet music and we made it available to download, so they could print it out.

There was this robust community of cystic fibrosis sufferers, and because of the strange nature of their disease, even in non-pandemic times they can never be in the same room together, if they share these certain bacteria with each other, it can be fatal. So the only way they can sing together is to be in a virtual choir, so not only was there a huge community in ours, but then they made several of their own virtual choirs. The cystic fibrosis community, and what it highlighted for us, was that in some ways the pandemic was perfect timing.

At the same time, there’s just no question that the future is going to include this kind of music-making. I think within the next four or five years we’ll be singing latency-free with each other, and it’ll be a little bit like the work model where some days you go into work and some days you stay at home; it’ll be the same thing with making music. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.

How have you found writing in lockdown?

Other than Sing Gently, which I wrote at the beginning of lockdown, you’d think that I had all this free time at home, and that I’d be writing like I’ve never written before, but I realised something about myself, I don’t write in the abstract. What I mean by that is if I’m writing an alto line or a French horn line, I can actually see my favourite altos in my mind and I can imagine them standing on the stage whilst I conduct them. It’s the same thing with instrumental pieces and knowing that no one was performing, knowing it was going to be a while before anybody performed, it was like all the oxygen went out of the room, it was worse than not having inspiration.

I think within the next four or five years we’ll be singing latency-free with each other

It was almost like why would you write this? It’s the oddest thing and I just didn’t have any blood flowing to the muscle. Then recently, as things started to look promising as more and more people started getting vaccinated, I suddenly got that urge again. I felt ideas starting to come to me, and now very recently it’s started to go downhill again, I thought, ‘no…’ and could feel it going away from me. It’s been fascinating for me as a composer to realise that I’m writing for actual people if you know what I mean? To know that people are out there singing or playing, is THE inspiration for me.

Do you have a specific process for writing and where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s a great question. The first part of the process – pure inspiration – can come from anywhere and come at any time. I wish I knew how to how to activate it on command. I can go several weeks, I’ve always got ideas running and usually they are not remotely related to music. I’ll read something about medicine or astronomy, or I’ll have a conversation with somebody and we’ll be talking about sociology or something. Those could apply to musical ideas, whatever that is. Or I hear my little son laugh or giggle, just taking inspiration from wherever.

But there’s that first part of the inspiration where it’s like, ‘that’s an interesting idea, that could be a thing’. The process of making something I’ve kind of codified over the years, and I’ve got this thing that I do where I make drawings – I call them emotional architecture. I paint and build the emotional journey of the piece that I want the performers and the listeners to go on, usually before I’ve written a note of music.

There’s a lot of what looks like preplanning or blueprint drawing of a piece before I get into it, so that by the time I start writing notes, I’ve got a really clear idea of what it is I’m about to make. I’ve made this big video masterclass called The Beautiful Mess that we’re about to release and I talk through all the parts of my process, and when I watched the videos back I thought, ‘yeah this all looks like I’ve got it figured out’, like I’ve got a plan, but the truth is, every piece is just crazy, it’s just a mess. I’m sitting here thinking ‘what am I doing?!’, I’m just lost in the woods and somehow music comes out of it.

Eric’s ‘Blueprints’ for composing

Can you tell us a bit more about your recently released compositions, for example, The Sacred Veil?

It’s easily my most personal piece and it was written with Charles Anthony Silvestri, who is my best friend, and a poet. Together, we’ve written Sleep, Lux Aurumque, Saint Chapelle. We made all these pieces together over the years.

Tony lost his wife Julie to ovarian cancer 14 years ago, you can imagine, it was just devastating to him and the family. She left behind a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old. Amazingly, the 7-year-old just graduated with his MBA; he’s a working accountant. The younger one, the 3-year-old, is now studying to be choir director. They’re both beautiful children, Tony did such an extraordinary job raising them.

Five years ago, Tony left this single little poem called The Sacred Veil sitting on my piano. In it, he described the veil as this ribbon of energy between the world of the living and the world of those who have passed. In moments of birth or death that ribbon of energy gets very thin, so thin that those worlds almost touch.

Usually, I write very slowly, I was saying I make these paintings, that it’s very deliberate and composed, but by the time he came over in the afternoon, I had written about half the piece already. I had a very clear idea of what it could be. I told Tony, I think there’s a bigger piece here. We ended up making a 12-movement piece that is about the very moment they met, to falling in love, to having children, to the diagnosis, to her being very sick, to her struggle right towards the end, her death. There’s a kind of benediction at the end.

