Ted Simons: Grammy-award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is best known for his chorale work and for incorporating contemporary sounds into his compositions. He's topped the classical music charts and he's also written musicals, film scores and conducted an online virtual choir project that became an internet sensation. And joining us now is Eric Whitacre. That is absolutely gorgeous.
Eric Whitacre: Thank you.
Ted Simons: When you listen to that, what do you think about?
Eric Whitacre: I'm flooded with emotion. First, I wrote the piece, and I wrote it years ago so it's a little bit like looking at a picture of myself from years ago, it's that personal. Then because it's a virtual choir performing, I remember every one of the individual faces as their videos were being uploaded. So I feel this really intimate connection with the people in the choir, most of them I have never met in person.
Ted Simons: Isn't that something. I want to get to your background here but isn't on this virtual choir problem. Four, million some odd people have looked at this on YouTube. It's gotten great response. How did it come about?
Eric Whitacre: A friend sent an email and said, you've got to see this video. This young girl, a 17-year-old from Long Island, New York, had uploaded a fan video to me. Hi, Mr. Whitacre, I'm a big fan. She sang a different chorale piece than this one. Watching her sing it alone by herself, I was moved to tears really. It was so beautiful and pure and innocent. It occurred to me if I could get, say, 50 people to all do what she was doing, sing their parts, soprano, alto, bass, at the same tempos and key, wherever they are in the world, and we could take all the videos and cut them together and make a perfect choir.
Ted Simons: It makes such perfect sense and it’s really never been done before. How long did it take you to do this and did you recruit the people? How do you find these folks?
Eric Whitacre: I had the idea and I immediately wrote on my blog, OMG, OMG, I'm embarrassed to say. Let's try this thing. First we had to figure out how do we coordinate it, how do we get them to sing at the same time. I had to make this conductor's video in complete silence, just imagining the music in my head. I posted it and didn't know what would happen. We've done four now. For the first one there were 12 different countries, 185 singers. There was a young man, a 22-year-old named Scott Haines who cut it all together himself, spent around 3 months working around the clock, editing, making sure everything was perfect.
Ted Simons: Were you surprised when it was done? You've worked with the cream of the crop, but yet when it was all put together, voices from all over the world, were you surprised at what you heard?
Eric Whitacre: Astonished. What I still can't believe is how musical it is. Everyone's breathing together and moving. And all of that, I attribute to two things. They were really following my conductor track so every time I asked for a crescendo track, they would do that. That's amazing. I feel you can sense the spirit of the project in the people's videos, in their voices. Somehow they bring this desire to be part of something larger than themselves. Now that magic is infused in the videos.
Ted Simons: Compare that now, You've again, worked with top choirs. What makes a good choir? We've heard the Hilyard ensemble and others and some of it's technically perfect, and some seems a little cold because it is so technically perfect. What makes a good choir?
Eric Whitacre: It's great, for me it’s a combination of things. It’s great to have a technically terrific group, there's no question, singing with pure clean vowels and a lot of breath and support and an open sound. And singing together as an ensemble, so they are feeling what each other is doing. On top of that, with the chorale art form there's text, sometimes English, sometimes Latin, other languages. The best choirs are those that tell a story from the words. It's a step from being a technical exercise to poetry.
Ted Simons: It's just fantastic. You're a child of the west, you were born in Nevada, went to UNLV when the basketball team was pretty good. And how did you get from, really a kid born in the west? You were interested in pop music when you were younger?
Eric Whitacre: Only pop music.
Ted Simons: What happened? What hit you?
Eric Whitacre: I got lucky. I didn't read music, knew nothing about classical music. When I was 18, I played in pop bands through high school. I decided to- I went to UNLV because it was the biggest state school and the farthest from my parents. A friend of mine said you've gotta join choir. I joined because there were cute girls and we were taking this trip to Mexico at the end of the year. That first rehearsal, we started rehearsing the requiem by Mozart and I was transformed in that moment.
Ted Simons: Was it one of those ceiling drops? You could feel it happen?
Eric Whitacre: I felt like my entire life I had seen in black and white and the world was in shocking Technicolor.
Ted Simons: And you went from that to concentrating not so much on singing, but to the composing.
Eric Whitacre: First I thought I wanted to be a conductor. I was watching David Weiler and he was my hero. We were having a note question about a piece written by Kurt Mecham, and he said, you know what, I’ll call Kurt and ask him about this. It struck me there was someone higher in the food chain. Wait, you can do this? And make a living? It just seemed impossible to me. I wrote a little piece and gave it to him as a gift, to this conductor. Then that piece was published and I wrote another and that was published. It took me that single rehearsal took me in a direction I never could have imagined.
Ted Simons: Isn’t that interesting that certain things can move you in certain ways. When you write, even now, when you write do you hear it when you're writing? Do you have to play it first? Do you hear a melody first and chase it? Or do you sit down and say, I'm waiting for you, muse, come and get meet.