You really see the highs and lows of the human experience

Tony’s and my goal when we were making it was to be as honest as possible, to never ornament any of it, to look directly at the thing that happened and just say it. Because of that, I think it’s kind of a singular work, at least in my catalog for sure, and I think Tony’s. It’s just unflinchingly honest, which I think is incredibly beautiful. We also use some of Julie’s poetry, three of the movements have her own writing in them, and it’s not that the entire piece is a single emotional color, actually it’s quite dynamic.

You really see the highs and the lows of the human experience. I’m very proud of it. I’ll be curious to see how it’s received now that we’re out of lockdown. We prepared the sheet music, I did some performances of it and then we released the sheet music and the recording, and then three weeks later we went into lockdown. So, typically the way one of these would work is that people would start to adopt it and do performances of it. But almost immediately it went very quiet.

That must be a difficult topic to talk about it, so I appreciate you telling me a bit about how it all came about, and I’m sorry for your friend Tony’s loss, that must have been tough.

Thank you, I still don’t know how Tony did it. He’s genuinely a hero of mine for the way that he stood back up after that atom bomb and continued to live his life. One thing that’s been fascinating with a few performances that we did, and the recording that we released, is how many people’s lives have very specifically been touched by cancer and one of the movements of the piece is when Julie received her diagnosis. Tony wrote the poetry, ‘I’m afraid we found something’, which is the words that the doctor said, the words that you never want to hear a doctor say to you.

The rest of the text in that movement is the actual diagnosis, which because it’s medical, is mostly in Greek and Latin. It almost sounds like a sacred text and it’s this litany of all of these different terms and her specific diagnosis. Then for treatment, you hear the names of different chemotherapies and every time we performed it so far, people come up to us afterwards and say ‘I saw my own diagnosis’ – they actually saw the names of their own diagnosis or chemotherapy. What’s been fascinating to me is how many people have had a direct experience with battling this terrible disease.

What is it about Lux Aurumque, Sleep and The Seal Lullaby that make them so popular, not just in Europe, but globally?

I ask myself that all the time. Not that I’m trying to recreate it, but especially with The Seal Lullaby where it was written for such a different purpose. I took a meeting with Dreamworks Animation about writing music for a musical that they never ended up making. They ended up making Kung Fu Panda instead of The White Seal. It was just a little musical theatre song, but then I turned it into a choral piece and I couldn’t have imagined that this would be one of my more popular pieces.

Half of my writing process is endlessly massaging every line to make sure that everybody thinks they’ve got the best line in the piece

I would like to think with Sleep, Lux and The Seal Lullaby there are two reasons for their popularity. The first is I think that they’re very honest, they’re very authentic, they don’t try to dazzle. They just are what they are and I think there’s something, these days especially, where there is so much sound and light in media and off screens, that they just cut directly to the heart of the thing. I don’t know if that’s true, but the artist in me would like to think that’s what people are responding to.

The other thing about it is that on a pragmatic level, the way they’re crafted makes them relatively easy and satisfying to sing. I’d say half of my writing process is endlessly massaging every line to make sure that everybody thinks they’ve got the best line in the piece. For me, the dream is for the altos to come up to me after a rehearsal and say that’s a great alto line, and so I try to craft this beautiful experience for everybody, and especially in all three of those pieces there’s some form of a climax, and in that climax and catharsis, each part has their own part to play. That feels as if it’s the most important part, like the whole structure would fall if it weren’t for them.

The performers work hard during rehearsals to make it happen, so the experience they have when they perform it, you can feel all of that work means something, it adds up. In a very small way you can feel a transformation in the audience, there’s that little magical thing that happens in music where you can transform your listener. I’d like to think that’s what it is I. I don’t know if any of that’s true, but that’s what I’d like to think it is.

What does it mean to you that group singing is finally back, and what do you think it means to choral enthusiasts generally?

Well, first I hope you’re right. I think we’re having a different experience here in the States. Unfortunately, I think we’re probably in for another rocky season. Even the choirs I know that are getting back together all have to be vaccinated, which is good, but they also all still have to wear masks indoors, so we’re kind of singing together. I have a feeling that they’ll have to stop doing that.

What I’m hoping it means is that I think we’re about to enter a golden age of singing. I really believe that, I think people all over the world feel like I do, which is that they will never ever take this for granted again. Of course people love it, it was always so enjoyable to get together and sing and to make music. But I think people realised how much they actually needed it. I heard this over and over again during the virtual choir experience, that it’s oxygen for the soul, it’s not a hobby, it’s a necessity.

I think we’re about to enter a golden age of singing

So I think that the moment we can all sing together, not only will many people join, but I think that there will be a sense of – I don’t even know the right words, I was going to say a sort of rejoicing, but I actually think it will come with a few tears, so it’s not really. The easiest way to describe what it means to me is I’m certain that the moment I get to stand in front of a group of people and we can safely sing together and really make music, I just know that I’m going to weep openly, I’ll just break down, I miss it so much, I ache for it. I really can’t think of anything that I long for more than that.

If you could pick three other artists to work with who would it be and why?

The first person on my list I would love to work with is Jacob Collier. There are no superlatives that I can use that describe Jacob. We never really made music together, we’re friends and we’ve talked about it. He made this beautiful arrangement of Moon River and wrote to me and said, I need you to send me a low F. So I just sang a low F, I’m that little constellation at the beginning, that’s the only music we’ve made together. Jacob is not only a once-in-a-generation mind and talent but he’s also the future, the way he thinks about music and the way he interacts with audiences, he’s completely unique.

There are two other people that instantly come to mind. During COVID I’ve been listening to a lot of singer/songwriters. Can I name three more? So they’re all from the same era and all of them, I think are unparalleled geniuses – Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. I have the exact same feeling listening to what they’ve made that I get when I listen to Bach, where it seems superhuman. I just can’t understand how they are able to take so few musical elements or poetry elements, and then illuminate the deepest human truths. I’m amazed by it. Any of those three, while we still have them, I would jump on any plane right now to go meet with them.

I saw Jacob collaborated with Charlie Puth during lockdown, who is also a musical genius, they were doing this incredible kind of ‘muso off’…

(Eric laughs)

…everyone was amazed by the sheer talent. In terms of artist collaboration, Charlie Puth would be up there for me.

Those two especially, they think about music in a way that I never will be able to. They have inherent gifts that are jaw dropping. You can’t believe what you’re watching. My 15-year-old son, he’s a jazz bass player and he’s really inspired by Jacob and by Charlie. He’s also got some of those gifts, he’s got the ‘muso’ brain and I just watch them in wonder. I just can’t believe that he’s able to see music in such a complex and intricate way, and seems to have such a personal relationship with every note. There’s no separation between the music and the artist and I love that.

I did my masters degree at the Juilliard School 25 years ago, and that was the first time that I met people that were, what I would always call ‘touched by the hand of God’, that had these musical talents. I remember this one kid, Alex, this kind of sweet little German pianist, and he had memorised everything Take 6 had recorded up to that point and then could play it and break it down on the piano. Never saw a note of the sheet music, but just knew all of it, just internalised it.

What Jacob and Charlie both have is they also have this ability to translate it to people who know nothing about music. They’ve got this mountain top level understanding of music, but then they can easily communicate it to people at any level, and that’s just mind blowing to me. That’s like Leonard Bernstein. I often think with Jacob, besides being easily one of the world’s great jazz pianists and arguably one of the world’s great jazz bassists, let’s not even talk about his songwriting – I think he’s probably one of the world’s great producers now. The way you see him use Logic, I think he’s trying to break Logic! It’s next level on everything he touches!

We’ve put together an area on Musicroom for choral directors and singers to find the newest and bestselling choral works, what are your favourite choral compositions currently in circulation – new or classic?

So there’s a set of five pieces that I wrote called The City and the Sea, for piano and choir, and they’re all poems by the American poet ee cummings. They don’t get performed often, but I love these pieces on a personal level, I have a very personal connection to them. I think the poetry is some of the most beautiful poetry I know. The third in the set is a minute and a half long, it’s called Maggie and Milly and Molly and May. I find it heartbreakingly sweet. The poem is one of those perfect poems, the kind of poem that just rings truth the moment you read it. The way that it’s set to music, I just I love it. I always hope that’s the one that gets performed at my funeral, not Sleep! This piece is the way that I would like the world to be, it’s delicate. So if you’re asking for my own music, that’s one that I love. If I’m thinking of a piece that people should revisit, or should think about new or classic, there’s this Christmas piece by Philip Stopford. The Lullay Lullay

Yeah, there’s three different types of ‘Lull’s’…

That’s right, yeah. I think the one challenge with that piece is the title! It’s a Christmas work and I’ve performed it several times with all kinds of different choirs and it’s perfect. It’s one of those pieces where you just add water and the reason it works is because it’s so perfectly crafted for the singers. It just unfolds the way it’s supposed to, I’m getting chills talking about it, it’s got my favourite thing in music, which is heartbreakingly beautiful melodies that get under your skin and it’s so achingly beautiful.