Eric Whitacre: Maurice Ravel has a terrific quote, I will be at my writing desk from eight to four, if inspiration wants me, she knows where to find me. That’s normally how I feel. I’ll sit at the piano and just try to improvise. I try to find a pallete of colors, maybe a chord or a language I know is mine by this New World. Then I'll stumble onto a chord or a little fragment. Sometimes walking around the city or I'm singing to myself in the shower. And it's this golden brick I can then construct an entire piece out of. As soon as I've got that, I try go away from the piano and sit at the writing desk to hear it in my mind. I'll check every now and then to see if it sounds the way I hope it will, but I try to do everything.
Ted Simons: Do you know if it's going to be a chorale piece or a wind piece? Do you know if it’s going to be part of a musical, maybe a film score? Do you announce what it’s going to be or do you have to flesh it out a little bit?
Eric Whitacre: It's a good question, no, I don't always know. Sometimes I can be quite surprised by the direction it goes.
Ted Simons: Talk about the difference between writing chorale music, classical music, musicals, film scores. Is there a different angle a different direction you go?
Eric Whitacre: It's interesting, classical music, there's- I don't subscribe to the theory that classical music is better or more sophisticated. I found there is pop music or musical theater or film scores that are just as artistically valuable as anything in the classical world. But things in the classical world are slightly formalized. I find that when I’m writing classical music opposed to other genres, I'm just more cognizant of the sense of formality. I mean the deep, inherent structure in just the music itself, so it can stand on its own without anything else. All of those other genres have a visual component to it or a dance or with classical music ideally the music is perfect, just the notes on the page.
Ted Simons: Something as simple as a comic piece in a classical piece would be far different than a comic stretch or a comic moment maybe in a musical, correct?
Eric Whitacre: Completely. It's all about context. I've tried to write comic pieces actually.
Ted Simons: Yeah?
Eric Whitacre: The best way in is to sort of make fun of the context of the formality.
Ted Simons: Sure.
Eric Whitacre: You get big laughs by just pushing that a little bit. It's an easier audience in some ways than a musical theater crowd.
Ted Simons: Talk about classical music. You mentioned it doesn't have to be difficult or formal. Yet for most it is. And for a long time, whether it's serialism or 12-tone this, that and the other, the a-tonal revelation that defined modern classical music for so long, did that help or hurt the art form, do you think?
Eric Whitacre: Unfortunately, think this is a huge generalization. But 12-tone and a-tonal music, especially the kind embraced from 1932 to 1975, let's say, or , did massive damage on most general classical music audiences. I think it really scared people away. Now when people hear contemporary music is going to be performed as a classical concert, there's a bit of fear. This was some thorny music they were making. I'm not a fan of all of it. But it's a huge generalization because some is beautiful and human and heartbreaking.
Ted Simons: When you're composing, do you find this might be a little difficult, oh, this might be a little cliche. How do you work that out? And are you composing for anyone in particular?
Eric Whitacre: Such a good question. For me, I feel like every piece needs to have the primer, the self-evident rules built into the piece itself. So that all the rules of this little world, you don't have to know anything about classical music or even this tonality. This equals A, A plus B equals C, come with me. As long as that is taken care of, you can really push audiences in terms of what they can handle with dissonance and rhythm, as long as they are being invited and brought along in the piece.
Ted Simons: As long as you're not having more fun than they are, in other words.
Eric Whitacre: That's a good way of putting it. Something happened where in this last century composers became incredibly introspective. Someone wrote this article, who cares if anyone listens. But basically the idea is, you know, who cares about the audience? We are doing it for ourselves. That's the antithesis of what I'm doing. I want to communicate, I want to reach out and touch people who are listening.
Ted Simons: Are you ever surprised at something you wrote that you thought, this is gold, doesn't necessarily hit the marks you've sought? And something else that may have come quickly, all of a sudden is a huge hit?
Eric Whitacre: All the time. There's a piece I wrote fairly early on called water night, and most of my pieces take weeks and weeks if not months to write. I'm a slow composer. Water Night took me about 45 minutes, I just wrote it, it happened. It's one of my most successful pieces. I still don't even know where it came from.
Ted Simons: Some artists say if it comes too easy, they back off a little bit. Something's got to be wrong.
Eric Whitacre: It's the wrong way to feel. Most artists say the same thing and we fight that thing. We know that somehow when you can just find the groove, everything is clicking, actually it's the effortlessness, you know, oh, my God, this is the path and it feels effortless. I don't know, with me, I feel like in order to do a day's work I've got to struggle, do you know what I mean?
Ted Simons: Yeah.
Eric Whitacre: Or be tired by the end. I think sometimes I work too hard when I don't need to.
Ted Simons: Interesting. We've got about 30 seconds left, you will be speaking to students later on this evening. What are you going to tell them?
Eric Whitacre: I'm going tell them to follow their dreams. Everybody's going tell them it's a bad idea to do what they are doing. These are music students. My own personal experience, be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.
Ted Simons: You have done a remarkable amount of work. Congratulations on your success, good to have you here.
Eric Whitacre: It's my honor.