I think it’s one of the most popular pieces on Musicroom actually!

Is it really? As it should be. I’ve been doing a lot of work with this company called JackTrip. If you’re within a 300 or 400 mile radius of the other singers, you can perform latency-free music together. I did an arrangement of Sing Gently for SSA choir and then had children’s choruses in San Francisco and Los Angeles all perform it in real time. It’s pretty astonishing. As we spoke about moving forward in this hybrid way, I think some version of that is probably going to be part of the answer.

Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll be sure to check that out. The Single Gently SSA arrangement is the latest arrangement that you released, right?

Yeah, that’s right.

The positive connection between mental health and group singing is a fascinating one. How much do you feel the increasing number of people getting involved in group singing is directly related to this?

No question, so there’s a woman in the UK called Dr Daisy Fancourt and she’s been conducting studies about the physiological benefits of group singing and making music together. Everything she discovers tells us what we would already imagine, which is that it’s really good for you, but it’s good for you in profound medical ways and so I think some of the studies that she’s done and some of the media around it has encouraged people to try it.

The moment you’ve experienced singing with a group of people, it doesn’t matter how good a singer you are, you’re hooked

What I always say about the art form of choral singing is that you don’t need a sales pitch with it once you’ve shown up – all you’ve got to do is make it to that first rehearsal. The moment you’ve experienced singing with a group of people, it doesn’t matter how good a singer you are, you’re hooked, and part of the reason is that your body is rejoicing on a physiological level. It provides a kind of spiritual uplift and a connection to other people that I find unmatched. I haven’t found that in any other human experience.

I could go on and on about it. What’s beautiful is it’s not just endorphins, it’s also oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It’s the same hormone that is released between mothers and children, or when you fall in love with somebody, and so it gets released while you’re singing and you feel yourself connected in this profound way to the other people in the room. That feeling is so lacking in modern society, it’s so easy to become very isolated.

Finally, are you able to give away any secret plans for the near future? A Musicroom exclusive!

I’m about to release this crazy masterclass that I’ve been making – The Beautiful Mess. I think it’s now well over four hours of video, of me breaking down my process, going through my catalogue and talking about how I do what I do, and I’m just very excited about it because it’s been my lockdown project. I’m very excited about it. I’ve also got a piece for orchestra that I’m writing, I’m reticent to share a title yet, although I think I’ve got a title, it’s going to be a piece for orchestra, and then I’ll also make it for concert band.

Can you give us one word from the title?

Yeah, Bounce – that’s it! And it comes from just a simple idea I had about the idea of a bouncing ball being used as an idea from counterpoint, remember we were talking about where these weird inspirations come from and that I was very much watching, I was watching a bouncing ball and thinking, I’ve never heard a piece that uses that kind of approach as a contrapuntal line. Could you write a prelude and a fugue for orchestra using a bouncing ball motif? So I’ve been working on that, and it’s…different, I think, from what I might normally write, and that’s really exciting. Yes, I’m doing that, and then I’m writing a setting of a Walt Whitman poem for the United States Air Force Singing Sergeants, and they wanted me to write about community so I found this gorgeous Walt Whitman poem and I’ll set that.

Awesome, I really appreciate you spilling the beans on that a little bit!

Well, a year from now we’ll be looking at it saying ‘oo shouldn’t have talked about that one, that turned out to be a disaster!’ (Eric laughs).

No, I’m sure it’s all going to be a great success. Eric, I really appreciate your time today it’s been great speaking, thank you for joining us on the Musicroom blog!

It’s my pleasure, thank you.


Links

  • Click here to learn about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual School
  • Click here to view Eric Whitacre Sheet Music
CHORALLY Editor
Author: CHORALLY Editor